I’ve been a Terminator fan since the first one, but the franchise ran on too long. I haven’t even got round to watching Terminator Salvation yet, but I was highly interested in this one, because it isn’t just another Terminator movie. I’ve been told that it’s an amalgam of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day with a few twists, but I don’t know because I haven’t seen it. It’s about time, no pun intended, to take a look myself.
It certainly begins very much as I know from those original films, strangely even down to the end of the world being 1997, though we see a little more of it than we might expect. Skynet comes alive, launches missiles worldwide and wipes out three billion people. Survivors call it Judgement Day. Our narrator, who was born after that point, in a world already ruled by the machines, is clearly Kyle Reese. In 2029, before John Connor destroys Skynet and wins the war, the machines send a terminator back to 1984, tasked to kill John’s mother Sarah and so erase him from existence. Reese volunteers to go after it and save her.
We all know this story, right? Well, not quite, because things change pretty quickly.
When the terminator, in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger (though really a body double by the name of Brett Azar), famously asks for clothes, he finds himself fighting another terminator who’s really played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is wildly new. What else is new is that when Reese arrives in 1984 and gets arrested, it’s Sarah Connor who shows up and shouts, ‘Come with me if you want to live.’
Everything has changed. Everything is new, however familiar it seems. The scenes that follow are mirrors of scenes from the first and second movies, but they’re in a different context and are sometimes merged together. Now we’re in a world where the Arnie terminator which protected John Connor in T2 grew up protecting Sarah Connor from the age of nine. She calls him Pops and he’s still around, doing his job. Her entire story has been replaced (‘I don’t need saving,’ she says), so Reese’s entire mission has changed. A new liquid metal T-1000 is hot on their trail, but the real story kicks in after they destroy it.
Just before Reese travelled back in time, he sees a terminator who shouldn’t exist attacking John Connor. At that moment, he begins to remember a different life, one in which he grew up with a family in a world without terminators, at least until something called Genisys became Skynet and sparked Judgement Day in 2017. So, now when Sarah Connor wants to travel forward in time to 1997 to destroy Skynet, he talks her into going forward to 2017 instead to destroy Genisys, which turns out to be a completely integrated system designed by Cyberdyne Systems. It’s sort of like the internet of things, making this reboot of an old franchise neatly ahead of its time again.
This is an interesting new setup and it feels good. It gives Schwarzenegger an interesting opportunity in a role that really hadn’t given him many opportunities in three previous movies. The terminator he plays here appears at three completely different times looking three different ages because, thanks to a neat suggestion by James Cameron, the skin that he wears is human and ages just like we do. After taking the long way round to 2017 he looks just like Arnie today, because that’s cheaper than CGI. It’s good to see an old terminator. A recurrent theme here is that he’s ‘old not obsolete’.
I can’t go any further into the story because that would venture into serious spoilers and there are more than just a few twists here. I’m sure that there are a whole bunch of sites out there that break down the entire thing into its constituent parts; I don’t need to be another one.
What I can say is that the actors are surprisingly good in iconic roles that aren’t easily filled. Of course, Arnie is Arnie, so he can clearly play a terminator in his sleep. In the first picture, his iconic stature was partly due to his lack of depth as an actor. He’s come a long way since then and films like Maggie have shown that he’s gained some surprising props on that front and he gets to use a little of that newfound skill here. Perhaps because her role in the various stories is so fundamental, Sarah Connor has become as iconic a character to we viewers as the terminator himself. Linda Hamilton isn’t easy to replace, but in an oddly synchronistic casting choice, given that her Game of Thrones co-star, Lena Headey, played the role in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on television, Emilia Clarke stamps her own authority onto it here, however small she is (and she looks smaller next to Schwarzenegger than she does next to a trio of dragons).
I’m less sold on Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese and Jason Clarke as John Connor, though both are surprisingly good and both eventually engage me enough to put my investment in their characters from earlier films aside. Courtney felt wrong for a while because he’s so abrasive, but that’s actually pretty appropriate for a boy who grew up a soldier in a world run by machines. Clarke somehow didn’t fit my idea of what John Connor should look like, but surely that’s just a personal thing. I can’t complain about what he does.
What I can complain about is the unresolved web of time travel paradoxes. While many critics lambasted the complex reworking of the time travel aspects of the first two movies into one new one, I found that I had no problems with that. I liked the additional complexity, especially as it heightened the plot twists. However, once it’s done, there are unresolved questions for which I was waiting for answers that never came and that was an annoying way to leave the movie. For instance, someone sends Arnie’s old T-800 back in time from somewhere to protect the nine year old Sarah Connor, but even he doesn’t know who because the files were erased. That prompts who, when and how, among other questions.
If there are answers, they aren’t in this movie. Perhaps we’ll find out in the projected television series and/or the further two feature films in a new projected trilogy, but Hollywood accounting sees a $440m gross on a $155m budget as not breaking even, so they’re all on hold for the moment. If they don’t end up being made, I hope that the storylines are released to provide closure. I want to see what happens in the Sarah Connor/Kyle Reese relationship now that we’re outside the original timeline. I want more Det O’Brien, who is a fascinating character in a unique position in the story. ‘Goddamn time travelling robots covering up their goddamn tracks,’ he says at one point, which is easily my favourite line of the movie. Surely we would expect to see more of Matt Smith, notching up another major sci-fi franchise after his run as the Doctor.
Critics seem to have given more negative reviews to Terminator Genisys than positive ones and I don’t see why. There are certainly flaws here and it’s not the classic that the first two movies were. However, it’s a much more thoughtful but still action-packed ride than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which opposes this in theory. If this is the story that happens after the bad guys win in the first two films, it’s also the story that happens when the third one is ignored entirely. I can buy into that. Now I guess that the fourth film, itself the first in a projected trilogy that never was, ought to move up my queue. Maybe that’s also better than the critics suggested. ~~ Hal C F Astell