by Kathie Smith
Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys arrives under a circumstantial cloud, which could quickly turn into a halo depending on box office returns: it’s the fifth chapter in a now iconic cinematic saga that started 30 years ago; it’s wagering a 170 million dollar bet that it can resurrect a franchise that has arguably lost its footing; it claims the return of the actor who will forever be indentified with the series (to the point where he was known as the Governator in his political deviations); it lands in a prophetic moment of its own making—the Internet, drones, unregulated government surveillance, and fierce fighting from numerous rebellious groups worldwide—all on the eve of the day the U.S. declared Independence some 239 years ago, now commonly celebrated with flames and booze. Although these circumstances are specific to Terminator Genisys, they are by no means unique. Nearly every summer blockbuster comes with a certain set of antecedent marketing flares and extratextual information molded, sometimes infelicitously, for a certain amount of success. Given the reservoir of thematic possibilities for Terminator Genisys, it’s completely confounding how its creators could be so lazy and, more to the point, creatively irresponsible with the material. The result is a sad sack of an action film that flirts with using Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic charisma only enough to keep you from walking out.
Director: Alan Taylor
Producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier, James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Cinematographer: Kramer Morgenthau
Editor: Roger Barton
Music: Lorne Balfe
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clark, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matt Smith, Courtney Vance, Lee Byung-hun
Genre: Action, Drama
US Theatrical Release: July 1, 2015
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
And with that, I’ve already given Terminator Genisys too much consideration. Genisys rehashes, rewinds, and reformulates the story of Sarah Connor and her son John Connor as saviors of the human race by fiddling with fate-altering time travel to and fro between 1984 and 2029, with stops in 2017. The movie opens with John Connor (Jason Clarke), leader of the Resistance against the machines of Skynet, saving Kyle Reese as a boy and training him as his right hand man and confidant as he grows into an adult (Jai Courtney). They are on the precipice of a final battle to destroy Skynet once and for all and gaining access to the machine responsible for transporting various models of Terminators back in time to kill both him and his mother. But this time John will send Kyle, his father, back to 1984 to protect his mother. Much of this is a reiteration of a familial Möbius strip set up in the original Terminator with John, unbeknownst to Kyle, playing matchmaker between his mother and father.
Things have changed in 1984, however, and Sarah (Emilia Clarke, a strange combination of Linda Hamilton and Ellen Page) is no longer a waitress innocent to her future. Instead she is a gun-wielding fighter working as a seed to the Resistance alongside her guardian (Schwarzenegger), yet another version of the T-800 who saved her at the age of nine and who she affectionately refers to as “Pops.” As Kyle gets jettisoned into 1984, he’s immediately attacked by a T-1000 (this time played by the undervalued Korean actor Lee Byung-hun of A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad, the Weird). In this parallel version of 1984, it is Sarah and “Pops” that save Kyle and have plans for him rather than the other way around. Sarah and the T-800 have been planning and waiting for Kyle so they can jump to 2017 and prevent Judgment Day, the day the machines inherit the Earth, from ever happening.
Needless to say, 2017 holds a few surprises including a new John Connor of an altered reality, Kyle Reese meeting Kyle Reese as a child, and a policeman (J.K. Simmons) who’s been on Sarah and Kyle’s time-traveling tails since 1984. But calling these plot threads “surprises” is a stretch, even within the playbook of summer movies. Terminator Genisys couldn’t be more formulaic or more casual about continuity. None of this makes any sense beyond raising totems of a compelling narrative—a hero, a villain, a love story, a plot twist, a wild card, and fight scenes that have no boundaries in physicality, pitting indestructible machine against indestructible machine with a few humans tossed in for good measure. Believe it or not, Schwarzenegger is Genisys’ breath of fresh air. His familiar T-800 persona cracks dry jokes and mocks his own existence (“I’m old but not obsolete” is a refrain he uses referring to his prototype, but it easily applies to the character and Schwarzenegger himself), adding a much-appreciated frivolity to a movie that is otherwise desperate to take its own absurdity quite seriously.
I’m afraid the days of a more earnest Terminator are gone with James Cameron, Linda Hamilton, and an era where the premise felt fresh and even engaging. Taylor, a veteran director from television (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Oz, and more), and his screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier do little more than shake up an existing foundation attempting to placate fans and newcomers alike, staying as close to the middle of the road as possible. Unfortunately, this reformulation only succeeds at watering down everything we have seen before, save a decent car chase sequence that impressively flips a school bus end to end. Even a much talked about fight between the aged T-800 and the young T-800 (Schwarzenegger circa 1984 by way of CGI) is more interesting on paper than it is in actuality. (Spoiler: They fight mano-a-mano for a few minutes and then Sarah Connor shoots the evil T-800 in the head. Game over.) Terminator Genisys is an unfortunate reboot, giving audiences a movie they’ve likely already seen before in Terminator with contemporary faces and flair yet no recognition that 2015 is not 1984. The T-800 might not be obsolete, but I’m afraid Terminator Genisys is.