The production and maintenance of a movie star as hyper-masculine as Arnold Schwarzenegger must be an arduous ongoing process. If Terminator Genisys is any indication, the industry that created Schwarzenegger may not be limited to the mere extinction of the 67-year old action movie mainstay. The titular, robotic role originated in James Cameron's 1984 film The Terminator is probably the most iconic of Schwarzenegger's career, which now dates back over 45 years to the schlock of Hercules in New York (Arthur A. Seidelman, 1969). As a star, Schwarzenegger's career trajectory and cultural impact are unlike any other. As an actor, if I may, his skills are severely limited.
I say this with full awareness that it’s a stereotypical cheap jab at an easy target, but, more importantly, as a somewhat flabbergasted acknowledgement that this extreme imbalance of masculinity over ability has been such a longstanding, surmountable factor for movie consumers. The triumph of the Star, in this case, comes at the expense of Acting. Schwarzenegger's rise to stardom (ironically crossing paths with the great actor's director Robert Altman in The Long Goodbye, 1973), traverses a period of Hollywood filmmaking that gradually shifted values from one that was actor-oriented to one that was spectacle-oriented.
For Hercules in New York the Austrian body-builder-turned-thespian had to have his part dubbed by a more intelligible actor; an interesting reversal on the appearance in Terminator Genisys of Australian bodybuilder Bret Azar, a "body dub" for Schwarzenegger in the film's attempt to re-contextualize scenes from the original Terminator. Hercules is a similarly suited role for Schwarzenegger, foreshadowing the type of mythic, repeatable roles through which his Star power would produce a new brand of right-wing cinema.
In Terminator Genisys Schwarzenegger continues this long, conservative trek that has criss-crossed a political career and three Expendables films, kicking ass to the vicarious delight of aging, small-minded racists and militants who lived through the simultaneous eras of the Counter-Culture, the Hollywood Renaissance, and Viet Nam, and still have a bony right arm with which to pull a voting lever. This entry of the long-exhausted Terminator franchise amplifies this historical aspect of the conversation by placing the action in San Francisco, the epicenter of the counter-culture movement, which we eventually see Schwarzenegger's aging Terminator (Pops) transform into an underground arsenal. The speakers of San Francisco, once carrying across the sound of revolution, are transformed into weapons for destroying an even deadlier Terminator, the T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee). But, the larger enemy is the new Skynet-as-flower-child, Genisys, whose youthful hologram promises in the idealistic vernacular of a bygone era: "We will change the world together."
Of course, it's Schwarzenegger's job, once again, to bash any uprising of change, intellectualism, or youthful idealism. And, perhaps, the once die-hard angst over the hippies has faded a bit, usurped by the fear of a technological age that will trojan-horse in via video games, and the wish of a generation to "Be Sedated," as per the film's Ramones-penned refrain. In a scene late in the film, in the underground San Francisco arsenal, the relentless time signature of the Ramones is too much for Pops the Terminator, as he fails to load his final clips in rhythm with the music or his human rival of masculinity, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, in for Michael Biehn). It's here that Reese reminds Pops of another of the film's refrains, that the Terminator is "old, but not obsolete." For a movie I had taken as a sometimes clever genre exercise for at least the first hour, at this point I could only hope for the obsolescence of the Terminator franchise.
Beyond the blow that the Schwarzenegger era dealt to the craft of acting, and the conservative ideology it passed off as heroism along the way, Terminator Genisys is perhaps the most degraded example of "post-classical" cinema, as discussed by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland in their book Studying Contemporary American Cinema. Not only defined by the aforementioned value of craft over spectacle, Terminator Genisys is what they would call a "pastiche of the classical" where "the classical cinema is merely refigured within the post-classical, neither abandoned or opposed," not unlike the refigured metal globs that find their way back to the T-1000. Yet, pastiche doesn’t quite cover the case of Terminator Genisys, nor any of the multiple post-classical movies occupying theatres this summer. Like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World before it, Terminator Genisys continues the trend of meta-narratives that are not only products of pastiche, but resigned to a preoccupation with their own terminal nature as product, hopelessly unable to exist on their own--not only as successful films, but as mere comprehensible narratives—with Schwarzenegger’s flaking countenance as the latest signifier of this dire trend.
Ultimately, Terminator Genisys is about Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aging Star, and our naturalized anxiety about watching our icons of masculinity age. In Richard Dyer’s book Heavenly Bodies, he reminds us: “Stars articulate what it is to be a human being in contemporary society,” and that the “individual” represented by the Star is complex in its construction, as well as its impact on how we construct notions of ourselves and each other. Terminator Genisys adds a new binary to the way in which Dyer sees the complex physical body of a Star like Schwarzenegger, here in his most literally artificial role, made even more complex by the nature of the indestructible underneath of the Terminator character, and the potential for endless incarnations of Schwarzenegger as a marketable commodity well after his death. Where Dyer sees the classical heroes divided by their “public” and “private” aspects, or their “naturalness” and “artifice,” Terminator Genisys adds the post-classical constructs of the Star as “human” or “post-human.” One has to wonder to what extent we will become naturalized to the distinction between a “thespian” and a “synthespian” in the movie production, consumption, and criticism of the future. Perhaps Schwarzenegger can re-do his past failures like Hercules in New York from beyond the grave? Or, given the recent share of the cineplex market occupied by the Christian right, maybe he could experience a second coming in a biblical epic, simply titled: Genesis.