Franchises are a funny thing. The Terminator franchise is at face value a lucrative pile of money with a quality film and science fiction credibility, and yet there has been neither a critically nor financially successful entrant in the franchise in nearly a quarter century (other than Sarah Connor Chronicles’ anemically rated 31 episodes. Other critics are savaging Terminator: Genisys, but I enjoyed the hell out of it, and the legendarily cranky James Cameron even said that he considers it a fitting third to his first two films.
First, to get the obvious question/joke out of the way: Terminator: Genisys is actually not a meaningless nonsensical title like it seems at first glance. Well, it is, but that’s sort of the point of it in the story too, so don’t sweat that part of it.
The movie as you’ve all seen from the trailers is premised on Kyle going back in time just as in the first movie, and finding that the timeline has completely changed, and that Sarah is already a badass who saves him and doesn’t particularly need him. This leads to a fantastic early set of scenes literally cut and pasted from the original Terminator. I went back and watched the first half hour of the original film when I got back from the new one, and the fidelity is amazing. Sure, there’s probably a solid ten minutes that is literally the same footage, but even when they went to original footage, the loyalty to original detail was incredible. All the way down to the scars on Kyle’s back, and every gesture he makes as he stands, every bit of body language. The store he breaks into is exactly the same, and his actions therein are a brilliant synthesis of shot-for-shot remaking, and adapting as the situation is slightly different.
This is not as a good a movie as the original or Judgment Day, I’ll be the first to admit that. It lacks a lot of the gravitas, of the urgency. But it’s in the same ballpark, a lesser entry, but one that at least swings big instead of treading water. It advances the story of this universe, rather than just doing the same thing all over again. Terminator 3 was uninspiring precisely because it was just a retread going through the motions of the previous two. New fancy machine sent back, Arnold defends them, no fate but that which we make, yada yada. (For all that, I liked the principle of John being off the grid and lost without the war he was raised to fight, and do think it redeemed itself in the last ten minutes, with the descent into the bunker and answering the radio). But then I also thought Salvation wasn’t all that bad either.
Emilia Clarke does a sound Sarah Connor, walking a line between perfectly tough and capable, and someone half-broken by a lifetime of being completely alone. Her interactions with the old T-800 are particularly poignant, knowing he’s a machine, but being attached anyway to the only father figure she’s had. Sure, Clarke’s no Linda Hamilton, but really, who the hell is? And Jai Courtney is serviceable, although I wish they’d not caved to casting the six foot dude with the six pack who looks more machine now than man. Part of what made Reese what he was in the original was that scrawny tunnel rat of a physique, starved and lean and completely overmatched. The film does have a surprising amount of humor, mostly anchored by Schwarzenegger’s comic timing, which isn’t a compliment you normally expect yourself to level.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. The action has the same markings of CGI, consequence-free video game style violence that plagues Hollywood these days. Buses flip, people are tossed by machines so strong they can lift cars, and there is no effect, no weight, no impact. The heroes hop back up, never so much as bruised. This isn’t just a stylistic complaint, or some longing for movies that I remember through the tint of nostalgia.
The original Terminator (which sheltered as I was, I didn’t even see until around 2000, so much for eighties first-run nostalgia) was terrifying. It was as much horror film as it was sci-fi action. Cameron managed to tease out of that automaton an inevitability of annihilation that is simply absent in Genisys. There was the sense, the palpable horror, that if that thing closed within arm’s reach of you, you were dead. Period. The scene at the end of the first, with Sarah desperately clawing her way along the ground while its torso still dragged itself behind her is as taut and terror-stricken as anything in Alien. Both of those first two Terminator films are masterpieces of tension and fear.
It reminds me in a sense of the distinction between Jurassic World and Jurassic Park. The terror of the latter is never there in the constant Ritalin-jitter of consequence-free action of the former. The same is true when comparing Genisys to the first two Terminator films. It has none of the desperate horror and tension.
But the difference between Genisys and Jurassic World, and the reason I thought this was a perfectly good science fiction film, is the simple fact that it features ideas running everywhere under the hood. For all the set piece meh action, there was also a surprising depth to it, raising questions of machines learning to be more than machines, and of what it is that makes us human. The implications of an eternal cycle, of Skynet and John Connor always fighting each other in every one of an infinite array of timelines. Skynet pleading, “all you know how to do is destroy”. There is story here worth the watching and thinking about.
I’ll not spoil the film, but if you do watch it, and if you are bored with the CGI action, look for those details, look for the philosophy underneath, and the story threads that are pulled apart and left hanging for future films. That’s where the quality is, the thoughts between the action.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.