The critics have not been kind to Terminator Genisys, and for the most part, I can’t take issue with them. Which is a shame, as this fifth instalment of what has become a terminally erratic franchise shows commendable willingness to tackle the conundrums of time travel head-on. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t follow through very well. It suggests what is (unchecked by insufficient box office to complete this prospective trilogy) an unwieldy and aesthetically incoherent infinite regression of Sarah Connor/Skynet timelines. This is the sort of thing that, with due care and a modicum of gravitas, might have been stunning: a plunge into the quantum labyrinth of possibilities inherent in each moment of existence, a blockbuster entry to take a worthy place next to Back to the Future Part II on the podium.
Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis have bashed out a screenplay that recognises many of the logistic and logical bugbears of Terminator lore, but they’re unable to mine a sufficiently sophisticated and cogent plot from their efforts. So the question, “Why doesn’t Skynet just send a Terminator back to kill Sarah Connor’s parents?” is sort of addressed by sending one to kill her back in 1973. Likewise, one I raised in my Terminator Salvation revisit, “Why doesn’t Skynet just travel back to a point where it can beef up its resources and so be invincible by the point John Connor has any say in the matter?” is partly interrogated when it sends nano-John Connor back to 2014 in order to spruce up Cyberdyne tech.
These are good moves, if one really must continue this series. Complaining about the lip service given to why the altered timelines don’t change nano-John/Sarah/Kyle/Arnie is rather redundant after four sequels that have flagrantly disregarded this inherent glitch in such narratives. Lussier and Kalogridis give nano-John a few lines to show they are at least aware of the problem, when he comments they may be special cases, set apart. They also give Arnie some intentionally obtuse speculation regarding the quantum entanglements that may have given Kyle memories of his Genisys timeline self. But acknowledging plot black holes doesn’t smooth them over.
And there are additional, curiously schizophrenic impulses at work here, suggesting the tools of their take on time travel are continually escaping them. They make a point of picking up the first movie’s predestination paradox backbone when they have Sarah and then Kyle complete the causal loop with young Genisys Kyle. This is essentially the “It has to happen because it has always happened” that informs the conception of John Connor in the original movie. It’s also something we have recently seen Inception. The problem with this is, it’s much less grating to know as a fleeting mention that John Connor spent forty years prepping to send his father back in time than it is to actually see it unforgivingly harsh floodlights. So it is with young Kyle (and so it is with the ultimate silliness in this regard that is Time Crimes, where the protagonist has to repeat every beat of the things that have been done to him in order to fulfil the loop).
This is the kind of pseudo-cleverness with time travel that isn’t really at all; look no further than Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who for numerous ker-razee! time travel plotting where it breaks down on a causal level. Bill and Ted went here first, to frequently hilarious effect, but embracing the absurdity they embrace in narratives that (at least purport to) take such mechanics seriously is playing with fire and audience patience.
Curiously, given the slavish (well, not that slavish; check out the half-arsed performances of the trio of punks who accost Arnie) re-enactment of scenes from the original, this Terminator isn’t even picking up from the timeline of that picture. It was probably inevitable that the series would go to the well of showing just what happened when John sent Kyle back (like the Norwegian camp in The Thing, it’s best left to the imagination), but even before John gets nano-fied things are different; Kyle still possesses an undamaged photo of Sarah Connor.
Dropping the 2003 rejigging of Judgement Day from Rise of the Machines is perhaps understandable if one wants to get back to basics (hardly what Genisys does, but still); it’s interesting that it then proceeds to throw both T2 and T1 under a bus. One wonders how many pleading calls it took from Arnie to get James Cameron to endorse this as the “worthy” third instalment to follow his two pictures.
Rather than the time travel, what grates the most are the well-worn and always badly used crutches. First, following on from Rise of the Machines’ “Skynet invades the Internet” now we have “Skynet invades your iPhone/Pad” via the ultimate killer app. Both choices in both movies fundamentally weaken the impact and intended enormity of the drama. Something as commonplace as an app doesn’t instil fear as presented here, it just induces a shrug of “Oh, they went there”.
Likewise, while I don’t have a problem with series cypher John Connor being turned to the dark side, making him a nano-man is the height of lazy brainstorming. It didn’t work for Johnny Depp in Transcendence and it doesn’t work here (although the magnetised means of disempowering him at least makes a change from the de rigueur fiery furnace finales of the series to date).
The problems with Genisys are more fundamentally ones of aesthetics and casting than they are of plot, however. Alan Taylor’s a competent director, but his true home may be cinematic TV rather than passable cinema. Genisys is much more dynamic than Rise of the Machines, and it moves at a fairly breathless pace (when it does stop, though, you really feel the dead air), but visually it pales in comparison to Salvation. I’m not going to big up McG, but that picture, the odd scene excepted, offers tangibility in its future world.
Genisys offers a succession of obvious CGI-sourced sequences and crazily acrobatic visuals. Byung-hun Lee’s T-1000 manages to be less visually impressive than Robert Patrick’s then cutting-edge edition, yet one has fourteen years of rendering advances on its side. Go figure. Nano-John is exactly what you’d expect from Hollywood’s banal take on nanotechnology (Lucy, Transcendence).
But such failings (and I’m hard-pressed to think of any really impressive effects in the picture aside from 1984 virtual-Arnie) would be forgivable if the story and characters carried weight, if the stakes counted for something. The nano-gubbins and the Genisys app would be more than forgivable if you cared about the characters.
Arnie is rock solid. He’s way more engaging and entertaining than he was in Rise of the Machines, and even underplays the funny-wisecracking Terminator in a more effective way than in Terminator 2. The writers have gone for a subtext of “Pops” growing to love his surrogate daughter (he has photos stuck to the wall during the 30-year Doc Brown-esque absence from her life), and introduce a heap of ill-advised paternal disapproval towards suitor Kyle, but Arnie makes most of it work. Even when the lines falter (and most of them do) he pushes forward by dint of sheer charisma (I did quite liked his encouragements of Sarah to “mate now”, and meaningful glance at Kyle’s “tiny” part).
JK Simmons is great too as O’Brien, a cop saved in 1984 who becomes a terminator buff and helps the gang out. By the time he shows up, it’s a breath of fresh air to have someone who can so easily inhabit this insubstantial world and lend it a burst of energy and sense of unforced fun.
Elsewhere, the picture is far less fortunate. Emilia Clarke is passable as Sarah Connor, although you never believe she’s a bad ass. The writers make the mistake of giving her a bickering relationship with Kyle over his chauvinist protective sensibilities/the expectation that they are destined to be lovers. Trying to do a screwball comedy thing where the gags fall flat was the last thing the series needed.
Jason Clarke is okay too, as the one-note villain. He’s basically Skynet with a flavour of John Connor, which saves the writers from putting effort into designing a fully-fledged character (the buddy conversations between John and Kyle in the opening sequence are painfully laboured, and learning they tried making moonshine together lends the future nightmare a lovely nostalgic hue). This plundering of the original ending of Terminator Salvation doesn’t have any real impact because we have no reason to care for John Connor; we don’t know him, and he’s only nominally sympathetic. We’ve been told he’s the saviour of humanity so many times he really needs to do something to impressive, so our reaction is much the same as Sarah’s when she refuses to believe he’s really John (but with an added shrug).
Matthew, I mean Matt, Smith is a dead loss as Skynet/Genisys itself. Skynet wasn’t much cop when it was Helena Bonham Carter, so there’s no change there. The junior version might have been vying for the demon child vibe, but is too insubstantial to matter.
The biggest problem, however, is the casting of Jai Courtney. He looks entirely wrong for a malnourished future soldier for a start (the glimpses we get of 2029 are a much more vacuum cleaner-friendly than Cameron’s mecha-nightmare or even McG’s muddied wasteland). Most damaging, though, is the way Courtney plays him as a very modern-day smart-mouthed meathead who wants a bit of Sarah action. The romance in Cameron’s picture wasn’t the subtlest of sledgehammers, but at least it was sincere. This is so glib, it’s just insulting. And it means we don’t care about them. We don’t care if Kyle and Sarah get together, we don’t care if the future is saved (not that the “John Connor is vital” version appears to matter by the end). I didn’t mind Courtney in a few things I’ve seen (Jack Reacher, Divergent) but he’s a bust in this, and he pulls down any investment in the picture with him. There’s one point where Arnie starts throttling Kyle, and you’re disappointed when he stops.
Courtney’s deleterious presence underlines what has now become a time travel game for this series. If you can bounce back and forth across the decades this way, rewriting (and recasting) hither and thither, there’s little drama to bite down on. Now both Kyle Reese and Arnie can survive to fight another day. It would have been better to ditch the Sarah Connor angle entirely. Send a terminator back to Ancient Rome and bring on Skynet two millennia early. Really go nuts with the concept if, and only if, you have really bashed out the fundamental mechanics of the way time travel’s rules operate in this universe.
It’s only really Arnie who entitles this to call itself a Terminator movie. When Lorne Balfe’s lacklustre score kicks in with the familiar Terminator theme bars, there’s no sense of iconic glory being rekindled. Far more than in the last couple of iterations, those essaying established characters feel like they’re playing dress-up in a badly conceived homage or very expensive fan film or, at worst, parody.
Some would say this is the final nail in the series’ coffin. Financially, it may be (all will depend on international rather than US receipts). This is far more beholden to trilogy plans than Salvation was, with the mystery of who sent Arnie back to 1973 and the mid-credits sequence, so it will look the more foolish if those sequels don’t materialise. That said, Terminator Genisys’ overall mediocrity leaves it pretty much on a par with its two predecessors. It’s a more engaging movie than the lumpen Rise of the Machines, and lacks the self-importance of Salvation, but burdened by fundamental miscasting and uneven production values this has become a facsimile of Terminator rather than the real thing.