I really had to debate with myself about whether or not to cover this one.
To start with, I had long since lumped the Terminator franchise with the Aliens franchise: They gave us two good movies apiece, everything after that has been crap, and there’s no point in trying to recapture that old magic. Aside from nostalgia, there’s no reason to bother going back to either well.
I did not have high hopes for this latest Terminator movie, and the advertising did nothing to assuage my worries. The first few trailers were unremarkable and the next few spoiled pretty much the whole damn movie, implying that there was nothing to sell aside from one major plot twist. Either that or the studio figured if we already knew what was going to happen, we wouldn’t go see the film.
Then the news came out that Paramount was releasing a mobile phone game for the audience to play while watching the film. So either 1) the movie is so awful that it needs a mobile game to be interesting, 2) Paramount is actively encouraging a breach of theater etiquette to keep courteous moviegoers away, or 3) these idiots actually think this is a good idea that will raise ticket sales.
At this rate, I genuinely can’t tell if this film and its studio are really so incompetent or if Paramount is somehow trying to sabotage its own box office receipts. Either way, I didn’t want to encourage such behavior by contributing to the opening weekend gross.
But then a couple of things occurred to me.
First, I remembered my own personal philosophy about promotions and hype: It all ceases to matter the moment the film gets released. When a film gets published, it has to stand on its own merit from that moment onward. There’s no way for a promo to hide the flaws of a movie that’s out in the open, and all the announcement teasers for viral Super Bowl sneak peeks won’t mean shit to audiences in twenty years or even two years.
Second, there’s Jurassic World. That movie and this one are both continuations of long-dormant franchises, and neither one of them are critic-proof. Think about how rare that’s getting to be. Movie franchises cater to a set audience by design, which usually means that everyone’s already made up their mind about whether or not they’re going to see it. It’s gotten to the point where there’s no reason to write about the next Marvel film, or the next Hunger Games film, or the next Transformers film, because you already know what you’re going to get.
But Jurassic World wasn’t like that. Nobody knew exactly what we were going to get with that one, and now that it’s out, some people really love it while others really hate it. Word of mouth was crucial with that film, which is probably why the box office receipts have dropped in half like clockwork every weekend since release. To this day, I still have friends and acquaintances who ask what I thought of Jurassic World and whether it’s worth seeing.
Terminator: Genisys was always going to be a similar case. From the time it was first announced, this film always had the potential to go either way. It might have been a good film with bad promotion, or it might have been a stinker that should never have been attempted. There wasn’t much room for a gray area in between, or so it seemed.
I ultimately felt that as a critic, I wanted to take part in the discussion that this movie will inevitably start, as Jurassic World did. More importantly, if there’s even the slightest chance that I can persuade my readers toward or away from the movie when they’re still on the fence, then how can I turn it down?
Ultimately, I’m glad that I saw the film (in a theater with a very strict cell phone policy). This way, if someone ever asks whether the film is worth seeing, I can reply with a firm “no.” I don’t agree that it’s the worst thing ever, but Terminator: Genisys is undoubtedly a misfire at the very least.
The thing about Genisys is that it starts out well enough. Excessive voice-over aside, the introduction does a fantastic job of showing us how John Connor (played here by Jason Clarke) is such a huge part of the resistance, how his upbringing prepared him for war against the machines, and why armies of people would rally around him. We also get to see the storied final battle between Cyberdyne and the resistance, seconds before that T-800 Model 101 is sent back to kill Sarah Connor (with Emilia Clarke –no relation — inheriting the role). And it is truly spectacular.
But then Kyle Reese (played here by Jai Courtney) goes back to Sarah’s rescue, and things keep slowly going downhill from there. Things may start out pretty much identical to The Terminator, complete with re-enacted scenes from the first movie, except that Sarah Connor as we know her is gone.
See, it appears that Reese went and got zapped into an alternate timeline that splintered off when someone sent a T-1000 to kill Sarah… when she was nine years old. To further complicate things, someone sent a reprogrammed T-800 (still being played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) to rescue Sarah, and she’s been living with a robot guardian ever since. Which means that not only is she the stone-cold badass we all know and love from Terminator 2, but she also has a full knowledge of how she fell in love with Kyle Reese, conceived a child with him, watched him die a few hours later, and then went on to raise the savior of mankind after humanity got nuked.
Except, remember, all of that stuff happened in an alternate timeline and this new sequence of events pretty much wiped it out. Confused yet? Just wait until we get started.
Anyway, Reese arrives in 1984 to find that the T-800 he was chasing has already been KIA by Sarah Connor and her “Pops.” But they still have to contend with a T-1000 that I guess was sent back as a failsafe measure or something, I don’t know. It’s never explained who’s sending these robots back in time to when they don’t belong. Hell, we don’t even know who sent Pops back in time — it’s hand-waved that the resistance doesn’t want anyone to know who’s sending robots back in time, lest Skynet figure it out and prevent that party from sending robots back in time and are you seeing a problem here yet?
Look, time travel brings about plot complications by its very nature, and that is not a new problem with this franchise. The very first movie established, by way of John Connor’s conception and his importance to the premise, that this whole franchise is built on at least one massive time paradox. But over the franchise’s thirty-year history, the films have had to use time travel, alternate realities, and paradoxes in increasingly convoluted ways. It was the only way to keep the franchise viable in light of the fact that it’s 2015 and Judgment Day isn’t here yet. But the franchise was generally smart enough to keep the time travel to a minimum up until now, and it helped to keep things at least simple enough for the audience to grasp.
But this movie goes whole hog with it. It’s not enough for the plot to have those time jumps I just mentioned. Oh, no. Now we have Cyberdyne robots jumping from after Judgment Day to 2017 so they can cause Judgment Day by bringing future technology to Cyberdyne. Go ahead and try to diagram that and see how it makes sense. I’ll wait.
On top of that, we also have the time machine that Sarah and Pops have been building out of scraps for the past few decades, waiting for the T-800 to come and try to kill her (they needed its CPU to run the machine, you see). Sarah wants to go to 1997, because that’s when she was told that Judgment Day was going to happen. Except that Kyle wants to go to 2017, because that’s when Judgment Day has been rescheduled for. It’s this huge, drawn-out argument between the two, and neither of them ever think to go to 1997 on the off chance that Kyle is right and they can spend twenty years preparing, or maybe they could try to stop Cyberdyne before it’s ever formed. As far as I can tell, they can do that. Because they have a goddamn time machine.
Oh, but how did Kyle know that Skynet was coming online in 2017? Well, he was flashing back to memories of his alternate-reality self after traveling through a time nexus and WHAT THE HIGH ROYAL HELL IS THIS BULLSHIT?!
It’s impossible to make heads or tails out of this plot because so much of it is tangled up in time travel nonsense. It also ruins the movie on a thematic level — every time the characters talk about fate or free will, it’s impossible to take seriously because nobody can sufficiently understand or explain how all of this is supposed to work. Though bless her heart, that doesn’t stop Emilia Clarke from trying. This is a version of the character who’s burdened not only with the trauma of watching her parents get killed, but with knowledge of traumas that are going to beset her before they’ve happened. She’s spent her entire life waiting to fall in love with Kyle Reese only to watch him die, and Emilia Clarke does a fine job of playing that. Though she does get a little whiny at times.
(Side note: I was rather amused to hear that Emilia Clarke was taking over the role from her “Game of Thrones” costar, Lena Headey. I’ve said it for years and I’ll gladly keep on saying it for the record: Lena Headey will always be my pick for the definitive Sarah Connor. Linda Hamilton may have done it first, but Headey did it best. Hands down.
(Likewise, Thomas Dekker was unquestionably the best actor so far to play John Connor. Not as much competition for that one, I grant you, but still.)
Speaking of which, Jai Courtney gets the job of playing a Kyle Reese who eventually learns about what was supposed to happen to him. Think about that. While he was alive in the first film, Kyle never learned that his mentor and hero was also his son, he never learned that he was going to die protecting Sarah Connor, and he never knew he would fall in love with her until shortly before he died. That is a lot of information to take in, especially all at once, and it’s very interesting to see how he copes with it.
But here’s the thing: Michael Biehn was so great in the part because he had some soft edges. It was easy to believe that he wasn’t born a soldier, but merely shaped into one by virtue of living and surviving in a post-apocalyptic war zone. He pulled off a very delicate balance that made him equally suitable as a romantic male lead and as an action hero, and so his fated pairing with Sarah was easy to believe.
Jai Courtney does not have that balance. From his name to his looks to his acting chops, the guy might have been genetically engineered to be a B-movie action star. He does not have the charisma to be a male lead, especially in a picture of this magnitude with so much else going on, and he sure as hell doesn’t have enough chemistry with Emilia Clarke to sell me on their romance.
Getting back to the themes at play, the movie naturally comments on our relationship with technology. This of course includes our obsession with mobile phones, our addiction to internet access, the importance of online activity as part of our identity, etc. So far, so boring. But the plot takes it a step further, using a new Cyberdyne OS (the eponymous Genisys) as a Trojan horse for Skynet. The film thus invokes our innate need to adopt the latest and greatest technological upgrade (see also: Lines around the block for the new iPhone, signing up for free and automatic updates to Windows 10, etc.). We’re practically inviting the machines to come and take over the world, which is a fascinating concept for this movie to play with.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This is partly because we get virtually no information about what Genisys is or why everyone is in such a rush to get it. It’s some kind of cloud computing deal as best I can figure, but what makes it so much more special than the cloud services already offered by Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others? Also, why would the military be so eager to switch all their systems over to a cloud-based server run by a private third party that also handles millions of civilian accounts? I’m no military man, but that sounds to me like a security risk.
Put simply, the angle doesn’t work because Genisys isn’t an OS or an app or really much of anything. As far as the plot is concerned, it’s a countdown timer to the end of the world. Even better, it’s a countdown timer that speeds up arbitrarily. Which brings us to the villains.
The damage has already been done (thanks a pantload, Paramount), so I don’t mind spoiling that John Connor is the big bad in this movie. In theory, this makes for a fascinating psychological threat: He was raised by Sarah and he raised Kyle in turn. He knows their every plan, every tactic, and every safe house. And of course, he’s also a nanobot-infused Terminator who can shapeshift and take damage like a T-1000 could only dream of. Which brings me to why the character doesn’t work.
For one thing, this isn’t like John Connor switched sides and it isn’t like this is a Terminator made to look like John. No, this is John Connor himself after every last one of his cells was transformed into a nanomachine. I couldn’t begin to tell you how this technology makes the slightest bit of sense or why the Terminators don’t do this to more people.
Far more importantly, John has a nasty habit of rambling on and on about how Sarah and Kyle should just give up and help him usher in Judgment Day. This was a golden opportunity to try and justify Judgment Day, commenting on the relationship between man and machine from the machines’ point of view. But instead, it’s just so much mustache-twirling twaddle about how there’s no way they can win and come join the winning side and blah-de-blah-blah-blah. Jason Clarke is clearly doing the best he can with what he has, but that’s really not much.
Also — and yes, I realize that I’ve already commented on this a lot, but it needs to be emphatically repeated — whoever at Paramount was in charge of promoting this movie should never be allowed to work in entertainment again. The big reveal of John Connor as a Terminator is flat-out amazing in context, and it easily would have been one of the year’s most jaw-dropping sequences if the advertising hadn’t spoiled it so far and so thoroughly in advance. Such an incredible shame.
As for Schwarzenegger… well, he’s Schwarzenegger playing the T-800. Guy could play the role in his sleep at this point. In fact, given the nature of the role, he could easily sleepwalk through the role and who could tell? J.K. Simmons elevates a thankless comic relief role by virtue of being J.K. Simmons. Byung-Hun Lee is suitably threatening as the T-1000 who’s in 1984 for no adequately explained reason. Courtney B. Vance is grossly underutilized as Miles Dyson, such a pivotal character in Terminator lore that he deserved much better than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Oh, and speaking of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, Matt Smith is barely in this movie. So yeah, the character’s fifteen seconds of screen time totally justified casting Matt Smith and keeping it a total mystery who he was playing.
Yet Paramount rubbed it in our faces that John Connor was the villain. Seriously, Paramount, fire someone. Fire everyone.
As for the visuals, they’re really not bad. The CGI looks good throughout, and the work of youth-enizing Schwarzenegger looks especially stunning. The action scenes aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but they’re certainly big and stylish enough for your average summer blockbuster. If this film was merely content with being a brainless action film, I could give it a pass. But no, this film just had to go ahead and try to take itself seriously as a work of intelligent science fiction. And therein lies the problem.
Getting back to my earlier comparison, this movie can’t get away with stupidity the way Jurassic World could. Both movies comment on the hubris of humanity, with science and technology that’s rapidly outgrowing our tenuous grip. But the Jurassic Park franchise comments on this using animals that have been extinct for millions of years. The notion of living, breathing dinosaurs is so over-the-top ridiculous that there’s no pressure to take the thematic material seriously. By contrast, the Terminator franchise is about our very real relationship with very real machines, and the very real possibility that artificial intelligence may outpace human intelligence, resulting in our subordination and destruction. That possible future may be far off, but it’s more than plausible enough that the scenario demands some degree of serious thought.
That said, there’s no denying that both franchises rely on junk science to an extent. The cloning technology of Jurassic Park and the time travel technology of Terminator are both pure bullshit powered entirely by suspension of disbelief. The difference is that when the scientists of Jurassic Park clone dinosaurs, we get awesome set pieces by way of giant thunder lizards. When Terminator sends characters across time and space, we get paradoxes and alternate timelines that we have to sort out before we can get even a basic understanding of the plot.
Terminator: Genisys has some good moments, some fun action scenes, and several good ideas, but the film has to bend over backwards in getting all of that to work. Between the plot contrivances, the forced callbacks to previous films, and the incomprehensible time travel nonsense, the movie is irreparably crushed under the weight of its own bullshit. But here’s the thing: That’s not the fault of the movie, that’s the fault of the franchise.
Every time our characters somehow manage to stop Judgment Day, it gets that much harder to justify the next sequel. Every year that passes in real time without the machine uprising, it means another time travel paradox to screw up the continuity and complicate the plot. That isn’t even getting started on Ah-nuld’s advancing age and all the hoops that the filmmakers have to jump through to keep him involved. This latest entry is the final proof that the franchise has grown too old to keep going. Another sequel at this point would be more trouble than it’s worth. Either reboot the franchise entirely or just let it go.
Luckily, this film ends in such a way that it looks like this may well be the final chapter. At least that’s what I thought, until the mid-credits stinger happened and you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!!!