Terminator: Genisys, the fifth in the Terminator series, is a strange film and it’s not just because the producers can’t spell genesis. As a big, dumb action movie, it’s entertaining enough, but the verbal gymnastics the actors have to go through to make sense of the convoluted plot beg the question: Should the Terminator franchise even be a thing?
FREQUENT SPOILERS THROUGHOUT
The movie, directed by Alan Taylor, begins in the year 2029 where human resistance leader, John Connor (Jason Clarke), is planning his final attacks on the malevolent artificial intelligence Skynet, which controls the machines that rule the world. Connor will attack on two fronts: in Colorado, his soldiers will attack Skynet directly, while in Los Angeles, he and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) will attack the machines’ super weapon: a time machine. While Skynet falls, though, the machines are able to send a T-800 series terminator back in time to 1984 to hunt and kill Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke). Reese volunteers to follow the terminator back in time in order to protect her. All of these events proceed as they did in the original 1984 film co-written and directed by James Cameron. This time, however, when the terminator goes back in time, he is met by the Guardian (Arnold Schwarzenegger), another T-800 sent back even earlier to 1973 by unknown forces to protect Sarah as a child. The Guardian, whom Sarah addresses as “Pops,” looks like an older Arnold Schwarzenegger because the human skin component of the T-800 series ages like normal skin would, so the filmmakers clear that hurdle of disbelief decently enough. The young T-800 is played by Brett Azar with younger Schwarzenegger’s face digitally grafted onto his head. The effect actually works very well and their fight is one of the better parts of the film. After handling the T-800, Sarah and Pops go to save Reese, who is being hunted by a T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), the liquid metal terminator from the second film…also co-written and directed by James Cameron—sensing a pattern here? The T-1000 laid in wait for Reese and Sarah later explains that because Pops was sent back in time even earlier—to fight off another T-1000—the timeline has been altered, so everything Reese has been told about 1984 has been changed. Now, Sarah is the badass Sarah from T2: Judgment Day and Pops is essentially the T-800 from that film as well. All this occurred, supposedly, because when Reese was going back in time, he saw that John Connor was attacked by a different type of enemy (I won’t spoil that reveal), that infects John with a kind of technovirus, a la the X-Men—one could argue that Terminator owes its entire existence to X-Men comic books. Also, Reese has visions of a past he doesn’t remember living, where the message comes through, “Genisys is Skynet.” This comes into play because Pops has built a time machine—sure…..—that will take Sarah to 1997, when Skynet went active. However, due to Reese’s visions, he convinces her to go instead to 2017—the new year when Skynet goes active. They go to the future, eventually joined by Pops, who takes “the long way,” and they discover that John Connor is now behind Skynet and has been turned into some kind of human-machine hybrid. They fight and try to destroy Skynet, while fighting a John Connor who has apparently gained the ability to be everywhere within seconds—i.e. lazy writing.
I mentioned the John Connor twist, because the studio has already spoiled that one for you in the trailers and TV spots. It’s an interesting twist—turning a hero we barely know into a villain—but the writers, Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier, never really explore it properly. Even with combining the human and the machine, Skynet is still the evil AI bent on bringing on nuclear holocaust. Why not use this opportunity to turn the whole series on its head and show that John Connor is actually the future? No, better just to have him slug it out continuously with Schwarzenegger. Once Connor is transformed, he can literally be anywhere and everywhere in seconds with no explanation how or why. They also explain that to time travel, only organic material can go—T-800 models can travel because their metal endoskeletons are covered in organic skin. So, how did John Connor go back in time if he is basically all metal now? It’s a major plot hole that the filmmakers never address. Also, they never reveal who sent Pops back in the first place. At the end of the film, Jai Courtney literally says, “There were still questions, but we’d find the answers together.” How? Whoever sent Pops is in the far-flung future. Going to travel Back to the Future? (I smell another senseless reboot). Also, while I loved seeing Schwarzenegger back in the role of the T-800, his penchant for dumping expository dialogue got old real fast. There are moments when he just comes up with the information the heroes need at that exact moment and no one says, “Would have been nice to know that a lot earlier.” The fact that Pops builds a time machine in 1984 is also ludicrous. A) He wouldn’t have the proper technology and B) Terminators were killing machines with fairly simple directives and programming, but someone apparently sent back Mr. Wizard in a T-800 body—note to self: write a screenplay where Mr. Wizard dumps his consciousness into a Terminator. All that being said, I actually enjoyed the action scenes in the film. The future depicted in this film actually hearkens back to the one shown to us in the original two films, which was a nice touch—can’t get enough purple lasers. And, as mentioned above, they actually pulled off the Arnold vs. Arnold fight quite well.
There is no real freshness to this film. All the filmmakers do is mine the original two films for material, making a strange hybrid of the two that is an interesting experiment, but one that doesn’t totally work on a story level. This is why Terminator hasn’t really worked as a film series since T2. Filmmakers constantly go back to the past to tell their story, when they should be looking to the future. How much better would this film have been if it told the story of a transformed John Connor and how he shapes the future after the battle at the start of the film? No, the producers just want to keep trying to re-invent the wheel instead of telling a good story, which is all moviegoers really want anyway. It’s also why time travel generally sucks as story device. Who cares what happened in that last film? We can just change it with our time machine! It worked for Back to the Future because that was first and foremost, a comedy—any inconsistencies can be laughed off, but Robert Zemeckis and his team did a good job keeping it all together anyway. Why? Because they focused on story and not mindless action. Do what Star Wars is doing with The Force Awakens—create new characters and move forward with them. Either that, or reboot the whole thing a la Batman Begins.
The cast, led by Schwarzenegger, does a decent job here. The film is another vehicle in Arnie’s comeback and he inhabits the role like a well-worn jacket. Jai Courtney surprised me in that I didn’t absolutely despise him as I have in previous films of his—high hopes for Suicide Squad! Jason Clarke is always great and I enjoyed watching him play both the hero and the heavy, even if the character is beyond stupid. J.K. Simmons puts in a nice turn as a cop who ends up aiding Sarah and Reese, but that’s all I’ll say about his character. The only weak link here, sadly, is Emilia Clarke. I just couldn’t buy her as this badass character. I love her on Game of Thrones and she was great in Dom Hemingway, but as Sarah Connor, she just didn’t stick the landing for me.
Overall, if you’re just looking for some nice mindless action, check out Terminator: Genisys. The best thing I can say about it is that it isn’t as offensive as the Transformers films. If you’re actually looking for a good story and something that advances the series past T2, then skip it. T2 said all that was needed to say on this series, which is reflected in the fact that filmmakers continuously go back to that well time and time again. Just let the Terminator franchise die. Unless someone comes along with a completely fresh take on it, let it end.