TR Review: Terminator Genisys Is Like the Marvel Comic Spin-off Version of Terminator
Having viewed Terminator: Genisys twice now – a rare luxury for critics – I can state from a position of some authority that it works a lot better once all “spoilers” are out of the way. The “shocking” revelations – the biggest of which has been given away in the trailers and recent posters – feel as cheap as they are, yet once that’s all out of the way, there’s time to appreciate the action for what it is, and even notice the little touches that help make some of the more ridiculous moments somewhat logical in context.
Oh, it’s not remotely on a par with the original trilogy (yes, trilogy; part 3 still rules) – it simply doesn’t have the thematic heft, and despite what it thinks, it isn’t really “about” anything more than a JJ Abrams Trek-style reboot excuse to cast younger actors with the inclusion/endorsement of the most important veteran. It plays like a Marvel comics-style continuation of the story if such had existed in the ’80s or ’90s, one that bends over backwards to keep the narrative going just so you can get a few more cool splash pages. Once you accept that, it’s just a fun action movie, optimized for 3D with particular loving depth given to the cavities blown through killer robots. It’s T2: Battle Across Time, but longer.
Rian Johnson said that he used Terminator rules for the time travel in Looper, and here, Terminator returns the favor. If you imagine that there is one primary timeline that began in 1984, and it has finally caught up to the future, then you can also accept that it’s the one which can change, and change it does – just as future savior John Connor (Jason Clarke) knows what’s going to happen thanks to being prepped by his mother with details of the future, so too now does Skynet, and this time it throws a swerve just as Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time to both become father to John Connor and protect Sarah (Emilia Clarke) from the original model Terminator. While in the time stream, Reese develops new memories of a life he never had before, and when he gets back to 1984, everything is different than it ought to be. An older Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator has dispatched the younger model, and is in the process of protecting Sarah from a new T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee)
In another new wrinkle, albeit one borrowed from the non-canonical Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show, time travel forward is now possible also, which brings up the perennial question of why everyone always seems to travel to the last possible moment to stop something. Why not kill John Connor’s great-great-grandmother, rather than Sarah? Why wait to stop Skynet until it’s about to go online? The answer is hinted at both in something John says, and the way these sequels now seem to work – there are fixed events in the timestream that history will eventually course-correct back to, and if you try to do anything significant before the very last second, you allow for the possibility that yet another Terminator could show up in the interim and mess it all up again.
It’s a gamble to put the tech speak that explains all the mechanics into the mouth of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the movie wisely plays this aspect tongue-in-cheek, as the Terminator manages to impressively wrap his tongue around words like “logarithm” and “nexus.” The recurring gag from the longer cut of T2 that involves him trying to smile is also brought back – while cheap and obvious, the fact that it also comes off as Schwarzenegger the actor trying to be expressive keeps it amusing. J. K. Simmons adds humor as a conspiracy nut who knows the real deal – his delivery of the line “Goddamn time-travelin’ robots coverin’ up their goddamn tracks!” is perfect.
The larger satirical theme, however, is less successful. Get this – people use mobile phones and other devices a lot! And they willingly compromise their privacy to do so! Did you know this? Skynet’s path to global domination in a rejiggered 2017 is thus easier than ever, but it makes you wonder why it would even need nuclear weapons at this point. Nuclear war is almost an afterthought here, and it shouldn’t be – the reason the first three films work so well is that they reflect the specific global fear of the time: Reagan-era Cold War in 1, post-Berlin Wall sense of stepping back from the brink in 2, and renewed sense of random terror in 3. The closest Genisys gets to any global commentary is the idea of allies being sleeper agents, but it doesn’t explore that theme in any meaningful way.
We should probably also note that the time-travel rules ultimately get very close to Bill and Ted territory, as nearly everything that happens relies on information the characters have not yet received, but will after the fact – “Dude, totally remember to tell yourself how to do this in the future!” It’s a bit of a cheat, but then again the entire movie is, in a way. And the less said about the scene in which an endoskeleton is shown driving a truck, the better.
Genisys is by far a better movie than Terminator Salvation (though Salvation is actually 2/3 of a decent movie ruined by a terrible ending), with Jason Clarke a superior John Connor who even looks like he could have been Nick Stahl at some point. But Salvation got one thing right – it at least tried to move beyond the ever-more-insular realm of the “kill Sarah Connor” plot. Emilia Clarke (no relation to Jason) is a fantastic choice for young Sarah – if she’s not wearing Linda Hamilton-esque makeup a la Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper, then she just naturally has a certain resemblance that works (sorry, Game of Thrones fans – if you were hoping to see her naked again, remember this is a PG-13 flick, with conspicuous shadows and foreground items blocking key parts of the nude time travels). But if this series is to continue, and it will, we’ve got to find something more interesting for the characters to do.
Oh, and Matt Smith, now billed as “Matthew”? Small but crucial role. I shouldn’t say anything more about that, except that there’s a mid-credits scene you should stay for.