“Terminator: Genisys” will be a blistering satire of the modern blockbuster

The new trailer for Terminator: Genisys (the fourth sequel of the series) has dropped, and it promises several things. It promises that Arnold is back in the role that made him an institution. It promises fan-service in the form of familiar catchphrases, now in their fifth iterations. It promises big, loud action.

Most importantly, it promises to be a blistering satire of the modern blockbuster, a subversive meta-commentary on the endless cycles of sequels plaguing multiplexes.

An IMDB list of sequels, prequels, remakes, and spinoffs currently in development numbers over 330 entries. An infographic on Short of the Week breaks down how much non-original works have come to dominate the box office. The Terminator franchise is a perfect example of the culture industry’s relentless mining of the same vein to diminishing creative returns.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.37.19 PMJames Cameron’s 1984 tech-noir sci-fi thriller The Terminator was an independent film. A film that was, according to Cameron’s self-mythologizing, born from a fever-dream of a metal skeleton rising from a fire gave birth to a whole constellation of action figures, comics, video games, and ancillary products. It spawned one widely beloved sequel in 1992, at which point anyone who didn’t own the rights to the franchise considered the story told. There followed, to diminishing results and box office, two sequels and a TV show that were widely considered to be retreads of the first two films.

The trailer for Terminator: Genisys (alternately 5 from here on out, for brevity and sanity’s sake) reboots the series chronology. Future-soldier Kyle Reese goes back in time to protect Sarah Connor, but this time everything is different. This could be read as merely another cynical attempt to wring more money out of a franchise that’s running dry, albeit with a J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek-esque “continuity no longer matters!” twist. However, the idea of revisiting the first film from the perspective of a cynical blockbuster cash-grab makes ample space for Terminator 5’s blistering commentary on Hollywood.

Where the first film featured extensive miniature work, with DIY touches like atomized walnut-dust used to make explosions burn, the new film has requisite big budget setpieces, like a Dark Knight-derived shot of a bus flipping over itself on the Golden Gate bridge. The film is even recycling characters from Terminator 2, though in this outing, the new T-1000 is played by hunky Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun—a comment on Hollywood’s desperation to lock down East Asian film markets.

These aspects of the film are somewhat plausible as basic parts of the narrative and production. The proof of the film’s metatextuality is broadcast in its name.

From Terminator 2: Judgment Day, through Terminator Salvation, the films have had increasingly opaque and grandiose titles. A working title for the fourth film was rumored to be Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins, which Terminator 3 scribe John Brancato called “perhaps the most retarded movie title.” Reactions to Genisys range from polite (“funky”) to hostile (“like the title of the fanfic spinoff you wrote in second grade”). The reaction is understandable, because the title is so utterly Poochiefied that it seemingly invites audiences to scrutinize—and be repulsed by—the very nature of contemporary studio filmmaking.


Terminator: Genisys screenshot

Rather than be a side effect, this may be the purpose. Since language is our primary site for creating meaning, artists have used language as a means to disrupt meaning. The horrors of the Great War lead to the Dada movement—if meaning would create atrocity, artists like Hugo Ball would use nonsense for the good humanity. One doesn’t have to go back to World War I to find this disruptive tendency in art. Feminist film theorist Christine Tamblyn adduces the re-appropriation of linguistic signs as a hallmark of experimental artistic praxis. Tamblyn points to Michel de Certeau as the theorist who identified “linguistic trickery” as a crucial tactic of “consumer poaching,” which strikes the hearer with strange language combinations to shed a new light on reality.

Shocking, disruptive art is most necessary in times of artistic crisis. What could be a greater crisis for an artist with integrity trapped in the soulless studio system than Hollywood in its cynical, cannibalistic fugue state? Tinseltown as Chronos; binging, purging, excreting, endlessly recycling in a coprophageous orgy of four-quadrant spreads and Chinese box office receipts. Surely some exasperated focus group or mid-level Sony pitchmen could’ve been the ones to throw up their hands and demand a title so ludicrous that it’d throw the whole sickening cycle into stark relief. In their minds, Terminator: Genisys would so appall America’s moviegoers that it’d be Hollywood’s proverbial rock bottom. This would be the marketing equivalent of an addict showing up for Happy Hour only to be surprised by his loved ones with an intervention—momentarily sober, forced to watch a cellphone video of himself from last week’s blackout, mumbling incoherently and covered in dirt. If that was the plan, the Dadaists and post-modernists would be proud, because it might work yet. This week, The Atlantic Wire’s film critic asks “have movies reached peak reboot with Terminator: Genisys?”

Having established itself as an evisceration of the movie industry, the casting of sentient Australian beefcake-slab Jai Courtney has to be read as a commentary on the casting big-budget studio films. With his generic white dude looks, enormous muscles, and not much else, he’s the poor man’s Sam Worthington—and Sam Worthington was already the poor man’s Sam Worthington.

Several years ago, Hollywood tried to elevate Worthington to A-list status, and it proved to be a non-starter. Not even being in the highest-grossing movie of all time could make audiences warm to Worthington’s sucking charisma void, so fellow Aussie Courtney has been called up for telegenic hulk roles in movies like Jack Reacher and the execrable A Good Day To Die Hard. The fact that Worthington had the starring role in Terminator: Salvation, and now Courtney is anchoring Terminator 5, has to be read as a Brechtian distancing tactic.

Picking the blandest actor possible reveals the true nature of the parade of anodyne, interchangeable white faces that Hollywood proffers as leading men. It’s an open secret that the criteria for Making It Big is being a muscular white male, and anyone will do as long has he ticks off these boxes. It’s why Scotsman Gerard Butler plays the all-American hero in the “terrorists take the White House” thriller Olympus Has Fallen, and Washington, DC-born Korean-American Rick Yune is relegated to the role of Yellow Peril villain.

But Genisys’s lead actor isn’t just meant to make us think about the action hero archetype in general. It’s also intended to reflect the evolution of the blockbuster leading man in the 21st century. Courtney is the third actor to step into the role of Kyle Reese, played with dark, desperate charisma by Michael Biehn in 1984’s The Terminator. In the series’ narrative, Reese is a warrior in the post-apocalyptic human resistance. As embodied by Biehn in the film that birthed the franchise, he’s a lean, sinewy product of an irradiated hellscape. Naturally so, since there are no Gold’s Gyms in the wastes, and nutrition would probably be eked out eating rats, not supplements.

Casting an enormous actor like Courtney would be incongruous if Genisys were something other than a sly commentary on contemporary Hollywood. Today, the economics of the industry is totally different than the mid ‘80s. The prevailing model is to cultivate big-budget franchises from already established brands (like comic books and YA novels). Hollywood’s current business model has lead to a preponderance of pieces lamenting the decline of the mid-budget film, and others warning of a bubble that may take down the film industry when/if it pops. However, the industry is sticking with this paradigm—all it needs is inoffensive leading men to plug into starring roles.

A piece from Men’s Journal called “Building a Bigger Action Hero” explains how this works for a generation of would-be A-listers. “Studios see actors as bodies now–interchangeable in a global movie business that’s built more on brands than stars. More than ever, studios are building franchises around fresh, inexpensive faces with bodies that can fill a superhero costume.” Courtney’s massive frame, which would make no sense within the narrative world, is legible as an ironic comment on this unstable business model. That Courtney would be the figure to break through Hollywood’s ossified state is a conclusion that was presaged by the founders of critical theory itself: as recounted in Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer held out uncharacteristic optimism in the capacity for corporeal, rather than intellectual, art in the age of mass culture. Jay explains that the circus performer, for instance, could break through the commodity nature of mass art by carrying objectification to its extreme (Jay, p. 217). As Adorno and Horkheimer’s colleague Herbert Marcuse would write, “In suffering the most extreme reification man triumphs over reification.” Few hardbodies come more reified than Courtney’s.

Where Terminator 2 incinerated Hollywood onscreen, Terminator 5 is going after Hollywood with its very being. For all these reasons, Terminator: Genisys—Genisys!—is so much more than another blockbuster film. It’s more like a happening, a provocation, which is going to put the whole rotten system on trial.

Of course, I could be wrong, and it could just be a huge pile of shit.