The Terminator franchise is one that nearly every film-lover holds close to their hearts. For me, it was one of the first ‘adult’ franchises I saw, getting hold of a VHS of T-2: Judgement Day when I was nine years old, thus launching my unwavering devotion to the work of Arnold Schwarzenegger, which remains unapologetically strong to this day. James Cameron’s first Terminator rightfully stands as one of the most iconic pieces of 1980s American cinema, while T-2 is one of the finest sequels, expanding the universe and upping the ante to present a gung-ho continuation of the Terminator mythos. T-2 had a very definite ending, a sense of hope, a sense of closure. It was not a conclusion that called for more movies. But now, here we are, at Terminator 5. Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation are flicks which certainly have their merits, but they both pale in comparison to Cameron’s movies. They both struggle to state their reason for being. Put simply, this is not a franchise that ever should have gone beyond instalment two. With Genisys, we have an attempt to reset the timeline to provide a future for this once beloved franchise. But unfortunately, what we have here is a reboot that attempts far too much, and treads on the mythology in ways which feel more desperate than all that inventive.
The war between man and machine wages in 2029, with the human resistance led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) poised to launch a final attack on Skynet. Sensing defeat, Skynet launches a secret weapon in order to change the outcome of the war, using their newly developed time-machine to send back a Terminator to 1984 in order to kill John’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke). John decides to send back his right hand man, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to protect his mother, in the knowledge that Reese needs to go back in order for John himself to exist. Yet the time John sends Reese back to is not the one either was expecting. Reese arrives in 1984 to find a Sarah Connor who is ready for him, who has knowledge of the future war, and who has been protected by a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) since she was a little girl. The timeline has changed, and with it another chance to stop Judgement Day from happening at all.
Terminator Genisys arrives in the shadow of reboots which have chosen to re-write their respective timelines in order to provide a clean slate for future adventures, with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and X-Men: Days of Future Past being obvious points of reference for this sequel/reboot/remake whatever the hell this is. Star Trek is the more successful of this approach, laying down its approach simply and moving on very quickly, rather that get bogged down in wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff. That is not the case here. There are far too many characters who are able to travel in time seemingly with ease, reducing any sense of palpable tension, as well as making the whole affair incredibly cluttered and horribly convoluted.
The opening of the film is when Genisys is at its strongest, as we witness Kyle and John take down Skynet, seeing the assault that was merely spoken about in Cameron’s original. The battle scenes are well designed and do well to update Cameron’s depiction of the war-zone of the future. Jason Clarke also provides a strong fixed point as Connor, while Jai Courtney struggles to cut a convincing mould as Reese (although, he does better a job than I was anticipating). The first case of time-travel is also handled well, moving the plot into an area which does provoke intrigue.
Director Alan Taylor recreates entire scenes from The Terminator in pain-staking fashion during the first/second act and it is hard not to admire. When the new timeline starts to enter with the arrival of Arnie’s ‘Pops’ and the new Sarah Connor, as well as a pesky T-1000 (Lee Byung-Hun), we can see the foundation begin to wobble. While the Arnie Vs. Arnie fight is enjoyable, with the CGI young Arnie standing as the best example of such a visual effect we have seen, the threat of the T-1000 feels under-baked and is handled very hurriedly (these bad boys were hard to kill in the 90s). It is when our heroes, Kyle, Sarah and ‘Pops’ somehow manage to time travel in the 80s to 2017 to prevent this new timeline’s Judgement Day that everything really falls apart.
There is a lot of disregard for the mythology of the franchise that has been set down, particularly when it comes to the character of John Connor. For one, Sarah makes very little effort to inform Kyle of his destiny as John’s father, to the point where they leave the 80s without even giving a thought to conceiving John. It is just one of the many moments which make zero logical sense and send the film down a very convoluted and dumb path. The screenwriters seem to think if they keep the film moving at such a pace, the audience won’t question it too much, but that it not the case. When John turns up in 2017, now as a machine hybrid working for Skynet (a reveal that loses all tension due to the ill-advised marketing) your mind will be reeling far too much to care all that much. Quite why John is there in the first place is hard to determine, but his transformation is not treated as the devastating moment it should be, with Clarke being reduced to a cliché villain with very convenient and ill-defined, and easily handled, robotic powers.
There is very little of the mature approach found in Cameron’s movies, and very little flair with the later action scenes, as we are subjected to numerous scenes of tooling-up, fighting, running away, and then solving problems with explosives. There is little imagination to be had here, with seemingly too much attention being applied to thinking of ways in which this franchise can keep going, leading to an under-used Matt Smith and a wholly un-inspired ending. In a summer where Jurassic World set out on the same mission objective, to bring back a fan-favourite franchise in a way which both appeals to fans and gives hope for the future, Genisys struggles to create its own identity, never striking a consistent tone, forever trapped in Cameron’s shadow.
There are things to like here. The first third makes one optimistic, with well realised action and well shot recreations of some of the franchises iconic moments. Schwarzenegger himself is also on good form, providing a performance which feels confident and seasoned, and one which particularly works well with Emilia Clarke’s new Sarah Connor. Clarke struggles to convey much chemistry with Courtney, but the relationship between Pops and Sarah is a well-performed one, and something which the film could have utilised more (hell, I would have preferred a whole film focused on her upbringing with a Terminator).
It looks like Genisys may represent another failed start for Cameron’s cybernetic organism. It is a slight improvement on Salvation (certainly less shouty) but I believe falls short of Rise of the Machines (for all its moments of self-parody, T3 feels the closest in tone to Cameron’s movies, with a beautifully sombre ending to boot) as a worthy follow up to Cameron’s classics. It stands as a further testament that this franchise is one which would have been better served resting in the 90s, but now with all this re-writing, the franchise has now been left in a strange and deformed place. For all my affection for the franchise, and its star, I simply could not surrender myself to the plot of this film. The convoluted mechanisms ruin any sense of momentum and makes it hard to be truly caught up in the proceedings, resulting in a disjointed and muddled reboot that fails to give The Terminator a new lease of life.
2/5- Despite a promising start, Genisys quickly gets lost in its own time warp, resulting in a reboot that fails to power up. Hasta la vista, franchise.