With Terminator: Genisys, the summer of 2015 continues its elongated nostalgia trip into the early ‘90s, hell-bent on reincarnating a series of lumbering CGI dinosaurs: first the battle-scarred T-Rex of Jurassic World, and now Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role that made him a superstar. The Terminator franchise has become as tortured as its time-jumping heroes, thanks to decades of convoluted plot rewrites and its inevitable failure at the impossible high-wire act of keeping multiple timelines and casts juggled in the air. Like Jurassic World, Genisys ignores its predecessors so it can curry favour with the more popular installments in the franchise, James Cameron’s original The Terminator (1984) and its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). But its frequent callbacks to these much stronger films only serve to show how diluted and messy it is by comparison.
Genisys doesn’t lack for ideas, and I’d be lying if I said it failed to engage me. The film tips the first of its robotic hands near the beginning, when we see the original T-800 cyborg sent back from the future to 1984 Los Angeles to murder Sarah Connor, only to find (gasp) its grey-haired doppelganger waiting to kill it. As Genisys is eager to explain, the past that Kyle Reese is sent to has been altered before he arrives, and an identical T-800 model was sent back even earlier to protect Sarah Connor from the age of nine and train her to defend herself, while the living tissue covering its metal endoskeleton aged as all living tissue does – a handy way to brush aside Schwarzenegger’s inescapable septuagenarian physique. Sly loopholes aside, this heavyweight bout between an aged Arnold and the spitting digital image of his 1984 self provides the kind of holy-shit thrills promised by those same early ventures into CGI technology. The future is here, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but man can it blow stuff up good.
And a young Arnold isn’t all you might recognize. Director Alan Taylor (decisive, capable veteran of HBO shows such as Rome, The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones, as well as the similarly CGI-heavy Thor 2: The Dark World) reaches into the grab-bag of Terminator lore and emerges with fistfuls of familiar material: we see a scarred John Connor (Jason Clarke) leading a band of ragtag survivors in a battle against Skynet’s hunter-killer machines in post-apocalyptic 2029; the liquid-metal T-1000 hunts our heroes once again, though this time he’s race-swapped (portrayed here by Byung-hun Lee of The Good, The Bad, The Weird, and thankfully not by a wrinkled Robert Patrick); and, of course, we’re treated to groan-inducing echoes of Arnold’s old dialogue (we get both “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live,” among other snatches of recognizable Terminator vocab). These familiar elements, sandwiched inside a twisty, no-rules time travel plot which jumps between three different time periods, combine to make Genisys more confounding than its predecessors – tonally, it’s a mess, with frequent comic asides that clash with the heart-pounding action – but it still entertains. The T-1000 is still an exciting and unique villain, providing lots of creative action stunts until he’s dispatched (far too early, in my opinion – especially considering the mishandled threat that replaces him).
|Emilia Clarke and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Genisys.|
Genisys suffers from poor casting more than anything else; at times it even feels like a genuinely interesting movie straining to break free from the shackles of its studio mandates (suffice to say that John Connor’s character is written in a way that would be terrifically engaging, were it not for his overuse as an action vehicle and his incredibly nondescript portrayal by Jason Clarke). Emilia Clarke, late of House Targaryen, offers her usual don’t-fuck-with-me tough-chick attitude that somehow never reaches the intensity of the steely, vascular Linda Hamilton (although she is more believable in the film’s quote-unquote “emotional” scenes, and her attachment to the aged T-800, who she calls “Pops”, is endearing). Jai Courtney fails to elevate Kyle Reese above the wiry grit that Michael Biehn brought to the character in his first incarnation; though he’s never outright bad, he’s never much better than dull, either. I hope Taylor and company were prepared for the criticism that would come with the inevitable comparisons between their cast and the flash-in-the-pan actors who defined their roles, because the results don’t lean in their favour.
The best thing that can be said for Genisys is that it managed to distract me well enough that I didn’t have time to settle in and absorb its shortcomings. The audience is carried so quickly from one setpiece to the next (many mirroring those from T:2: like a highway chase, a bunker full of weapons, a helicopter attack, and the infiltration of Cyberdyne) that it’s fairly easy to get swept along in the sheer manic fun of it. Its tone is all over the place, but it never loses its sense of energy. In terms of entertainment value, this puts it miles ahead of the campy, idiotic Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and the sourpuss, Arnold-free Terminator Salvation (2009) – the sequels it self-righteously ignores. I don’t disagree that these films are worth ignoring, but Genisys pushes the limit of my patience for this trend. As a lifelong Star Wars fanatic, I know the dangers of retconning – and on a basic level, such self-serving disrespect for one’s forebears cannot stand. If filmmakers must rely on nostalgia, they must use it simply to remind us of what came before, not fundamentally change it. If there’s one thing the Terminator franchise can teach us, it’s that any attempt at rewriting history is doomed to fail.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.