A little anticipated sequel to a 90’s special effects classic that hopes to revive a franchise after two lackluster sequels by returning to the setting of the original film— but enough about Jurassic World, right?
This is a review of Terminator Genysis, the second film this summer that is a blast from the past. Or future, in the case of this franchise. Of the four prior films in the series, the ones without James Cameron’s name attached are completely unmemorable. Both Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation were underwhelming at best, and even Salvation’s change of setting to the future did not help. Genisys is not the multifaceted success that Jurassic World is, but nor do its lows reach the depths of quality found in the previous two films. It's a very low bar to clear, and it's not always a clear cut above, either.
Genisys opens in the dark future of post-Judgement Day (when evil artificial intelligence Skynet comes online and nukes the world) as Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) and human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) prepare for the final offensive against the machines. As the battle ends, the objective becomes clear: to stop Skynet from using a time machine to eliminate Connor before he was born. This sequence could very well be a prologue to the original film, as it ends with Kyle sent back in time to May 12, 1984 (the setting of that film) to protect John Connor’s mom.
However, when he arrives in the past, he does not find Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) matching her son's description of a scared girl in need of protecting. Rather, he finds a well-trained warrior woman raised by a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), she calls “Pops.” They have been waiting for Kyle to arrive, but so has a T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun), a liquid metal Terminator as seen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, sent to assassinate both Sarah and Kyle before they can co-mingle their DNA. The trio heads to 2017 to attempt to stop the launch of Genisys, a new cloud-based computer operating system which is actually Skynet. While there, they discover John Connor has also been sent back in time after being converted into a new kind of Terminator to protect the nascent artificial intelligence.
Sadly, that last bit was revealed in the film's second trailer back in April. It’s one of the few times I actually feel that I was completely spoiled on the plot of a film from the marketing. While I held out hope that the film had more to offer beyond that, or maybe an even crazier twist (one point in Rise of the Machine's favor, it actually ends with the bad guy winning) the reveal of John Connor converted into the big bad comes too late in the film to even have much impact on the story. The film treats it as the one idea that's original, and then doesn't really do much with it. That's one of the downsides of the multiple universe "we make our own fate" approach of the series: the characters quickly decide that they can't give up just because this John Connor became an evil robot. And if the characters decide they can simply execute the time traveling savior of humanity, who am I to argue? But really, there would be little to complain about if the film itself were interested in engaging in anything beyond low grade Doctor Who time travel mechanics. Sadly, the film lacks momentum on all fronts, and makes some strange tonal choices as well.
Despite the film’s repeated assurances that everything has changed in the 1984 of this film, many of the story beats and moments feel more like rehashes of previous entries rather than a fresh take on an old idea. Again, coming back to Jurassic World, the premise is simple: What if they opened the park, and then something went wrong? Genisys offers no such one sentence summary. Rather, it feels like cobbled together pieces of scraps left on the cutting room floor from previous films in the franchise, using Schwarzenegger as an exposition-robot to explain away things the film has no interest in exploring. Also of note, there is a segment that uses the Cops theme song “Bad Boys” while characters are having their mugshots taken. Even more bizarre are a plethora of scenes with Kyle Reese acting as the courting boyfriend to the T-800’s stoic father figure, played for Meet the Parents-esque laughs rather than exploring what it means as this franchise continues to blur the line between man and machine.
Besides a few cool small scale action sequences, there is one major redeeming quality of the film: Emilia Clarke. Game of Thrones fans, used to seeing Clarke inhabit that narrow emotional range of Daenerys Targaryen, will be pleased with her performance here, deftly showing a wide range of emotions as Sarah Connor, a tough young woman with a seemingly certain fate. In Genysis, Clarke handles the action and the quieter moments with equal poise, doubly amazing that she is acting against Schwarzenegger-as-robot and Jai Courtney, who posses the charisma akin to a pile of wet wood. She singlehandedly makes Genysis watchable.
Ultimately the film’s limited ambition regarding both story and science fiction ideas is the biggest thing holding it back. Rather than taking advantage of the fact that no one wants to see a follow up to the last two films, free to go in any direction, it feels like a retread of the first two films in the series. Additionally, the little it does to attempt to advance the mythology comes across as uninspired as the TX from Rise of the Machine (if you don’t remember, it was the female Terminator who licked things).
Arnold’s catchphrase in Genisys is “old…not obsolete,” I would agree. The good films in the Terminator franchise are old, but not obsolete.
Terminator Genisys opens in Philly area theaters today.