There’s a scene in one episode of Community where Abed is analyzing a fight amongst the study group in the meta-contextual way only he can. As Abed explains the situation, as he sees it, Jeff cuts in infuriated and says, “Why do you have to take everything that happens to us, and shove it up its own ass?” (Or words to that effect.) That thought came to mind while watching Terminator: Genisys, the third attempt by directors who are not James Cameron, to find a way to continue a story that James Cameron so thoroughly and soundly concluded at the end of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. To its credit, Genisys does it better than either of the previous attempts, but it also proves that the idea is a fool’s errand.
Unlike many of my colleagues in nerd-based journalism, I was almost cautiously optimistic about the prospects of Genisys. After trying twice to continue the story, the filmmakers tacked to a strange gamble, pulling a J.J. Abrams and doing an in-continuity reboot that suggests that the previous films happened, but recast and reboot the original characters to tell entirely new stories thanks to the miracle of time travel. Oh, and bring Arnold Schwarzenegger back, of course. No matter how old he gets, the T-800 stays exactly the same: king of the killer robots.
Terminator: Genisys fits in well with Schwarzenegger’s post-political career oeuvre, which is split into two groups. Group A is the challenging stuff, movies like The Last Stand and Maggie, which test his image as a fading Hercules called upon to be the hero despite his age. Group B is the nostalgia-tinged flicks, movies like The Expendables series and Escape Plan. Genisys is 100 per cent Group B, and like the recently released Jurassic World it calls upon the fondness of fans for the material as a matter of primary importance. Secondary focus is franchise management, we’ve got to kick off that Terminator trilogy that has been so elusive, but oh so necessary. Third, there’s this very timey-whimey story that is, in many respects, a typical, generic summer movie.
To the credit of director Alan Taylor, there’s some kind of ambition, a desire to reach into the Terminator mythos and tear it up in new and interesting ways. I said “a desire.” I don’t think anyone’s ever watched the first Terminator and thought, “All this discussion with Kyle describing his friendship with John and how he ended up in the past is great, but what we really need is a prologue where we can see it all unfold.” So Taylor paints you a picture, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) and John Connor (Jason Clarke), future bros in the Future War, raging against the machines.
You have to admire the chutzpah of Taylor to then basically do a shot-for-shot remake of The Terminator. Events in Genisys start to unfold like they did in the ’84 original, except with Courtney doing all the shirtless running, but then the cop chasing Kyle turns out to be T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), and Reese himself is saved by the very person he was sent back in time to predict, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). Sarah’s protector is an aging T-800 that saved her when she was a young girl whom she affectionately refers to as “Pops.”
Creating a paternal Terminator is a tricky balancing act for Schwarzenegger that he quite nearly pulls off. Certainly the characterization he’s asked to do here is a vast improvement over stuff like “talk to the hand” in Rise of the Machines. As a man quickly approaching birthday number 70, Schwarzenegger can’t be as menacing as he once was, but “Pops” plays well on the affection we all have for the actor in his signature part, and as much as I hate to say it, the film does a good job convincing you of the idea of an aging machine. Of course, there’s also vintage Arnold circa 1984 created through digital trickery, and the best I can say is that it’s at least as good as the young Jeff Bridges created for TRON: Legacy, and thankfully used sparingly.
Emilia Clarke ably steps into Linda Hamilton’s shoes as Sarah Connor, managing to evoke the spirit of Hamilton, while not necessarily copying what Hamilton did in the two Terminator movies she appeared in. She’s not the hardened warrior, nor is she a wide-eyed innocent, there’s a balance between the two. Courtney is a question mark, an actor that Hollywood has been trying to make happen be it through Spartacus, or the Divergent series, or by playing John McClane Jr. in A Good Day to Die Hard. Basically, he’s too much of a he-man to be a believable Reese, who, as played by Michael Biehn, was more everyman, less toned for war with the strung out seasoning of a man who maybe saw too much, too soon.
Which brings us to the other Clarke, Jason Clarke, as John Connor. It’s not easy being the fourth guy brought in to play the same part, especially following such talent as Christian Bale, or even Nick Stahl. What Clarke brings that’s new to the part is uncertain, and the “twist,” which I think was incorrectly spoiled in the marketing, could have been more interesting if it was a) a surprise, and b) if there had been some kind of logical explanation beyond “Wouldn’t it be a cool idea if…?”
Amongst the new characters, J. K. Simmons lends some comic relief as the present day version of a police officer who encountered Reese while fighting the T-1000 in 1984, a “Spooky” Mulder type who’s seen his career ruined due to his unsubstantiated close encounter with robots from the future. Former Doctor Who Matt Smith has a small but pivotal role that would be spoiling things to reveal, but Taylor’s camera loves to highlight the actor as he lurks in the background of his scenes, as if to pointedly say, “See this guy? He’s an important guy.” Ultimately, this is a waste of Smith’s talents.
Plot-wise, Genisys is tighter, at least for the first hour as the script screws with the timeline, Sarah and Kyle’s fateful meeting, the entry of Old Arnold, and other nudges. But once our heroes leapfrog from 1984 to 2017 to stop the rise of Genisys, which is really Skynet as being built by Johninator with help from Cyberdyne and father and son Dyson, the story feels like it’s running a three-mile minute rather than a three-minute mile. “Racing to the finish” is usually just a figure of speech, but in trying to reboot while keeping all its continuity cards intact, Genisys becomes so convoluted at times that it feels like it’s trying to outsmart itself. If time travel is the key to victory, why not just go back in time and blow up the garage Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked out of? For that matter, why not go back and take out Charles Babbage before he came up with the idea for the difference engine in 1823?
And not for nothing, but the film has a mixed message of both loving its source material, and feeling ham-strung by it. Schwarzenegger’s appearance is driven purely by nostalgia, and despite the fact that he is, in essence, a different character in every movie, he might was well be the same Terminator we met in T2 in terms of character development. As for the supposed love story, the one that drives the whole franchise, the one between Sarah and Kyle, the movie loves to screw around with the idea that at this point it doesn’t matter, which it really doesn’t because Clarke and Courtney have zero chemistry. As Abrams proved with Star Trek, when you get confused as to whether your franchise’s history is a blessing or a curse, you end up being neither original nor reverential to the material. At that point, you’re just creating product, and it’s pretty clear that Terminator’s producers have been there for a while.
It would be faint praise to say that Genisys is better than both Rise of the Machines and Salvation, but in terms of creating a template that future Terminator installments can follow, this one does it best. Having said that, let’s leave things here. The snake has eaten itself, and by the end of the film, the heroes have thwarted Skynet again for the umpteenth time and in multiple dimensions in time and space. Everyone’s been the hero, everyone’s been the villain, and you know that no matter how successful this movie is going, some fool’s just going to try to make more in the future. “I’ll be back,” is one of the catchphrases and recurring tropes of the series, but to put that another way, the franchise, at this point, is just shoving its head up its own ass.