Terminator Genisys: When a Series Abuses Itself

The fifth Terminator film is exceptional. It’s typical for a bad sequel to default on the power of its franchise’s past successes, like one of those cans that heats its own soup. Here is a thing of rare and mesmerizing putrefaction: a sequel that defaults on those successes in order to neutralize them, like a hot-can that argues there was no soup to begin with, even though you already ate it. Terminator Genisys is to the meals of its series’ past like feature-length phantom hunger, which is what happens to chefs when they spend so much time around food that their brain tricks them into being hungry even when they're not. I've been around Terminator movies so long that I thought I wanted another one. Let's see how that goes.

The film begins in territory that is familiar to us and to the film’s universe, but not to any of the characters. Its continuity is already in convulsions because anytime someone quotes a Terminator film, or visits an old locale, it is a reference that breaks the fourth wall instead of building more story: none of these characters are Wolverine as he is used in the X-Men prequels to keep us tethered to the original timeline. Nothing that is ever referenced in Terminator Genisys is to the benefit of its story, because we are the only ones who recognize it.

Sarah Connor, now played by Emilia Clarke, meets time-traveling lover-protector Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) at the pivotal moment when he travels back to 1984 to save her from the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) via Cameron’s original film. This time, however, Sarah knows everything. She copies the truck driving through the building from The Terminator and then slides right into a line copied from both that film and its sequel, T2: Judgment Day (“Come with me if you want to live”). I can’t stress this enough: these things aren’t happening again in the film’s continuity, but again for the first time. This means that there’s no reason in the film’s universe for them to be happening now at all. Since the first two films are being wiped clean, these references hold no significance to the characters whatsoever. Terminator Genisys strives for this cynical re-confection of old things as though it’s the only goal it has. It’s that toy shelf of references that Star Wars is so into now but with the additional audacity of trying to convince you that this is the first time you’ve bought them. Using time travel, it canonizes the references to things that haven’t happened anymore: this is how it ruins any fun you could have in seeing them again. Imagine old Han Solo boarding the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens, not recognizing it, and quoting someone else from the series’ past (“What a piece of junk”). That’s Terminator Genisys.

But it’s almost like Terminator was made for this problem, like its synthetic heart has been taking us here from the beginning. To explain, I have to go back to the series’ roots.

The essential premise of the Terminator franchise is not that body-building robots from the future fight each other, but to use something so outlandish as the basis for a story about a normal girl’s struggle and transformation. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in T2 was a cigarette-chomping, braless war guru. Her drastic arc felt earned because she started out as a relatable waitress making ends meet in her slummy but cheerful normalcy. That change is the only thing these movies are about in any meaningful sense.

This works because time travel was never the plot of The Terminator. It was merely the means by which a plot that was actually about free will could be enunciated in an action-packed way. A metal Hercules is how Cameron engaged people in a story really about a mother changing for her kid, adapting to struggle, trying to change the future, and realizing that a little bit of humanity in a cold machine is worth more than anything they hoped to achieve by blowing stuff up. And most of this was on accident, by which I mean that it was done for money reasons and not creative ones: Cameron wanted to make a movie about a future war, and was instead forced to make something relatable.

In order to have Sarah begin Terminator Genisys as a roguish robot-killer that blows stuff up, the whole production has to be so ignorant of the series’ past as to actually be offended by it. The ironic thing about the Schwarzenegger robot saying, “I’m old, not obsolete,” is that obsolete is exactly how Laeta Kalogridis' and Patrick Lussier's script seems to view the previous films.

The new plot is a formality (poking fun at the franchise is the main attraction) but it amounts to this. We see events we did not see (and could not afford) from The Terminator. John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a rebellion against the supercomputer Skynet, the final act of which is to send Kyle Reese back in time to stop a Terminator from killing his mother, Sarah, which should begin the first film. However, the first movie on replay is invaded by a modern-day Schwarzenegger, called “Pops,” who in this new timeline has apparently raised Sarah in the ways of fighting robots since she was a girl.

Who reprogrammed him to do so, threatened young Sarah’s life outside the original continuity, or sent Pops back to save her? We never find out; we're told it's "Classified," as though it will be a twist in the film, but it isn't. The writers couldn't figure it out and hope you don't remember it by the end. On-paper opportunities to sneakily render the new film over the old events via Back to the Future Part II are abandoned. The original The Terminator is not a canvas to which this sequel adds itself like layers of harmony in an overture. It’s old furniture it has to discard in order to get the tacky new renovations started. Little girl Sarah bonding with her stolid robo-grandpa would have had the same continuity problem, but it sounds like a much better movie than the house-flip Genisys does on its own franchise. Even the point where the Schwarzenegger robot has to live a decade on his own, taking construction jobs, laying low, would have been a far better thing to turn into a movie than this.

Instead we have a movie where people get hit by cars and barely get scratched; are we then expected to see how they're different from Terminators? This is yet another movie where the plot revolves around stopping something we already learned was inevitable.

The particulars don't really matter, but they still underachieve. Kyle has to team up with the new Sarah (who won’t be tied down as the future’s reluctant midwife, she’s persistent in reminding us) and time travel again to 2017 (everyone has a time machine this time), the new date that a supercomputer destroys human life as we know it. No longer the product of military tech (a typical Cameron touch), now Skynet is information technology run amok, “the latest killer app,” someone says (a typical grandpa touch), with such a straight face that I almost missed the klutzy wordplay. Pops also makes fun of Reese’s tiny penis (“I’ve seen little to indicate that you are a fit guardian for Sarah Connor”) and at some point, I really have to wonder what Schwarzenegger is getting out of all this. Remember his famous assertion in Pumping Iron that “pumping is like coming?” I wonder what making Terminator movies is like.

When John Connor travels back in time as well, along with the liquid Terminator from T2, I wondered why the lady robot from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines didn’t get invited to the party, or the ones from the doomed TV show, or the comic books, or the video games. I mean, why not? The liquid metal one from T2 shows up and is disguised as an Asian policeman, just because that was his disguise in T2, or, just because that’s what we expect of it. I was sure John was going to sleep with his mom and become his own father. But then, would Kyle Reese technically become his grandfather? These are the real issues, folks.

At this point, where time travel threatens to make silly Easter eggs canonical, Terminator needed a low-key entry to redirect the series onto a character arc we can invest in. The story of John Connor’s rise from reluctant prophet to military commander still has yet to be told, like everyone’s scared it would blow some kind of secret. Or we could have done the blue-collar Terminator film. Terminator Genisys is so steeped in tonal contradictions that its fan-fiction plot can’t even maintain its own gravity, much less that of its series. “And I volunteered for this shit,” says Reese, who should be religiously invested in these current past events. Instead, he's written the part of a wisecracker (after this and A Good Day to Die Hard, I’m not sure if Courtney should be written anything). What’s the audience meant to feel from his reaction? The same snarky resentment of franchise responsibility? I suppose that would be the natural reaction at this point: what responsibility do I have to a franchise that after five installments and a television show, still can't think of more than four characters to have in its entire universe?

Occasionally well-filmed but always over-used visuals do nothing to change the essential fact that none of these characters are worth investing in, a shocking realization about characters we already love. Schwarzenegger reenacting scenes straight from T2 is absolutely its most redeeming quality: he, in general, seems to be the only one in front of or behind the camera still taking pleasure from all this. If thirty-two-year-old beefcake is the best thing about your sandwich, you might want to just start over. Or at the very least, Paramount, please stop making me eat it.

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Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Alan Taylor

Laeta Kalogridis

Patrick Lussier

James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd (characters)

T-800 Model 101 "Pops" Arnold Schwarzenegger
Sarah Connor Emilia Clarke
Kyle Reese Jai Courtney
John Connor Jason Clarke
O'Brien J.K. Simmons
Alex/Skynet Matt Smith
Danny Dyson Dayo Okeniyi

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