TERMINATOR GENISYS Movie Review – Return of the Living Terminator
Some franchises simply refuse to die. Even after two underwhelming lackluster sequels, they refuse to fade into the dustbin of cinematic history. Instead, here we are, six short years after Terminator: Salvation (hereinafter Terminator 4) failed to resurrect a moribund franchise and kickstart a new series. But as someone once said, hope, like potentially exploitable IP, springs eternal. And with hope and potentially exploitable IP comes yet another Terminator entry, Terminator: Genisys, where SkyNet, the once-and-future A.I. bent on exterminating the human race (the feeling is mutual), returns to fight a never-ending war for dominion over multiplexes everywhere, with, of course, the aging (he’s “old, but not obsolete”) former Mr. Olympian and ex-governor of the state of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a lead or co-lead role as a “good” Terminator reprogrammed to protect and serve unlike, say typically ineffectual local law enforcement found in all but the fourth, entirely future-set entry in the series.
Directed by Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World, Game of Thrones) with little visual flair, but with the efficient competency that comes from a career spent mostly on the small screen, Terminator Genisys initially unfolds in a familiar timeline/time period, 2929, thirty-two years after Judgment Day, the SkyNet nuclear war that all but wiped out humankind. So far, so familiar, especially with Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, stepping into Michael Biehn’s unwashed trousers), in full-on narrator mode. We get an expansive view of the future war only glimpsed in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It tops the first two entries in scale and scope, but offers little in the way of new narrative information beyond the reverse father-son relationship between Reese and John Conner (Jason Clarke), humanity’s scarred savior and prophesized messiah. After the apparent defeat of SkyNet, SkyNet sends back a Terminator, Arnold model (a/k/a the T-800), to 1984 to kill John’s mother and Kyle’s one-and-done girlfriend, Sarah Conner (Emilia Clarke). So far, so familiar (again), Terminator Genisys slavishly matches and mirrors The Terminator beat-for-beat, leading, however temporarily, to the conclusion that moviegoers are watching the most expensive fan film ever made.
But once Reese returns to 1984, he finds a changed reality, an altered reality where another Terminator, nicknamed “Pops,” not only appeared earlier in the timeline by more than a decade, but became Sarah’s guardian, father-figure, and all-around military trainer. Terminator Genisys leaves the who or what sent Sarah’s Terminator unanswered, one of several dangling threads meant to be addressed in future installments (if any). Intentionally echoing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah and her Terminator have bonded, an apparent category on Sarah’s part (machines can’t feel, no matter how advanced), but just as apparently reflected in the Terminator’s behavior, behavior that goes beyond simply physical behavior to vetting Kyle’s suitability as a mate for Sarah. Taylor and Terminator Genisys’ screenwriters, Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, lean heavily on the Kyle-Sarah romantic relationship as the emotional anchor for the various story threads and later, timelines, but it’s as rote, perfunctory, and underwritten as any relationship in the series (including the third and fourth entries).
An altered 1984, complete with a new model T-1000 (Asian star Byung-hun Lee, obviously included to widen the series’ international appeal), isn’t, however, where Terminator Genisys remains for long. Another time jump, aided by a home-made time travel machine (cheap and plentiful in the Terminator universe, regardless of entry number or timeline), ends with Kyle and Sarah in the near future, 2017, and SkyNet’s newest iteration, a soon-to-be, all-in-everything killer app (literally), Genisys (like the Sega console, except different). Once SkyNet evolves into a self-aware, self-conscious A.I., Judgment Day is only a nuclear missile silo and an easily obtainable launch code away. SkyNet once again sends another protector of its own to 2017, not to kill Kyle and/or Sarah, but to ensure it evolves into a self-aware A.I., a slightly different mission with the same, inevitable, increasingly enervating results (chases, crashes, more chases, more crashes, ad nauseum, and ad infinitum).
Terminator Genisys attempts to go where the Star Trek reboot went six years ago, a complete reboot or universe reset that leaves the original timeline(s) unaltered for fans of either series while opening up narrative possibilities for filmmakers and non-fans alike. Unfortunately, there’s a difference, often a chasm-wide difference, between attempting and achieving, between trying and accomplishing. The reliance on multiple timelines, multiple time jumps, and something Sarah’s exposition-mode Terminator calls a “Nexus Point,” essentially a key or fundamental historical event that occurs in or through multiple timelines, like SkyNet’s seemingly unstoppable plan to start Judgment Day (admittedly more a function of finance, not narrative). It’s also meant to explain Kyle’s dreams of an alternate future and/or alternate past (or something). Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether moviegoers understand Terminator Genisys’ convoluted approach to time travel, just that they buy into it at a superficial level, a prerequisite for buying into the Kyle-Sarah and Sarah-Pops(!) relationships amid the aforementioned vehicular-centered chases, narrow, death- and physics-defying escapes, shallow moments of emotional catharsis, and narrative closure (albeit undermined by the obligatory mid-credits, sequel-setting scene). Add — or rather subtract — bland, occasionally cringe-inducing dialogue (e.g., any Arnold-centered humor), and a modestly talented cast that compares unfavorably to The Terminator’s central duo, and the result, as expected (if not exactly wanted) feels not just derivative, but unnecessary too (because it is).