The Terminator was one of those life-changing movies for me. Not in the sense that it literally changed the course of my life or anything, just that when I saw it as an impressionable kid, it was not really like anything I’d seen before. It led me into a phase in which I avidly sought out everything by James Cameron or starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, then by turn the whole canon of eighties and nineties action movies in general, a substantial, and fondly remembered phase in my film education.
The thing is, when my young self was enjoying multiple re-watches of The Terminator and it’s incredible sequel; Terminator 2: Judgement Day, I always thought of this as a series that was already over. There wasn’t anywhere for it to go and everyone involved appeared to have moved on. I guess it must have been at least in some sort of development at the time, but Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines appearing a few years later was something I never really thought we’d see. T3 isn’t especially good, it seemed like more of a victory lap for Arnold; play your most famous character one last time in an unnecessary re-tread of the same plot, collect a giant pay check, then move onto the next stage of your career.
Astonishingly, in the time since Terminator 2 closed the book on it as far as creator Cameron was concerned, we’ve somehow had three new movies and a live-action TV series (the completely forgettable The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which itself ignored the events of Terminator 3). When the fourth movie, Terminator Salvation arrived in 2009 I made a choice that I hardly ever do with films like this – I decided that I was not going to watch it. Feeling that the first two films would have been better off if just left alone, compounded by the fact it was directed by ‘McG’, I opted to ignore it.
I eventually saw Salvation, but only this week, as I thought I might need some perspective of what it was like before I could write about Terminator: Genisys. It’s a dull future war movie with little to recommend, I’m not all that surprised it failed to launch a new trilogy as it was intended to, but I will say this for it; at least it didn’t just try to tell the same story all over again. The same can’t be said for Genisys, which yet again seeks to re-hash the simple enough yet effective story told stunningly well in the first film, with its own little tweaks.
We begin in the future, just as self-aware supercomputer Skynet is about to be defeated by rebel soldiers led by John Connor (now played by Jason Clarke). We see the original Terminator sent back in time to 1984, and the soldiers discovering the time machine. Immediately Kyle Reese (now played by Jai Courtney) volunteers to be sent back to stop it and bam! We’re back at the beginning of the original Terminator.
Only – shock twist! – things aren’t the same in this timeline – Sarah Connor (now played by Emilia Clarke) isn’t a vulnerable waitress but a badass warrior, and the original Terminator (CGI Arnold) is immediately taken out by an older version of the same model (real-life Arnold), who’s been living with and guarding Sarah since childhood, she even calls him “Pops”.
Terminator: Genisys wants to have its cake and eat it; it seeks to reboot the franchise for a new generation yet also wants to have it star Arnie, perhaps citing his absence as a reason for Salvation’s under-performance. Of course, Arnold’s a lot older now than he was in 1984 so this loopy new timeline has been contrived where he can play the role without having to be digitally de-aged the whole time. This means that yet another Terminator was sent back in time to even earlier than before – when Sarah Connor was still a child. Why was this? Who sent it? The film gives no explanation whatsoever. It does at least state that the cyborg’s living tissue ages like a human to explain his appearance though.
So Terminator Genisys is the latest in these reboots that are also quasi-sequels/prequels. Since its release in 2011, I’ve often cited Rise of the Planet of the Apes as being the high watermark for this modern phenomenon. The worst moment in that film comes when during a fight scene with Ceasar, a human character says the famous “damn dirty ape” line from the sixties original. It’s forced, it’s out-of-place and you can bet that the powers above demanded that the line be put into the movie. It doesn’t make me feel clever to recognise such shameless and blatant call-backs, it only makes me roll my eyes. At least it was just the one time though, imagine if the movie pulled such a reference every 10 minutes or so – that is what watching Terminator Genisys is like.
There are so many lines of dialogue that are re-used in this movie, and not just Arnie’s catchphrases. Often what it does is take lines and switch them to another character, so now Sarah says “come with me if you want to live” to Kyle, and it’s not clever. The most cringe-worthy example for me comes when the new bad Terminator re-states Kyle’s warning speech about what they are but applies it to himself, it’s just awful. If this is what they call ‘fan-service’, I am not the kind of fan they’re pandering to.
It’s not just the dialogue that’s lifted, there are moments that are shot-for shot re-creations from the first film. This includes Arnold’s initial encounter with the group of punks. They’re played by a new bunch of actors, we have a de-aged Arnold, why can’t we have a de-aged Bill Paxton, instead of this embarrassingly bad replacement? This extends to a lot of the action sequences too – explosions at Cyberdyne headquarters, a helicopter fight, director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) doesn’t seem to by trying anything new. There’s also a T-1000 (a wasted Lee Byung-hun) who’s somehow right there when Reese first arrives. His purpose is just to re-create some moments from Terminator 2. I really don’t understand why they think this is a good idea, constantly reminding you that these same things can be seen in much better movies. A lot of this film feels like seeing a bad tribute band trying cover songs you love but constantly messing up the melodies you’re familiar with.
Maybe this could have been more forgivable if the new material was good, but it mostly isn’t. There’s a lot of terrible dialogue and idiotic plot points. Sarah’s main plan is to go to the new judgement day date in 2017 and stop Skynet from going online the moment before it does. Why, given she has access to a time machine, would she go to the very last moment her goal could be achieved instead of say, giving herself a year to do it? It’s the film contriving an reason for there to be more tension in the finale rather than actually thinking the plan through. The special effects just feel derivative and unimpressive now where they once were mind-blowing and innovative. Incidentally, the one potentially surprising twist, leading to the identity of the new ‘upgraded’ terminator is something I won’t reveal here but has been ruined by the film’s marketing department.
I am somewhat mystified by the continuing career of Jai Courtney, surely one of the blandest, most forgettable actors in Hollywood today. The guy keeps getting cast in big movies despite bringing nothing of note to the table. He’s an awful choice to play Kyle Reese, completely wrong for the role. Michael Biehn portrayed him convincingly as a weary soldier from an apocalyptic war, bringing a fascinating vulnerability to the character. Charisma vacuum Courtney has nothing of this, he’s a young upstart who’s apparently spent most of the war concentrating on his work-out routine.
Emilia Clarke is a poor replacement for Linda Hamilton too, she could maybe have played the more innocent young Sarah of the first film but doesn’t work as the tough woman here. The love story in The Terminator might possess a few creepier elements if you think about it too much, but in context, it truly works. This tries to reinvent it as a rom-com but repeatedly falls flat due to a combination of bad writing and Clarke and Courtney having next to no chemistry.
I can at least say this much; Arnold does his best. He’s mainly doing the same routine he did in T2, but it’s occasionally fun to see him at it again. He unsurprisingly gets some weak lines but also incorporates a sense of knowledge and experience he would have gained through many years living with Sarah. “I’m old, not obsolete” seeks to be his new catchphrase, and it’s just as true of Arnold himself.
There’s one other decent subplot to the film that it unfortunately fails to really do much with. This involves an against-type J.K. Simmons as a washed up ex-cop who’s become obsessed with time-traveling robots after encountering them in the eighties. I really wished they’d focused a bit more on him and this angle, not to mention that Simmons is the sort of actor who can appear in one scene and make more of an impression than Courtney could leading an entire movie.
Truth be told, there was never really any reason for The Terminator to have a sequel at all. It’s a perfectly self-contained story, and if it was all there was to this sci-fi world, I’m sure it would still have become a classic. However, if Terminator 2 is an unnecessary sequel, it’s about the greatest unnecessary sequel there’s ever been, made out of genuine desire to do something with this story and improve upon the original (whether it actually did is still up for debate but they’re both classics in my eyes).
Terminator Genisys is almost the antithesis of Terminator 2, it’s a movie that re-hashes the old story purely for the purpose of trying to squeeze more dollars from the property before the rights revert back to James Cameron. Not to mention in doing so, it actually erases the events of those movies from the timeline. The movie leaves a few threads hanging but I’m not sure really where they intend to take it from here and frankly, I doubt the makers do either. It’s time to just close the book on The Terminator series, I don’t think even Cameron himself could save it now.