If you’ve seen the first two Terminator films, you’ve already seen at least 60% of Terminator Genisys. Entire scenes and concepts are lifted and lightly tweaked, a few surprises are reused and are no longer surprises by definition, lots of famous quotes are spoken by the wrong characters, but much of that beloved old material is back, ridiculously recognizable and retold in the wrong order.
If you’ve seen those two films and all the Genisys trailers, you’ve already had the movie’s biggest, cleverest twist spoiled for you and you’ve now basically seen 80% of the film. If you like bullets and car accidents, I suppose you can stay tuned and settle for those.
If you’ve never seen a Terminator film, you’ll be thoroughly lost. But hey, who doesn’t love gunfire, right?
If you saw the third or fourth Terminator films or The Sarah Connor Chronicles, sadly, no one cares.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in Hollywood! All other considerations are secondary. All the other films he’s made since he finished his gubernatorial reign were warmup acts for this. Considering he has more fun than anyone else involved, it’s a shame the T-800 has less screen time than his younger costars. Too bad they wouldn’t at least let him narrate.
Fans know some of the story: in a future where the nihilistic AI called Skynet has taken over the world, hero leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends loyal soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save his mom, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), from being murdered by one or more killer time-traveling robots. Chases, gun battles, vehicle crashes, detonations, and special effects ensue. That’s what Reese and the audience expect.
But! What if Reese didn’t get there first? What if the Terminator didn’t get there first? And what if none of them are the last to arrive?
Thus begins a series of non-linear, wibbly-wobbly events spanning decades and inducing massive headaches with the goal, as always, of preventing Skynet from booting up, finding a Wi-Fi access point, and subjugating humanity. Again. Still.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The liquid-metal T-1000 returns, this time played by Storm Shadow from the two G.I. Joe movies. To be honest, I thought Storm Shadow was cooler, even though I hated both movies. Innovative inventor Miles Dyson also returns, this time played by Courtney B. Vance, who frequently brings gravity to various legal dramas. He’s not around much, but he delegates to his equally tech-savvy son Dayo Okeniyi, a.k.a. Thresh from The Hunger Games. Academy Award Winner J.K. Simmons is a disgraced cop with solid reasons for having an open mind. Paul Kinsey from Mad Men is another, less helpful cop.
In a super-secret spoiler role, TV’s Matt Smith, a.k.a. the Eleventh Doctor, tries to hide from us at first, as the cinematographer curiously tucks him away in a corner for a bit. Once I noticed him, I stopped caring about the other nine-tenths of the screen and kept my eye on him. I thought it was weird how he kept lingering silently in plain sight, even looking into the camera at one point as if he’s thinking to us, “Can you believe I’m actually here? Hello!” Because of my Doctor Who fixation I realized what was about to happen a few seconds before it did happen, and then I blinked and he was gone. It wasn’t his only moment in the fray, but once Genisys ended I found myself wishing they’d made more room for him. Also, I need them to explain why he’s credited as “Matthew Smith”, like he’s a newcomer we’ve never met. Was that supposed to be their idea of disguising him?
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Many fans swear by the anti-determinist moral of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” From our human perspective of limited dimensions, the future is not yet written and we should never sulkily surrender as though everything we do leads to a preordained inevitability. As long as we can change things for the better, then it’s our duty to do so. Resignation equals death.
The characters in Genisys sure do remember. Except when they take turns forgetting and moaning, “Why can’t I have choices? UGH.” Then they have to remind each other again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. If only they’d brought a chalkboard to use, they could’ve practiced writing it through the first hour, then just pointed to it every few minutes after that.
It’s no big secret that a good version of Arnold is on Team Free-Will, another traveler with a different arrival point. Arnold is now 67, but the movie tosses in a line to explain away his robot’s aging organic shell. Along with this smart move comes a second moral as he finds himself up against technology advanced well beyond his, but holding his own with a combination of steely resolve and studious pre-planning. His personal motto: “Old, not obsolete.” It’s a welcome reminder to his teammates, to Arnold himself, and to any graying viewers who saw Arnold’s movies on the big screen back in the ’80s. To that extent, Genisys is more welcoming to the neglected over-50 demographics than any other summer blockbuster this year.
Arnold’s friendly T-800 has a tight bond with Sarah even though he’s totally a machine. Questions arise: can a programmed device learn how to emote if given enough time? Can it truly be accepted as as a de facto relative? Is there also a moral that says, “There is no family but what we make for ourselves”? That theory’s also tested later between other characters.
Now that the internet is so much more prevalent now than it was in 1984, Skynet’s more powerful than ever because it realizes like any given corporate executive that the quickest way to our minds is through our gizmos and our social media. Humankind has never been easier to overthrow. Social media is terrible and awful and destroying our minds and will doom us all. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Lest you think this is all too much thinking: yes, there are EXPLOSIONS. A bus that flips more times than the heavy machinery from Terminator 3. Helicopters once again doing the impossible (see also San Andreas). Buildings going boom, miniatures scorched in seconds, cars colliding and flipping, storefronts collapsing, and zillions of rounds of ammo wasted on unstoppable killing machines. Yep, it’s a Terminator film.
Nitpicking? Hey, remember that time in the new Star Trek films when J.J. Abrams realized a fun direction might be to return to the same old universe everyone knows and loves, but have someone within said universe go back in time, break stuff, and let the resulting temporal shockwaves mess with countless familiar histories, except somehow all the famous TV/movie quotes survived intact, though some of them were said by the wrong characters, as if the God of their universe decided those souls were mutable but those quotes were more integral to reality and destiny and were therefore Always Meant to Be?
It’s hard to blame director Alan Taylor (Thor: the Dark World) and the screenwriters for swiping that tempting strategy for Terminator Genisys and trying way too hard to triple Abrams’ damage points. Granted, time travel has always been a necessary device in the Terminator universe, but previous filmmakers kept its use to a responsible minimum. Time-travel once, watch the ripple effects. Time-travel twice, ripples become waves. Keep time-traveling and time-traveling and time-traveling and everything builds to a tsunami of unsortable, implosive balderdash. After the dust settles and the survivors are set on their paths into an unknown tomorrow, there’s no possible way John Connor could be born on schedule, let alone prolong the war on machinery.
It’s a common approach in pop culture. The typical time-travel tale will have events at the end of the story causing minor course corrections or severe upheavals that ultimately negate the initial circumstances that necessitated their time-traveling in the first place. Most time-travel stories choke on their own loops. It’s nearly axiomatic, and it’s easier on the blood pressure to accept that eternal flaw as a given and stop nitpicking time-travel stories forever, because very few movies or TV shows or comics think their cause-and-effect through every potential consequence. (I nearly wrote an entire essay to that effect after the season-one finale of The Flash, but I got sidetracked.)
For a time I found myself reminiscing about the guideline once used by writer/artist John Byrne during his ’80s heyday at Marvel Comics. In a few of his stories (offhand I can specifically cite Marvel Two-in-One #50 and its follow-up tale in #100), whenever someone went back in time and made a major change, it didn’t affect their own personal timeline. Instead things fractured and created a whole new timeline diverging from the exact point at which the major change was made. Travel back to your own timeline and nothing’s happened. But return later to the separate timeline you created with that major change, and count the number of persons, places, or things wrecked by your meddling.
I hoped Genisys might be among the few to adopt this alt-timeline splitting approach, but when one character referred to “a deleted timeline”, I knew we were once again in a universe where writers consider chronological causality too much of a buzz-killing hassle to dwell on…
So did I like it or not? …so yeah, not much adds up by the end. I’d consider ignoring that timey-wimey stuff if it were overshadowed by greatness, but that didn’t quite happen. I grew to tolerate Jai Courtney, but he’s no Michael Biehn and I’m still bitter about A Good Day to Die Hard. I don’t watch Game of Thrones and have no frame of reference for Emilia Clarke, but her petulant version of Sarah Connor settles for ROTC gruffness that doesn’t land in the same time zone as Linda Hamilton’s intimidating intensity. Jason Clarke was a standout in Zero Dark Thirty and the Planet of the Apes remake’s remake of a sequel, but John Connor’s single hero-speech pales before his speeches in those other thumbs-up films, and he’s just not wired to convey the attitude shift required of him in the second half.
Arnold remains the MVP, finding a goofy joy even in his emotionless scenes, managing an endearing awkwardness in his robotic emotional scenes, and playing off his golden-years exterior with the skill of a young-at-heart statesman. Honorable mentions go to the Eleventh Doctor and to J.K. Simmons, who’s kept in too small a box. For what it’s worth, some of those action sequences were well done for what they were, especially the few that weren’t recycled material.
That’s my main problem with it, though: Genisys wants so very badly for us to think it’s just like those two super-cool Terminator movies, it spends too much time and energy imitating them instead of just relaxing and being itself. It’s derivative and overly nostalgic, which I guess is okay for a cheap popcorn-flick matinee, but when it’s time for the sixth Terminator film to become a thing, its makers will find there’s nothing unique about Genisys for them to reuse.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is a scene a few minutes into the Terminator Genisys end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time, even though anyone who hasn’t seen the film could probably guess its general nature without even trying…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…deep inside the wreckage of the complex we just watched turn into EXPLOSIONS, a large computer in a room that somehow still has working electricity comes back to life and fires up an image of a big, spinning, glowy red ball. Next to it, a familiar hologram begins to rematerialize, as if to gaze upon its work and make new plans.
(At the very end of the credits, I noticed the list of filming locations includes New Orleans. I’d sort of love to know where they shot, because I think it’d be something interesting to check out while we’re down there later this summer…)