When Arnie famously said, “I’ll be back,” he clearly forgot to add, “over and over and over again.”
Let’s face it: the Terminator franchise has been on a downward trajectory since the highs of the iconic Judgment Day. None of the subsequent films have been bad, but they haven’t been great either. And now, six years after the ill-fated reboot, Terminator Salvation (which I actually thought was underrated), we have the reboot of the reboot, Terminator Genisys.
I liked where they were going with the premise — the idea that everything that happened in the earlier films never happened because someone went back even further (before the 1984 film) and changed how the future would pan out.
First off, it allows them to pay homage to the earlier films by taking audiences down nostalgia lane, reciting popular catchphrases and bringing back memorable characters and events — but with time-travel induced twists to make it fresh and unexpected.
Secondly, it gives the franchise new life by creating a completely different storyline that opens up possibilities of further sequels. That’s what good reboots do — they keep the best of the original and revamp and update other bits and pieces. This one goes even further to turn the franchise’s existing universe on its head by changing everything we thought we knew.
This should all be fantastic — as the T-800 would say repeatedly throughout this film — “theoretically.”
Unfortunately, Terminator Genisys isn’t nearly as effective in practice. It’s a messy effort with a plethora of problems, from from a nonsensical storyline and contrived plot devices to poor casting and cheesy dialogue. It is still enjoyable on an purely entertainment level, though it ultimately comes across as a commercial cash grab as opposed to a genuine effort to recapture the magic of the first two classics.
Allow me to break it down. The original Terminator paints a future in which robots take over the world in 1997, and in 2029, the machines decide to send a killer cyborg with an Austrian accent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the future mother of John Connor, the last remaining human resistance. John Connor sends back his trusted soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), back to the same time to protect his young mother. It’s a frightening action thriller with a clever time travel twist attached to it.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991, follows on from the original. The machines send back a liquid metal cyborg (Robert Patrick) to kill teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong), and the future John Connor sends back an old model killer cyborg with an Austrian accent to protect him. By this time, Sarah Connor has also turned into a badass, and in the end they appear to have change enough of the past to suggest that the 1997 judgment day doesn’t happen. The movie is one of the best and most iconic action and sci-fi films of all time.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is a continuation of the second film. The 1997 judgment day is indeed averted, but it appears to only be postponed because somehow robots are still in control of the future. The machines send a cyborg who looks a lot like actress Kristanna Loken to 2003 to wipe out future members of the human resistance, and the humans send back a really old killer cyborg with an Austrian accent to protect them. Loken is ultimately unsuccessful in killing John Connor (Nick Stahl) and his future wife (Claire Danes), but judgment day happens anyway at the end of the movie. It’s not as good as the previous two but it’s still pretty entertaining.
Terminator Salvation, released in 2009, is mostly set in 2018, and presumes that judgment day happened around 2003 as opposed to 1997, meaning it accepts the events of its predecessor. Apart from that, the film is more of a side story, with the only major tie-in to the franchise being a cameo from an eerie-looking CGI Arnie at the very end.
Now, Terminator Genisys goes back to when the robots and John Connor (Jason Clarke) send Arnie and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), respectively, back to 1984 (ie, the first film), but this time the past has changed because Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, no relation to Jason) has already become a badass after being trained from the age of nine by an even older Arnie. Things obviously progress differently from here, creating a brand new timeline.
The first thing to note about the plot of Genisys is that it goes back to assuming that judgment day took place in 1997 as opposed to 2003, meaning it is essentially ignoring everything that happened from T2 to T4. I’m not sure if this was an intentional decision or oversight, but what it does is complicate the Terminator universe a whole lot more. T1 was a simple time loop. T2-4 was all part of a single alternate timeline. Genisys, on the other hand, seems to have created multiple intertwining alternate timelines. That is a risky move because the idea of a universe where there are infinite versions of a reality arguably cheapens the meaning of all the other films in the franchise.
The second thing to note is that a lot of the isolated time travel stuff that happens in Genisys don’t make a whole lot of sense. Granted, most time travel movies have holes in them if you think about them long enough, but in this film you don’t even have to think about it to realise it lacks logic.
Worse still, the film is filled with trite plot devices to help progress the narrative. It’s as though the writers would first think of something they would like to happen in the storyline, then drop something in just before it happens so that it would conveniently make sense all of a sudden. Frustratingly, this happens again and again, especially towards the end when the stakes get high. One particular twist of fate at the end is laughable.
Casting is another issue I had with the film. I am glad Aussies are getting work in Hollywood, I really am, and I think Jason Clarke is not bad as John Connor. But Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese? Seriously? I have no idea why Courtney keeps getting so many roles despite not having been in any genuinely good films or put in any good performances — ever. He doesn’t have a “good guy” vibe, for starters, and he has zero charm for what is supposed to be a charismatic character.
Emilia Clarke may have appeared like a good choice on paper because she’s young, popular because of Game of Thrones, and as Khaleesi proved that she could play both vulnerable and super tough. But Emilia, as much as I like her, doesn’t hold a candle to Linda Hamilton. She doesn’t have any of the physicality the character needs (remember, she’s been trained by a Terminator since youth), plus she is a mismatch for Courtney and Arnie. Standing next to those two makes her look like the way Peter Dinklage looks when standing next to her in Game of Thrones.
The casting of Oscar-winner JK Simmons as a police officer makes up for the bad lead choices a little bit, and I quite liked the move of choosing Lee Byung-hun as the new T-1000 because he looks just like Korean Robert Patrick, but on the whole the cast is problematic and causes issues for the next two instalments of this planned trilogy.
Additional concerns include poorly written and executed dialogue, as well as Arnie’s badly timed one-liners that tend to fall flat, though admittedly these things get better as the film progresses and evens out by the end.
What the film has going for it includes excellent special effects, in particularly the anti-aging technology applied to Arnie, who plays three different ages throughout the movie because, apparently, the cyborgs are covered by human tissue that ages over time — albeit, as the film indicates, very inconsistently. Still, it’s much better than the weird version of Arnie was got at the end of Salvation, showing that movie technology has indeed improved (though it also shows just how ahead of its time Judgment Day was).
The action is pretty decent, close to being on par with what we got in every film of the franchise except Judgment Day, and I do like that it doesn’t take itself — for the most part — too seriously, with a handful of tongue-in-cheek gags that hit the mark. Brownie points for also updating the machine threat to cloud computing to be more relevant to today’s technology. As a piece of popcorn entertainment, Genisys is acceptable without being remarkable, and for some that might be good enough if you tack on the goodwill of the franchise and Arnie’s “old but not obsolete” presence.
Overall, however, Genisys is a disappointment, a muddled effort with loads of issues that could have and should have been ironed out. It’s a sobering reminder of how good this franchise used to be and why reboots of classics are seldom necessary. Viewers with low expectations who catch the it in the right mood could still enjoy the film because it does have strengths, can be fun at times, and takes full advantage of the franchise’s cache, though considering its full potential it’s safe to say Genisys fell well short.
2.75 stars out of 5
PS: I decided to use a teaser poster as a protest to the geniuses in their marketing department putting one of the biggest spoilers there is in the film’s most widely used poster. It’s impossible to miss.