Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Cinematography by: Kramer Morgenthau
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney
The year is 2029, and Resistance forces, led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) alongside Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) are closing in on Skynet’s machines. If you’re even remotely familiar with the Terminator franchise, those names and this setting should be instantly recognizable and highly welcome to you as a way of opening a film in this series. We’ve been waiting to see this moment, this future war, in detail, for almost twenty years, and with every entry, we seem to have taken one step forward, and two steps back. In retrospect, I should’ve savored these first twenty some minutes, because that’s the best this film got, and unlike our characters, I wanted nothing more than to stay in that timeline. Those opening moments serve as a fitting epilogue, albeit two decades too late.
By now, you should all know the story: as a last ditch option, Skynet sends a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to kill John’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke) back in 1984. John Connor retaliates by sending one of his own, Reese, as her protector. Reese and Sarah are supposed to thwart the Terminator, fall in love, and ultimately produce John in the process, who will go on to lead the Resistance, and close the loop by later sending back his own father. It is precisely at that crucial moment that Genisys, its nonsensical spelling aside, decides it would be a good idea to alter our expectations of those events, and what follows is the most irrelevant entry in the entire franchise. There are those of you that will now toss out Rise of the Machines (2003) or Salvation (2009) as holding that honor, but I assure you their sins had more to do with how they decided to move the story forward. Genisys takes the cake in that it actively chooses to not only revel in and recreate the nostalgia of The Terminator (1984) and Judgement Day (1991), but it then desecrates everything those films accomplished by literally churning out a greatest hits of past moments, and trying to pass them off as it’s own original thought.
It’s easy to fault the cast here, as no one truly embodies the characters they’re supposed to be playing. I realize that’s unfair, as these are not exactly the same characters. Well, scratch that, Sarah may not be, but Kyle definitely is, and while I understand that no one can quite match the energy of either Linda Hamilton or Michael Biehn, it’s a chore watching every actor spout exposition after exposition, entirely self-aware of what did or will happen. There are no real stakes, and thus, no reason to care for any of their fates. Emilia Clarke may be great in Game of Thrones, but she has little to do here, and I never thought I’d say this, but it’s Jai Courtney who the audience can ultimately relate to, precisely because he’s in the same boat as us. We’re all trying to make sense of why things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, but simply voicing our concerns aloud is not character development. For example, we hear an awful lot about the relationship between Sarah and Kyle, but it’s apparent at the outset that this isn’t that movie, or even its mindset anymore. The film is content leading up to a brand new Sarah and Kyle romance, which I’d be willing to accept if the time travel justified the film’s creative choices.
Jason Clarke in comparison gets to play a multitude of different shades with his character, but he too was handled so poorly, I ceased to care. That just leaves Arnold, who returns to his signature role, and if nothing else, it’s kind of fun to see him embody it again. That nostalgia however, is short lived, and he’s regulated to the background, more or less appearing for a one-liner here and an action scene there. Wasted also is Byung-hun Lee, though I’ll give him credit for striking an eerie resemblance to Robert Patrick’s exact role. A surprise in the cast is J.K. Simmons playing a cop who happened to be there in 1984 and who has followed the trail of Terminators until present day. He’s a breath of fresh air to the proceedings, if only because he provides us with a glimpse at what this film could’ve been after those first twenty minutes. After all, this is now a 1984 in which an entire police station is not shot up, and a Terminator arm is not left in an abandoned factory, so technically, Cyberdyne shouldn’t have been able to replicate the technology causing Skynet to eventually become self-aware faster thus leading to the events of T2, but now I’m just making myself angry with time travel logistics.
I almost don’t even want to blame Alan Taylor. He did a decent job with what he was given. The action scenes, while not refreshing, are still staged well, and there were a few times I genuinely appreciated the effort to heighten the tension during them, though I feel like I could heap the same praise on him for Thor: The Dark World (2013). The film also moves so briskly from 2029 to 1984 to 2017 that it’s hard for me to fault it for dragging on (at least in terms of its runtime). Taylor is a man who has excelled in the TV worlds of The Sopranos, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, so it’s disheartening to see him stumble yet again on the big screen. Having said that, I lay blame squarely on the writers, as absolutely nothing in the film makes any sense once the new plot (dare I call it that) kicks in. The 1984 that Reese is sent back to looks like the same world as the original film, but that’s about it. The Sarah of that timeline is no longer a helpless waitress, but a warrior that’s been prepping for this moment since she was nine with the help of a Terminator she affectionately calls Pops that was sent back to save her. This poses a question (one of many) the film never answers: who sent it, and why? It forms the crux of my problems towards the murky effects of time travel in this film. No one benefits with Sarah’s extra decades of knowledge. She still ends up in the same predicament with the same company. Hell, there’s even two evil Terminators in this timeline: the original Arnold that came for her, and a liquid metal T-1000 (does that sound familiar?) that conveniently stuck around waiting for Reese. Also, my absolute biggest gripe: if Sarah and Kyle never conceive John back in 1984, he would cease to exist as we know him at the beginning, and throughout the film, and thus, this film should not exist at all. Even Jurassic World (2015) justified its lackluster existence.
Despite its best efforts, one can’t shake the feeling of having seen it all done better before, and that’s the biggest crime a film can commit. It’s a retread at best, and an absolute forgettable waste of cinematic space at worst. There’s a second act plot twist that had a chance to be effective, had it not been ruined by the film’s promotional team, and actually bothered to follow through on what it means to have altered the timeline in such a profound way. In fact, the very existence of this plot point is a slap in the face to everything this franchise is built upon, and only serves to expand a self-serving narrative into a new trilogy of films that may not even come into fruition. It’s lazy, and it’s become all too commonplace. Time travel films leave me feeling a lot of ways: exhilarated, enthusiastically engaged, even enamored, but exhausted is a new one (and not in a good way). A little bit of convolution comes with the territory I suppose, and I like to think I’ve allowed my brain to anticipate and comprehend all such loops, timelines, and paradoxes along the way, but when a film loses it’s own sense of accomplishment, I have a hard time giving it the benefit of the doubt; especially to a film so dependent, yet simultaneously defiant of everything that came before. How’s the saying go? No fate but what we make?
With Terminator Genisys, I really wish they had stopped making it altogether. This future is set, and I don’t care.