What is the point of Terminator Genisys? Yes, I am aware that the goal of any film production is to make money. But at some other level, there is usually a thrust of creativity at the start of any screenplay idea. Does somebody have a new take on an old franchise? Maybe there is an idea of how to continue a franchise in a culturally relevant way? At the bare minimum, you would hope that the desire to tell a new Terminator story would be the reason this film exists. Sadly, you would be wrong.
There are many things happening in Terminator Genisys: time travel, urban warfare, FBI interrogation, heavy exposition scenes, even attempts at humor. John Connor (Jason Clarke), Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and the Terminator himself (Arnold Schwarzenegger) are all back and they are still on a mission to save the world from the impending robot apocalypse. It doesn’t matter. From early in the film it becomes obvious that the film wasn’t born out of creativity. It’s apparent that the execution of an interesting story was always a second priority to the needs of modern franchise filmmaking (the only point of a dialogue scene is to get us to the next action beat). In short, Terminator Genisys exists for the sole purpose of another Terminator film existing.
The gang is back and the rebooted actors do a fine job tuning into their 80’s counterparts. There seems to be a lot of hate for Jai Courtney (in a lot of his roles actually), but I found his performance to be perfectly serviceable. He plays a good straight man, though not too charismatic for a leading man. After Zero Dark Thirty and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I’ve found myself to be a big Jason Clarke fan and he does a great job filling the role of resistance leader John Connor. Though Schwarzenegger is the real star of the show (see below), it would be a disservice to the film to ignore Emilia Clarke. Her portrayal of Sarah Connor is a confident (if not confused) leading lady who holds her own as a leader in this war-torn world.
It really is Schwarzenegger who holds this show together. His now-famous T-800 schtick never gets old. He is a walking killing machine fully capable of fulfilling his programing, while also being a robot learning the human world and learns what is socially acceptable (he still hasn’t got that whole smiling thing down). It is the T-800 that has all of the successful comedic moments in the film (it sure isn’t Jai Courtney’s “jokes”), the “fish out of water” scenario makes for great banter and it was a real joy to see Schwarzenegger back in the role that made him famous.
While the human characters are serviceable and Schwarzenegger gives the film moments of greatness, this is still a two hour movie and there are still things it needs to accomplish. Mainly, a competent story. The first 10 or so minutes recap the events of The Terminator as we remember them. Judgment day happens, humans fight and eventually win the war, the machines send back a terminator to kill Sarah Connor, the humans send back Kyle Reese to kill the Terminator. As you would expect, once we are in 1984 nothing is the same and we have entered the world of an “alternate timeline.”
Once we are established in the world, the film alternates between scenes of exposition where it (unsuccessfully) explains the time-travel roundabout that has lead to this new world and between scenes of heavy-CGI action that seeks to replay the biggest moments from the Terminator franchise. It is exhausting trying to keep up with this movie. I tried mapping out the different timelines in my mind and I just couldn’t do it. By the time they have explained why one thing is happening we have already moved on to another dumb action scene. Eventually you will just have to accept Genisys for what it is. What is it exactly? It’s part reboot, part sequel and part prequel. Bottom line, it is an action movie featuring the Terminator characters.
That is how I had to accept the movie to enjoy it. Instead of trying to “figure out” the time travel and how it fits into the larger Terminator timeline, I just accepted it as an action movie. We are in a new timeline, there is a new Judgement Day on the horizon, our characters need to stop Judgment Day. Nothing more, nothing less. On that level, the film is perfectly servicable. There is some fun banter. The actions scenes can be creative at times. There are tons of call backs and homages to the Terminator franchise as a whole. It’s all there, but did we really need this film?
After two classic films and two highly forgettable sequels, does Genisys do anything to remind us why the Terminator franchise was so great? Kind of? Not really? I don’t know. The time-travel conceit was so confusing and the action scenes were so standard that most of the film just washed over me by the time we were finished with it. Though it is definitely the best Terminator film since Terminator 2: Judgement Day, that’s not saying much as the bar has been set so low by the other films (Rise of the Machines, Salvation).
So Terminator Genisys is here, it’s not really hurting anybody, but it is definitely not benifiting the film landscape in anyway. To keep with the time-travel genre, let’s compare to some other recent offerings. In a film like Looper, we have an R-rated adventure that has a great pitch (time-traveling hitmen) and a strong emotional core at the center of it. On the other hand, X-Men: Days of Future Past uses time-travel as a creative way to fulfill a studio’s needs (“we need more X-Men films, do whatever it takes to reboot the franchise”), while still telling a wonderfully personal story at its heart. Terminator Genisys is neither of these examples. Instead, it is a PG-13 reboot of an R-rated franchise. It has action scenes and jokes that remind us of the old, while never giving us a reason to be happy for what is in front of us.
Arnold has always said “I’ll be back” and I’m happy to see this legend “back” in modern filmmaking. Next time Arnold is “back”, I hope it comes from a place of creative spark (franchises don’t have to be evil) and not from a calculated decision to rehash the greatest hits of the past.
P.S. I really hope I don’t have to write about any other Arnold Schwarzenegger films in the near future. I really (I mean, really) can not spell his name. And it is a HUGE pain doing so every time.