Every time another Terminator movie is announced I get a stomach ache. Not because I’m excited, but because I know it’s going to suck. And yet I also know I’m going to eventually see it anyway. And I will do so willingly.
That’s really kind of sad, because The Terminator is one of the most popular science fiction franchises in history. It has earned almost two billion dollars at the box office. It officially made Arnold a superstar, to the point where we can refer to him exclusively by his somewhat common first name, yet still know who we’re talking about.
And perhaps more important, it introduced us to the explosion of badassery that is Michael Biehn.
The original film was a surprise hit back in 1984. It not only established a new franchise and opened up doors for its director and stars, but it ushered in a new era for science fiction. The Terminator was every bit as influential as Mad Max or Philip K. Dick when it came to establishing the way we think about dystopia. And while James Cameron did not invent the “machines turn against us” convention, he did help make it part of the zeitgeist. It took all of one summer for The Terminator to become as much a part of the American experience as heart disease and credit card debt.
But, that was a long time ago, and most would agree the franchise has fallen on hard times since at least 2003. I think Rise of the Machines is an underrated film, but it also takes the saga in some confusing and arbitrary directions. While it’s by no means terrible, it does feel less like a Terminator film and more like an excuse to keep making Terminator films. In 2009, Terminator Salvation tried to show us everything we thought we always wanted to see in a Terminator movie, and some of us realized that mistake far too late. .
Now here comes Terminator Genisys, which suffers not only from a stupid title, but from having been made out of necessity rather than any sense of creative imperative. Creator James Cameron left the franchise after the first two films. But for legal reasons, certain parties seem obligated to keep making mostly terrible sequels until the death of the universe. Terminator Genisys proudly continues that dubious tradition.
It’s so bad that I think I felt a little angry when it was over, like it had borrowed $50 bucks from me and then tried to pretend it didn’t remember.
I really don’t mean to sound so negative, because there are good things about this film. But damned if everything that makes it good doesn’t come with two scoops of everything that makes it bad.
Fan Service – A Most Reliable Franchise Killer
The problem with long running franchises is that invariably, things must change. Cast members age, walk away, die or are otherwise replaced. And when it comes to sci-fi, we all know there’s a segment of every fan base that simply cannot distinguish fantasy from reality.
So, you can’t just reboot, wipe the slate clean and start over, the way they did with James Bond. No, continuity now extends retroactively to the life of the franchise. We even have a word – “canon” – that we use to describe the collective mythology of a franchise, as though it is actual history. Also, nobody’s figured out how to make a decent Terminator film without Arnold, who is now physically almost as old as the film industry itself.
As a result, Genisys is forced to spend an agonizing amount of time dwelling on mundane things like how a robot can have grey hair.
The story begins with the humans finally winning their future war against Skynet. But Resistance hero John Connor (Jason Clarke) doesn’t have time to celebrate. As we know from past films, Skynet has already sent a Terminator back in time to change history. Just as before, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back to stop it. But this time, something unexpected happens as Reese departs! I won’t spoil it except to say that it’s the kind of thing so stupidly obvious you have to ask yourself – if it was possible to do that, why was that not Plan A?!?
It’s an absurdly unnecessary contrivance meant to add artificial twists and turns to a franchise that really doesn’t need any more of them. Still, if this movie has to exist, I will concede that its central premise is actually interesting.
It’s the same trick Star Trek pulled back in 2009. An arbitrary event involving time travel magically erases everything that happened before, allowing us to proceed with new actors without pissing off the Almighty Nerds. Terminator Genisys similarly asks us to forget everything we know about this universe, and accept a new narrative. And you know what? For a while, it actually works pretty well. If they’d stayed on that course, told a new story and left it at that, the curse would finally have been broken.
But no, Genisys clings to its past with a white-knuckled death grip. It spends so much time dropping nods to previous installments, and trying to reconcile its own screwed up continuity, that you wonder what the point was of starting over?
This new Terminator timeline is ten times more complicated than it was before.
Confusion is the New Normal
Basically, Skynet decides to do what it should have done in Terminator 2, and sends an assassin back even further – to the early 1970s when Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) was a defenseless child.
Sarah, as she’s destined to do, survives. But her origin story changes, along with everything else about her. Somehow (the film does not reveal how, because explanations are for sequels!) someone knew to send a “friendly” Terminator back to rescue Sarah, thus ensuring she would grow up to bang a guy from the future and squeeze out the bastard savior of humanity. In the meantime, she ends up becoming the same hyper-paranoid gun nut she was in Terminator 2, only much earlier in life.
Genisys begins with recreations of several memorable scenes from the original film, and for fifteen or twenty minutes, I was riveted. Bad Arnold appears, just as beefy as he was in the original. But then a Good Arnold also appears – but he’s an old and grey version! How can a Terminator be old and grey? Then they fight, and believe me – watching a pair of 300 pound cyborgs beat the living shit out of each other is absolutely as awesome as what you’re seeing in your head right now.
Reese arrives in the past, only to discover an Asian T-1000 running around murdering absolutely everyone! Sarah and Good Arnold end up rescuing the Rescuer – and Reese’s utter disorientation parallels my sense of total fascination watching all this unfold. It’s the best part of the film, and everyone is at their best at this point. There’s a thrilling chase as the T-1000 tries to hunt them down, and then…well, and then balls.
What started out as an homage to the intimate style of Cameron’s original film spins out of control and becomes an exercise in sprawling, impenetrable confusion.
The action scenes are competently conducted, but most of them bleed together like one big industrially produced maelstrom of explosions, cars flipping, missiles flying, helicopters helicoptering and robots punching other robots in the face. Not that any of that is bad, but few of these confrontations carry much weight, or drive the story forward in constructive (or meaningful) ways.
Instead, it feels like someone had more money than they could spend, so…let’s pad the story with yet another version Judgment Day!
Oh, and speaking of the story…what is it about, you ask?
That’s hard to explain. First of all, this film has THREE villains, and one of them is gone so quickly he never gets a chance to feel useful.
There’s Skynet, which was previously represented as the disembodied consciousness of the machines. They do something a little different this time, retconning Skynet’s origin from a failed experiment in Cold War hubris to something more topical. Hey, did you know that our society might be a little over-reliant on technology? I hope not, because Terminator Genisys is here to remind you of that every few minutes.
And in the midst of this mess, the only action taken by any character in the movie that truly feels like it means anything is summarily discarded for the sake of being able to make more sequels. And the story closes on one of those non-endings that is obviously meant to set up – you guessed it – a sequel.
It’s slurry of puzzling sameness that essentially boils down to the umpteenth permutation of “good guys blow up half the city to keep bad guys from blowing up all of the city.”
Okay, so your movie’s mostly filler and explosions with a handful of killer robots. Not enough to hang your hat on, but it’s a start. You’ve at least got a solid cast, right?
No, You Don’t
Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, AKA “the main characters”, are badly miscast. If you replaced them with Shaquille O’Neill and Richard Simmons it might be worse, but that’s about the only way. Emilia Clarke is a pretty good actress, and she delivers her lines with confidence and vigor – but nothing about her says “Sarah Connor” – particularly her diminutive frame and doll-like features.
As for Jai Courtney, I’m sure he’s a super guy, and I’ll bet his parents love him very much. But as an actor, he’s kind of a non entity. He’s like those little squares of tofu that just become part of whatever you put them in, but never quite taste like a part of it. Reese is arguably the most interesting character in the film. There’s a lot of depth to this man, soldier and lover of waitresses that he is. And Jai Courtney, who comes across like an unfinished wax sculpture of himself, is not the man for the job.
Also, he and Clarke have zero chemistry, which sucks, since these two are eventually supposed to fuck.
Ewwww. And do you remember the T-1000? Lee Byung-Hun is fantastic (somewhere Robert Patrick is shedding a single silver tear of joy) but he’s criminally underutilized. Go to the rest room too early and you’ll miss him entirely. Matt Smith (of Doctor Who fame) also appears, as an annoyingly preposterous character that we have to endure entirely too much of. What’s basically happening here is the first two (and best two) films of the franchise are being erased from the timeline.
But it’s even worse than that. Let us speak on the matter of John Connor.
I can’t get into it without spoiling the whole movie, but suffice it to say that there are developments with his character that essentially gut the whole franchise of all meaning. The one constant across all timeline in all Terminator movies was that John Connor is the savior of humankind. In this movie, not only does that get questioned, but the act of doing so kind of causes the whole Terminator universe to implode on itself like the house at the end of Poltergeist.
Truth be told, there are just too many players in this game. You could start a baseball team with all the main characters, and they have too many conflicting or altogether unclear motivations. I always knew WHO to root for, I just rarely was ever certain what the hell was happening. And the script is all too happy to leave the whole mess up in the air because that’s the way we make movies now.
If you want to make three film arc, that’s fine with me. The Lord of the Rings was awesome. But each installment still needs to be a fleshed out, self contained narrative in order to be satisfying. So remember – a vaguely connected series of explosions stretched over 400 minutes is not the same thing as a “trilogy”.
But hold up – I wasn’t lying when I said there were good parts.
Old Guys Rule
Remember when I mentioned how super old Arnold is?
Well, this old guy is one of the best things about Genisys. You see, the skin and hair and fleshy bits on a Terminator apparently age just like a real human. Obviously this was done as an excuse to cast an elderly Schwarzenegger in his old role, but it actually works really well.
Arnold nails his part as a surrogate father to Sarah, in nearly as profound a way as he did with her son in Terminator 2. When not snapping necks or setting off car bombs, he’s tangentially preoccupied with middle-aged pursuits like browsing paramilitary websites and fussing over the creaky joints in his hands.
Let’s be honest though – that may be less an endorsement of Arnold’s acting chops than it is the fact that so many other things are wrong with this story. An arthritic cyborg with crow’s feet and flabby tits is really the least offensive thing about Terminator Genisys.
Also among the positives, let’s also count J.K. Simmons as a police detective who was present at Kyle Reese’s initial appearance in 1984. He’s spent the last 30 years babbling about killer robots from the future, so he couldn’t be more thrilled for a shot at redemption. Simmons is one those rare character actors who also has lots of extra bandwidth, and he makes good use of it here. To call him “comic relief” does not do his performance justice. Simmons is experiencing a career period where he’s found that sweet spot between “supporting actor” and “superstar”.
He might be the second best thing in this movie.
Now I know why humans cry – because no matter what happens in a Terminator movie, it’s all going to be undone in the next one, so who fucking cares? Why bother getting invested? Time travel is a convenient way to explain away continuity errors and casting changes, and when used creatively, it can be an effective storytelling tool. But more often than not, in television and movies, it’s used as a stop-gap measure – a cheat – to cover for some kind of deficiency.
That’s absolutely the case here, and it’s unfortunate that the franchise has become all about struggling to make sense of a broken mythology and pointlessly chase down loose ends in one mediocre installment after another. Maybe the next person to make a good Terminator movie will be James Cameron himself. He gets the rights back in 2019, so perhaps he can help this once storied franchise regain its lost luster.
Or, maybe not.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."