Let’s recap the series for a few moments:
James Cameron creates a piece of groundbreaking science fiction noir, The Terminator, with a shoestring budget, putting a handful of unknown actors on the map and setting a tone for a decade of copycat film-making. The film puts in place a series of elements that will be repeated over and over: relentless cyborgs, over-the-top vehicle chase sequences, mind-bending identity quandaries as characters fight the destiny of future history. Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are the heroes for this film. Time travel premise: it’s all a cycle, unbreakable.
Then Cameron does the impossible: he improves on the formula (it is a formula) with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, by lightening the tone with additional humor, adding a wise-cracking kid, turning the damsel-in-distress from the first film into a mentally unstable bad-ass, and spending a boatload on some cutting edge special effects. This time it’s Sarah and her son John’s story. Time travel premise: the future is a blank page.
A few years go by, and the franchise is extended to a trilogy with another extension of the formula, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. This one has more comedy and a rewritten future history (seemingly upended by the events of the second film) and a shift of focus from Sarah Connor to John. With the loss of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah, we now add Katherine Brewster to the story to play off of John. Time travel premise: destiny has a momentum that can be delayed, but not denied.
A few more years go by, and in an age of gritty reimaginings, producers decide to make use of the built-in grittiness of the Terminator franchise and jump forward to the war with the machines in Terminator: Salvation. Time travel is a haunting melody impacting John’s decisions, but there is no actual time travel. The formula is further twisted by making this film’s relentless Terminator think he’s human. John (with a little help from Kate) is front and center, with the addition of a pre-time-travel Kyle Reese.
The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are nearly perfect films. Terminator 3 is an amusing and engaging sequel with a remarkable ending. Terminator: Salvation is a morose and poorly executed film, which, even if it hadn’t been saddled with a muddy story and some bad performances, would still be a too-dramatic break from the formulas of the first three films.
This brings us to the five-quel of Terminator: Genisys. I plan to write up a detailed attempt to understand how all of these films can fit into a self-consistent collection of alternate universes that are created in sequence by the time travelers we meet. But for the moment, I’m just going to deal with the film as it is.
In the film’s opening, we see what we’ve heard about so often: we watch as John (Jason Clarke) and Kyle (Jai Courtney) discover the time displacement device that Skynet used to send a T-800 back to 1984 to kill John’s mom. Kyle (who has fallen in love with Sarah because, apparently, a picture of a nice-looking woman is preferable to the scruffy actual women in the future) volunteers to go back in time to save her. As he’s being transported, he sees something dramatic happen, and history changes while he’s in transit.
This gives the filmmakers the excuse they need to reshoot classic scenes from the first film and change them up. Kyle’s not being chased by run-of-the-mill cops. He’s running from a T-1000. Sarah isn’t a shy waitress who needs saving. She’s a commando bad-ass who saves Kyle and has her own pet T-800. (This is how we are allowed to have an old Arnold Schwarzenegger, since he’s actually from the 1970s. Heh.)
This sequence is kind of a little mini-Terminator film, as they drive around and have to defeat the T-1000 and the T-800 from the first film. (Incidentally, the CG Arnie fighting the real Arnie? That’s some amazing effects. Might be the best CG human I’ve ever seen.)
Right away, this is where the fanboys start to check out. Wait, we’re undoing the first film, and, by extension, the second? Heresy! Well, if you want to reboot a series that has time travel built into it, it doesn’t get much cleaner than that, does it? I don’t have a problem with it. That whole first act is pretty cool. I’d have loved for Reese to be played by a more engaging actor, but whatever.
The “twist” is that Sarah and Pops (what she calls her pet Terminator) have a home-made time machine ready to jump ahead to 1997 and stop Skynet. This is where the film kind of jumps the rails. Reese manages to convince Sarah that the future is vastly different, and they have to go to 2017. The writers worked hard to get over that hurdle, but it feels forced and unbelievable. Sarah has had a specific view of the future for over a decade, and in a page of dialogue, she’s deflected from that purpose? Nope. But, moving on.
The meaning of the title Genisys isn’t particularly exciting. It’s a mobile OS that will become Skynet. Okay. Now we’re going back to the “the future has a destiny” well one more time. Okay, I guess. I’m not really bounced out of the film yet.
But one of the best moments in the film is the arrival of Sarah and Kyle in 2017. Unlike every other time travel event, they appear in a way that is entirely public and kind of awesome. (And it’s also important to the story, but that’s okay by me.) And this leads to the the single best moment of the film: the reveal of who J. K. Simmons is playing. I got chills. That’s pretty rare. This film gets big kudos for that.
Anyone who’s seen an ad, or even the poster, knows that the other “twist” is that John himself has been mutated into a weird human/Terminator hybrid who’s also been sent into the past. I think that’s just weird. It’s not even reasonable that Skynet would do that. They would just kill the guy. I guess they wanted to have him and his pre-war knowledge prepping the ground for Skynet, but it still feels kind of just designed for the dramatic reveal. Worse, Jason Clarke doesn’t really play John as likeable even back in the opening of the film. He was kind of a dick before he got Terminatorized. So the transformation isn’t even dramatic enough.
If the first act is a hyper-fast reimagining of the first film, this sequence is like a hyper-fast reimagining of T2 with a dash of T3 and even T4 thrown in for good measure. (Thanks anyway, Matt Smith. You were not a good addition to this series.) It’s big and exciting, but everything by this point has a rote feel. Reese keeps talking about rehabilitating John, and it might have been fun if that was a real plot point, but he’s so far gone, I don’t know why anyone would think he’s fixable. And he’s not. He’s just a regular movie villain.
By the point Arnie does his self-sacrifice thing for the third time in four movies, I’m checking out. And the stinger in the credits is just annoying.
Do I hate this film as much as Terminator: Salvation? No. It’s got some great moments and some great ideas. By the end, though, it was a little too obvious that they were prepping for additional films rather than just making this one good. It’s not as good as T3, and miles from the quality of the first two.