Note: if you know nothing about this movie, this review has lots of spoilers. However, every major twist is given away in the advertising, one of them even on the poster.
There’s a cool, clever idea near the beginning of TERMINATOR GENISYS. We start out in the post-Judgment Day future, where the resistance leader John Connor (now played by Jason Clarke of ZERO DARK THIRTY) is about to destroy Skynet and its army of machines. But Skynet has just sent a T-800 (played by a body double with a digital-young-Arnold-Schwarzenegger head) back to 1984 to kill his mother Sarah Connor (now played by Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones, not to be confused with Lena Headey from Game of Thrones, who played her on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) before she conceives him. So John sends his best soldier (and secret father) Kyle Reese (now played by Jai Courtney from JACK REACHER and who would have been in the fifth DIE HARD if they had made one but there is not one in my opinion) back in time to protect Sarah. You know, the plot of THE TERMINATOR.
And then it goes and re-creates a few scenes we recognize from the first movie: the man in the garbage truck seeing the Terminator arrive naked in a ball of lightning, the homeless man in the alley seeing Kyle, the Terminator approaching three punk rockers (none of them Bill Paxton) and demanding their clothes. Except then, all the sudden, there’s another, older Arnold Schwarzenegger there, attacking the young one, with the help of Sarah. And we learn that this is a different timeline, not the one from THE TERMINATOR that we and Reese expected. This older Arnold is a Terminator who was sent back to when Sarah was 9 to protect her and raise her. So she’s not a clueless waitress who he has to convince, she already knows about the future and her son and how to shoot guns and everything.
But I’m afraid that’s about the end of the cleverness in this depressingly ineffective, completely unnecessary, bullshit rehash. I was prepared to give it plenty of slack – despite the original movies being sacred ground to me I thought the lesser part 3 was enjoyable, and I probly have more nice things to say about TERMINATOR SALVATION than McG’s own mother – but my patience was already strained in the opening scene. Reese spends several minutes of voiceover explaining the premise of the TERMINATOR series over footage that would explain almost everything he says visually if he would just shut the fuck up. Then it goes right into that good part I was talking about, so it jumps from assuming that no one in the audience has seen or heard anything about a TERMINATOR movie, straight to assuming you are very familiar with the first one and will be excited to see visual references to it. So that’s their way of bridging between adult movie fans and the know-nothings that are allowed in because of the PG-13 rating: spend the first act alienating both.
Yeah, the voiceover is a reference to T2, but there Sarah explains the philosophy of the movie. Here Reese is just blowing hot air. At the end his voiceover is just to make sure you know that the happy ending that seems to wrap everything up doesn’t mean there won’t be a sequel.
It’s hard to rank, but probly the dumbest thing about TERMINATOR GENISYS is “Genisys,” which is a rebranding of Skynet. But now instead of a defense system it’s an app or OS or something that everyone is excited about because it will connect your phone, your car, your iPad and etc. all in one… thing, or whatever. You know, technology! This is why it had to be updated! Smart phones and everything! The finger is right on the fucking pulse, people.
Genisys has not been released yet, but it’s got the world more excited than any new video game or iPhone. We know because a guy at the hospital is super excited about it and a kid gets a pre-order of it for his birthday and is thrilled. What he will do with it is less clear than the fucking 3D head blender thing in BATMAN FOREVER. But the world is so ready for whatever it is that everywhere you look there are giant billboard-sized screens showing just a countdown to when it goes online.
Skynet, a strategic missile defense system that becomes self aware, was a logical idea that came out of the world and the fears of the ’80s. Something intended to protect us would inevitably turn against us. I’m sure at some point in the development of this story it was supposed to have something to do with data collection and electronic spying and what not, but maybe somebody else just thought it was about OS upgrades and iPads and apps and… I don’t know. Whatever the fuck Genisys is, it either got rewritten to the point of nonsense or was a first draft idea they forgot to continue with.
Let’s discuss the T-1000. That shit was amazing at the time because nothing had been done like that in movies. Those computer effects were brand new, so no one had had a liquid metal villain before, and we didn’t know how they could stop him. Then they stopped him, and they stopped the one in T3, and we went through 24 years of increasingly elaborate computer effects, and the best they can do now is change it to little nanites instead of liquid? Another morphing Terminator is a chump move. The trick is to come up with something else, totally different, that we haven’t seen before. Tall order, I know, but you’re the ones who wanted to make a sequel to two great James Cameron movies. If you thought it was gonna be a cake walk that’s on you.
The two legit TERMINATORs are about protecting the idea of John Connor, the great leader of the future who destroys the machines. But the sequels have struggled with what to do with him as a character. 3 did the best I guess, though a little bland from what I remember. SALVATION had an intense version in Christian Bale, but blew it by shoe-horning a bunch of scenes of him into a story that didn’t need him. They also abandoned a ballsy, controversial-when-leaked-by-Drew-McWeeny ending that would’ve revealed that the great human leader of prophecy actually died and let his skin be worn by a good Terminator to keep the fight going. GENISYS sort of twists that into a much stupider, much less interesting version (spoiled in the trailers, TV ads and posters) where Skynet turns John into an evil morphing robot. So he’s just a bad guy. A much less scary version of the T-1000 that also takes breaks to be the genesis of Genisys by handing over future technology to Miles Dyson (now Courtney B. Vance) and his son (Dayo Okeniyi). Why do they think he’s giving it to them? Do they know he’s a future incarnation of the kid who stopped his mom from blowing up their family? Or did that even still happen? I have no idea.
And what is John, anyway? If he retained his human consciousness he’d probly just use his powers to fight the machines, right? So he must just be a machine with… some DNA mixed in? I guess it doesn’t matter. He’s an evil robot is the point. Reese says, “Whatever they did to John, we need to reverse it!” but then instead (SPOILER) they just kill their own son like they would any other evil robot. Oh well, they haven’t had him yet anyway. Who cares? Not them.
Maybe one thing that’s missing is the contrast. In T1 we have the innocent, aerobicizing waitress Sarah dragged into war by a soldier from the future. In T2 John is a little dirt-bike riding, ATM-hacking hellion, but it’s his kid qualities – telling the Terminator not to kill, teaching him dorky slang, having his feelings hurt by his mother – that contrast with the cold, tough, convincingly crazy, willing-to-murder-a-family Sarah. And the T-800 carries these qualities in one body, being an amoral killing machine learning to be a sweetheart. GENISYS gets its best moments by doing this with Pops, a robot she regards as a father, and who protects her like one (including from potential boyfriends). But this is his third time as a good guy, and he’s more of a side-lined character, and it’s a PG-13 movie, so they fail to sell the potential danger of the killing machine side.
There are too many laughable scenes in this one. Like when future Reese talks dreamily about a life that’s not about killing, which I simply do not believe is how a guy who blows up robots would describe his activities. I also could not maintain polite silence for the scene where Reese tells a young version of himself something he needs to know towards the beginning. They met this kid in a police station, when they were suspects, now they show up in his backyard, and he says “What are you doing here?” Yeah, exactly. It’s fuckin weird, strange adults. It took me a minute to remember why he even had to talk to himself, and I was not convinced it was important enough to even show in the movie, let alone have as the ending. It’s housecleaning, wasting time tying a loose end that I doubt anybody gives a shit about.
And there’s a sudden influx of jokes, mostly bad, in the second half. J.K. Simmons gets a few okay laughs in a small part as a cop who witnesses enough to believe them about the future.
I’m sure people will say that this is better than the last one. I’m not buying it. SALVATION is hugely flawed, and especially falls apart at the end. But it tries new things with the series, and it is cinematic. The cinematography and the action scenes are spectacular. There are some cool new robots introduced. The young Kyle Reese played by Anton Yelchin is a better young version of anybody than in this movie.
They also repeated one of the biggest mistakes of SALVATION. Of all the new additions they could’ve borrowed – the awesome riderless motorcycles, the spooky half-rotten early-model Terminator that stalks Reese in the abandoned city – they go for the obviously stupid idea of giving Skynet a face and a voice. To be fair they probly didn’t see SALVATION, but if they had they would have a good illustration of how that adds nothing to the story but takes away the scary, faceless threat of cold machinery that you can’t look in the eye or have a debate with. This time Skynet takes human form in a little boy hologram who grows into some guy from a show that nerds like. It also gets a spokesperson in the form of John, explaining its motives all the time. Demystification double whammy!
They do borrow one good idea from SALVATION: the digital ’84 Schwarzenegger, one of the best gimmicks in either movie, and better executed than the similar gimmick in TRON LEGACY. I saw him in closeup, in 3D Imax, and I was convinced. It’s funny, the best looking parts in this $155 million movie are when they mimic scenes from the $6.4 million original. And I guess some of the hunter killers of the future look kinda cool flying around in 3D.
There’s alot of action, none of it offensively terrible, but none of it very thrilling either, which is a sin when you’re following up T2. The old Arnold vs. young Arnold fight is an exciting idea, fairly boring execution. The motorcycle and school bus chase has some moments, though none worked as well as the sequels they borrowed them from, THE MATRIX RELOADED and THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK.
Maybe none of this would be a dealbreaker if the actors made us love the new versions of the characters as movie icons in their own right, but I’m afraid not. I kinda like Courtney, I’m a sucker for meathead movie stars I guess, but I’m not gonna claim he’s great, or reminiscent of Biehn in any noticeable way. Clarke has a much harder job, and she handles it better than I expected from the trailers. I guess I can see how she has something like a circa-T1 everygirl Linda Hamilton vibe. But since she’s supposed to have been trained for survival from the age of 9 – basically a younger version of the badass T2 Sarah Connor – it’s a total airball. Nothing against the lady, but they sent her to a war she’s not prepared to fight. She’s a birthday candle trying to outshine a spotlight.
Even the casting that’s dead on, like Byung-Hun Lee (I SAW THE DEVIL) as a T-1000, manages to be not all that satisfying. Yeah, he looks intense and his arms turn into blades, but without building up to it like Robert Patrick got to, following John all over town, pretending to be a legitimate police officer, revealing his abilities a piece at a time, it’s not as powerful.
Since I love old period Arnold it’s not surprising that he makes out the best, playing a Terminator with Jon Stewart hair and the occasional shakes. But with weaker characters to interact with and weaker dialogue he can’t help but pale in comparison to his previous T-performances.
So, the Terminator has lost his bite, the T-1000 isn’t scary, Skynet has been thrown in the trash, time travel has become easy, the violence has been general audienced, the main characters have been blandified, the story has become over-over-overcomplicated, and nobody has really made a convincing argument for continuing the story after part 2 anyway. But I think the thing that is most missing from T2 is a general feel of badassness. Not just in Hamilton’s buffer, tougher, meaner Sarah, but in the whole vibe of the movie. T2 may have helped birth the modern age of digital effects, but it’s mostly an analog movie. It’s a real dirtbike hauling ass with what looks like a kid driving it, getting chased by a real truck. It’s a real helicopter. You feel like you’re out in the heat with them, getting sweaty, getting dirty, getting knocked around and scraped up. I’m far from an anti-digital zealot, but it must be said that all this animation in this movie takes away even more of the punch. It’s too clean, too weightless, too much. It’s a problemo.
Director Alan Taylor did the movie PALOOKAVILLE in 1995, but most of his career has been TV shows including Homicide, Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones before getting hired for THOR: THE DARK WORLD. Of course I can only guess what kind of a stamp he put on these, but I worry about a trend of “franchise filmmaking” with producers or studios not wanting visionaries, but TV directors who will implement a pre-planned vision. So you end up with a guy that can’t fix the script by Laeta Kalogridis (PATHFINDER) & Patrick Lussier (DRACULA 2000 trilogy, Wes Craven’s editor), or even make it look really slick. It makes me appreciate all the commercial directors who graduate to features.
The more I think about this movie the less sense it makes and the more it kinda pisses me off. But congratulations to the TERMINATOR sequelizers for completing a trilogy of failed beginnings of new trilogies. They might keep trying to ruin these movies, but they will never succeed. They can rejigger the past as much as they want, they can travel back to the very genesis of THE TERMINATOR and then purposely spell it wrong. But they can never kill THE TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. I still have them. I should go watch T2 now.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.