“That’s the kind of man your son was. (thinks) Is! Will be! Ugh…time travel gives me a headache.”
The original Terminator had the spark of genius. It was something altogether amazing and new. As a stand-alone sci-fi potboiler, and a model of low budget 1980s ingenuity, the story of a young woman under siege by an unstoppable robot assassin from the future is a stone classic. Just typing this sentence makes me want to drop everything and spontaneously rewatch it. Bleak and ruthless, consistently thrilling, pleasingly enigmatic, and, in the end, more than sufficient, The Terminator didn’t cry out for a sequel any more than the wellspring of any action franchise does. The sequel it received, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, was nevertheless a true rarity in the annals of effects-driven blockbuster action filmmaking, functioning as both a signpost along the road, indicating the exciting, innovative way forward for an oft-beleaguered art form, and a de facto destination, dynamic, fully-formed, crowd-pleasing, jaw-dropping. A hundred years from now, in times so advanced that new movies will most likely be uploaded directly into our brains, T2 will still be worthy of its seat at a very exclusive table that features Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park and precious few others, each an indispensable cinematic evolution in how spectacle was communicated to the masses.
The great bulk of sequel product exists for reasons of pure commerce and proceeds from a decidedly mercenary mindset. Though hardly immune to these pressures, writer/director James Cameron approached T2 foremost as an opportunity to right technical wrongs while exceeding the original at every turn, and in his concerted efforts to do just that, upped the production and effects ante to heretofore unseen, practically scandalous, levels, and turned story expectations completely on their head. T2 offered our first look at John Connor, the miscreant boy who, as an adult, would lead humanity back from the brink of extinction in its war against Skynet, the omnipresent, genocidal computer network that had subjugated it. In surviving the original assassination attempt, John’s mother Sarah (an unforgettable Linda Hamilton) didn’t grow so much as she hardened, dramatically refashioning herself as an impeccable guerilla soldier at the cost of great swaths of her essential humanity. Most crucially, T2 turned its implacable killer cyborg from stalker to protector, the better to attempt to explore humanistic questions the 1984 film had no time for, and also to reflect star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s then-unparalleled box office clout. The decision was, no doubt, coincidental.
I feel, at this point, that I should offer my apologies for already sidetracking, if not hijacking, an outwardly well-meaning movie review with repeated reverent mentions of and ruminations on its far superior predecessors. It’s entirely possible I’ve explained too much. In my defense, however, Terminator Genisys is a film that not only courts comparison with the past, it demands, nay, requires, it. And it also never shuts up. Genisys recasts the Philip K. Dick model of hard science fiction, in which, ideally, tough existential questions with tougher, often paradoxical, answers form the basis of ingenious, fantastic scenarios, and to which both the original Terminator and T2 (though technically Dick-free) still owe a debt of inspiration, with a free-for-all of terminal exposition so pervasive that it borders on the most expensive game of “Mad Libs” ever filmed. The fourth Terminator sequel also becomes the second straight starring Schwarzenegger* to essentially consign T2 to the scrapheap of memory in order to find any semblance of its own raison d’etre. Now, as then, it’s simply not a good trade. The inescapable shadow of both originals casts a pall on the entire proceedings, even when the new film finds appreciable, self-sustaining, altogether unlikely life in its second half. There truly are no rules to time travel if your script doesn’t acknowledge them, and for all this dour talk about the end of the world, you almost can’t help but smile reflexively. As a Terminator fan, I’d come into Genisys with no, or possibly even negative, expectations. I was briefly offended then actively confused, then sighed, settled back, and allowed myself to have a surprising amount of fun.
*You ’d have to imagine that when the news broke that I was not the lone heterosexual male under the age of 40 to pass on seeing the middling, Christian Bale-starring “Terminator: Salvation” (2009) in theaters – far from it, in fact – the need to bring back Schwarzenegger at any cost crystallized in the minds of producers.
With the series already having proposed numerous alternate futures, with at least one more yet to come, Genisys first posits an alternate past to the past we at least thought we knew, in which a terminator was originally sent to kill Sarah Connor not as an adult but as a 9-year-old child. This awkward conceit neatly remixes Cameron’s first Terminator movie, taking it in slight, theoretically surprising, but mostly offputting, new directions and making it, along with T2, the second beloved casualty of Genisys’ pathological need to exist. Perhaps it’s residual envy on the part of the creative team, but more likely just the unpleasant realities of what logical hoops would be necessary in order to squeeze every last dollar out of the series. Anyway, that robotic fiend’s efforts to kill Sarah (in, what, 1969 now?) were squashed by yet another benevolent Arnold-800 model, who adopted in the intervening years not only the role of her protector but of her surrogate father. In 2029, the human resistance readies to strike the fatal tactical blow while a splinter squad seeks to foil Skynet’s last ditch attempt to turn the war’s tide back in its favor, which is – are you ready? – to send a normal, old T-800 terminator back to 1984 to assassinate Sarah Connor! That…why, that’s the plot of the first movie! This says nothing of the 1969 attempt on Sarah’s life, or of the far advanced T-1000 model previously (?!) sent back to settle her son’s bacon in 1991 (T2), or of the “T-X” that failed a similar mission in 2003 (T3). New terminator technology continues to advance to staggering degrees, and, indeed, will again by movie’s end, so what’s the deal with merely sending a homicidal Arnold-bot back to 1984? How exactly are you able to skip the events of T2 entirely by just moving the goalposts to 2007 and making “Judgment Day” a different kind of widespread computer infiltration, triggered by the launch of an insidious, self-aware , worldwide OS? To paraphrase Mel Brooks by way of Slim Pickens, what in the wide, wide world of sports is a-going on here?
Maybe that last bit was half-explained while I zoned out, but to most any viewer who arrives not already fluent in the conventions of the franchise, Genisys is going to largely play like explosive gibberish. Lucky for them, each time some new twist or deviation from canon occurs, the characters take the opportunity to stop and immediately explain it to death. Over the movie’s first quarter, this phenomenon happens roughly once every five minutes, and is it ever tiresome. Kyle Reese – yes, Sarah’s protector from the 1984 movie – played ineffectually by Jai Courtney, comes off as a blank slate upon which stereotypical good soldier and daddy issue behavior can be conveniently projected. Michael Biehn’s portrayal in the Cameron original at least nailed Reese as a man who had fallen in inconvenient love with Sarah Connor across time, and whose sense of duty, now under mortal pressure in the present day, chafed in the wake of the unprofessional feelings he had toward his charge. The Sarah Connor he meets, played here, again ostensibly in her 1984 incarnation, by vacationing Game of Thrones Khaleesi Emilia Clarke, is, like so many other callbacks to the original film, at least a little “off”. Hardly the shrinking violet turned violent femme we remember, Sarah 2.0 is spunky and sassy and flippant, having been schooled by the O.G. Arnold-800, whom she named “Pops”, on practically everything the future has in store for her, especially her eventual role as mother of the resistance (the baby daddy, known to us, remains a mystery to her despite the cyborg’s humorously heavy-handed hints). Everyone reacts to the impending end of the world in his or her own way. It’s a tricky role, clouded by audience memory and overplayed by Clarke in a jarring turn that instantly defuses any chemistry Sarah and Reese might’ve conceivably generated, though they eventually fall into rote, unconvincing “will they/won’t they” banter in an anemic attempt to conjure sparks. Clarke’s version of Sarah takes not a little getting used to, though she is a credible action heroine, and is eventually able to access and externalize the great emotional burden at her core.
Terminator Genisys wants to be a sly spin on the iconic films that preceded it while standing on its own merits. Neither goal is achieved cleanly, but the labors to get there are still strangely compelling. The movie is possessed of a strange, jokey overall tone, seemingly in a nod toward recapturing the spirit of T2, as if that – and Arnold’s presence – was all there was to doing so. The weight of the machinations necessary just to get the film underway and moving is such that it’s small wonder the thing doesn’t collapse in the early going, but once it moves beyond queasy nostalgia and near endless place-setting and finally settles into its own story, Genisys works with appreciable skill and generates, against all odds, some degree of stakes and narrative momentum. In its zeal to approximate the 1984 original (you get the garbage truck, the bum in the alley, the police chase through the department store, the confrontation with a now Bill Paxton-less gang of punks at the overlook), Genisys moves quickly beyond the realm of homage into inadvertent parody and, finally, into the “uncanny valley” of Gus Van Zant’s infamous, utterly worthless shot for shot remake of Psycho. It is predictably fun when the Arnold-800 sent back to assassinate Sarah Connor inadvertently runs into his do-gooder doppelganger and the two engage in an impressive, largely seamless, effects-laden hand-to-hand throwdown. As “Pops”, Schwarzenegger is far and away the best element of the movie – he has the character’s robotic nature down, however much the running gag of him trying to appear nonthreatening by smiling gruesomely loses its laugh factor upon repeat attempts – though it might’ve behooved the makers to put everyone on more equal dramatic footing.
If the performances exist in an unfortunate (and unfair, and debilitating) echo chamber and the applied “science” – let’s build a time machine out of 1984 parts, everybody! – is headache-inducing, the action at least acquits itself nicely. Beyond the inherent novelty value of its senior citizen killing machine – which the film, to its credit, takes a semi-plausible stab at explaining – Genisys initially seems little more than Hollywood’s latest excuse to tackle burning questions like “how many shells can a shotgun possibly hold?” and “how damaged can a helicopter possibly be but still fly?” Serious thought has gone into this CGI and stunt work, however. Upon his arrival in 1984, Reese is surprised to encounter not the O.G. T-800 but a shape-shifting, liquid metal T-1000 model straight outta Judgment Day. It all seems so very tired, but this T-1000 – apparently they can only assume the form of cops – is the real nostalgia element in what turns out to be a first act tease. The later reveal of the true villain of the piece, a yet more advanced human-Terminator hybrid with a heartbreaking surprise identity, allows for some fairly spectacular individual effects shots, as the fiend is shredded and sheared apart by various industrial implements, and also broken down dramatically by a giant magnet. I’ve already favorably mentioned the Arnold on Arnold violence at the overlook. Later, there is a bravura set piece as the three principles are stalked by the climbing T-brid as they seek higher ground in a bottomless, fully vertical schoolbus dangling off the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve seen plenty of action-packed, close quarters confrontations in my movie-going life, but never one that so effectively approximated or rendered tangible and immediate the laws of gravity, literally removing the ground beneath the audience’s feet. Even as it struggles to resonate on a gut level on par with any of its Schwarzeneggarian forebears, Genisys is still kudo-worthy as a technical exercise.
The same week I saw Terminator Genisys in the theater, I also finally caught up with Jurassic World, another film destined to be hampered by unflattering but inevitable comparisons to a not merely superior but paradigm-shifting predecessor. I could ponder the two in tandem for hours, in terms of their often flat acting, uneasy relationships with the past, and desperate overcompensation for a cinematic existence that is not exactly justified. I may or may not eventually review Jurassic World. The truth is that it didn’t make much of an impression on me for good or ill. I thought it was merely fine. Despite some fun individual ideas artfully deployed, it has an overarching “stick in the mud” quality to it that Terminator Genisys at least bounds past. For better or worse, Genisys is a pretty respectable new-era flamethrower once it finally, mercifully, gets going. I may or may not be over dinosaurs yet, but I think I can conclusively say I’m over terminators, at least of the 66-year-old variety. That has much less to do with Schwarzenegger on camera than with the gymnastic thinking that put him there. Honestly, I could’ve said much the same just as easily in 2003, and T3: Rise of the Machines was in almost every respect the superior picture. Terminator Genisys, somehow, is among the most entertaining utter messes in recent memory, a bald-faced coup attempt of two films it isn’t fit to be mentioned in the same breath as, followed by a plucky, earnest, effective attempt to re-earn its squandered emotional capital the hard way. It almost works. It features several clever ideas, however undercooked or thrown together, and makes a few fine points about the prevalence of technology subsuming our modern lives. It also skews a little too close to Back to the Future territory in its propensity for both introducing new time-related obstacles and recycling old ones, with nary an actual paradox (or consequence) to be seen, attempts an unearned tear-jerking ending, immediately undermines it, then sputters to a stop, leaving technical room for a sequel I’m now more certain than ever we’ll actually see. We’ve already established these folks can explain anything.
“Terminator Genisys” (2015) 2.5/4 stars