Movie Review: Terminator Genisys
The Terminator franchise has spanned three decades, produced five movies, and had its fair share of highs and lows. The series has morphed from a science fiction tinged slasher flick into an action soaked blockbuster extravaganza over the course of its lifespan, but it has always kept its core the same: a killing machine from the future is sent to the past in order to change history by hunting down and terminating a key person. Terminator Genisys stays true to that core mechanic and becomes a spiritual successor to the first two, better loved films in the series, though it falters a bit when it comes to creating new material.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
In the future, mankind was nearly wiped out by a sentient computer system named Skynet that triggered a nuclear holocaust and then hunted the remnants of humanity with a robotic army. As the film begins, we see humanity perched upon the edge of victory: under John Connor’s leadership, man is about to wipe out the machine mainframe and take control of its most fearsome weapon – a time travel device that the computer hopes to use to change history and prevent the birth of Connor. Connor is prepared for the machines gambit and sends one of his own soldiers back in time to protect his mother, ensuring that he is born and leads mankind to victory. Because of this time travel loop, John Connor has always known the future: the soldier he sends tells his mother how the war happens, his mother tells John, and Connor then knows as a child what he must do to win. This time around, though, the loop becomes fractured.
When the soldier, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney,) arrives in 1984, he finds that history has already been re-written. At least 3 machines have already been sent back before his arrival, drastically changing the balance of the mission. He also discovers that Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is no longer a terrified college student in need of protection. In fact, with the aid of her robotic protector (Arnold Schwarzenegger,) she rescues Reese and tells him that the mission has changed: Skynet has caught on to the time travel loop and is trying to subvert it to ensure dominance. If they’re going to prevent humanity’s defeat, they’re going to need to go on the offensive in the past and radically alter the course of history so that Skynet will not be able to predict their moves.
Please Press Reset
It is tempting to call Genisys a reboot, but one of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the Terminator franchise is that every movie is essentially a soft reset of the one that came before. The time travel mechanic means that each new sequel can invalidate the previous ones without outright retconning them. Every time you travel through time, stuff changes! Sure, we said X happened in the last movie, and technically it did, but now the timeline has shifted and we can safely ignore it! Time travel is a magic wand the screenwriter can wave in order to erase lore they don’t like, but like most magic, it tends to blow up in your face if you’re careless.
Over the course of the franchise, this mechanic has been abused like a gold-miner’s mule. The rules of the game and the lay of the land changes drastically, often without explanation. Even in the successful sequel, Judgement Day, there’s no explanation for how a second machine manages to get sent back without John remembering it having happened (which is especially troublesome because he personally witnessed it!) The rules of time travel get bent into pretzels, the Armageddon is constantly rescheduled, and the credulity of the audience gets strained to the breaking point. Genisys attempts to put an end to this silly spiral by, oddly enough, embracing all of the clutter and then sweeping it under the carpet of diverging timelines. While alternate histories isn’t exactly ground breaking Sci-Fi (looking at you, Planet of the Apes franchise!) Terminator Genisys accomplishes its task by knowing what bits to keep and which to discard, and being up-front about doing so.
Genisys manages to put the franchises house in order and establish itself as the rightful heir to the throne by taking a hard line with its history: it defines from the get-go what parts of the first films are relevant to this movie, and then unapologetically declares its own version of those events to be the law of the land. Die hard fans might cry foul, but Genisys backs up its bravado by a show of force. The first act is essentially the first two films compressed into one hour of completely amazing action, and by the time it is done, you’ll know what’s what. Genisys brazenly pilfers the best moments of its history, but restructures them in such a stylish and elegant way that it comes off as a tribute to those films instead of a lame attempt to steal their thunder. Much like Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys has evolved to take the best of the franchise, distill it down to its core, and then give you back a definitive version that feels true to its roots. And like Jurassic World, it works because the visual firepower of the movie is completely unmatched.
Cause and Effect…’Cause of Effects!
The first half of the movie is an effects laden extravaganza. All of the best action sequences from T1 and T2 (and even a few spots from Salvation) are recreated and turned up to 11. I couldn’t have anticipated that the cliff notes version of the series would be so damn impressive! Everything that Genisys gets right, it gets right because of the painstakingly spot-on visuals. You can believe that Emilia Clarke is Sarah Connor and Jai Courtney is Kyle Reese because the film goes to great lengths to recreate the atmospheres of the earlier films. It’s story telling via special effects, and it works like a charm. Not surprisingly, it is the Terminator himself who sells the whole show: the movie lives or dies on the believability of Arnold Schwarzenegger taking back his titular role nearly two decades out of his prime. For me, Genisys nailed that aspect early: when an old but fit Schwarzenegger throws down on the original T-800, essentially pitting the real life star against a CG version of his younger self, it is extraordinary. The model for Arnie’s chiseled younger self is beyond belief, and the director knows it. He gloats over it, sweeping the virtual camera over every hair and pore of the creation, letting you look into its eyes for an almost uncomfortable amount of time. Compared to the digital T-800 we saw just six years ago in Terminator Salvation, this version is a quantum leap forward. We may have turned a corner in CGI this summer between Genisys and Jurassic World. Certainly, those films have shown what a sorry sham Man of Steel and the Transformers series are, selling cut-rate visual effects as state of the art.
On Borrowed Time
Terminator Genisys is not a flawless film. The acting is mostly good, although Jason Clarke’s John Connor tends to chew the scenery a tad too often. The pacing of the film is amazing…right up until the end where it really starts to flail around. It’s the second half of the film where the machine starts to conk and show its age. After deftly maneuvering through the history of the early films, the movie finds itself needing to tell its own story without assistance, and comes up a touch short. The plot begins to rely on time travel hocus pocus too heavily, the magic wand showing how fickle a servant it can be. Having established Arnold as a believable and integral part of the story, it begins to flog his character relentlessly. Several times the plot could have ditched his character to allow Reese and Sarah some room to grow and be more effective, but the script wedges Arnie right back into the center of the action. Similarly, once the big bad arrives on the scene, he never goes away. In the first Terminator, Cameron allowed the evil machine to grow in our imagination by hiding him. Like any good slasher in a classic horror movie, he’s more effective when he’s nowhere to be seen. The action sequences also start to balloon out of proportion, probably trying to desperately create something as iconic as all of the moments borrowed from the earlier films.
Like the diverging timeline at the center of its story, Terminator Genisys is a movie existing in two universes. Where it attempts to embroider it’s past, it is a huge success and monstrously entertaining. Where it tries to create a new future, it is flawed and has trouble establishing its own identity. At the end of the day, the drawbacks in the second act are not big enough to drag this film down from the heady heights that the first act obtain, and Terminator Genisys is a gorgeously shot, smartly directed, and competently acted summer thriller that really flexes its digital muscle.
Now just don’t make another sequel!