Like this year’s Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys suffers an existential crisis. It is slickly made and packs a lot of explosive visuals, but ultimately fails to justify its reason for being. This is the fifth Terminator movie (Jurassic World was its franchise’s fourth) and all the inspiration that made the first two such gems in the science-fiction ethos has disintegrated into a melting pot of banality and CGI bedlam.
The first two Terminators had something to say. The second, Judgement Day (1991), reflected more strongly the sci-fi paradoxes and ideas that were born in the ’40s and ’50s. It used time jumps as a foundation for its story, then hurtled relentlessly forward with dynamic action sequences and computer effects that stamped the advent of CGI with a new kind of wonderment. It even transformed John and Sarah Connor, and Arnold’s Terminator, into a kind of makeshift family unit. It had a villain that was menacing. It created sympathy for young John, the future resistance leader who bore the weight of the world on shoulders that were not broad enough yet.
This new Terminator movie seems to exist as a gimmick, a chance for Arnie to return as the implacable cyborg. He’s much older now, of course, which makes you wonder how the Terminator he plays doesn’t look like the lean, smooth, clean-cut macho man that dominated the ’80s and ’90s. The movie has an answer; it’s logical, but it’s more of a copout than an explanation, and by the end of the whole thing I still didn’t buy it (how, for example, can skin age without muscle tissue, blood, or water?).
This, I think, is part of Terminator Genisys’ downfall as an intelligent sci-fi movie — it spends way too much time trying to explain itself (mostly inaccurately) that we as the audience spend most of our time trying to explain its explanations. The plot is as convoluted as any you can think of, and it at once reminded me of Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future II (1989), a charming movie that dove back and forth between the past, present, and future so viciously it had me in a whirlwind. But it was good. It explained itself well and held me firmly in its grip. I was confused at times, yes, but never bored.
Genisys is like that eight-year old kid who wants more than anything to tell you how his science project works, but can’t because he can’t find the right words. It tries to tell us that the John Connor (Jason Clarke) of the future has to send one of his own back to 1984 to stop a Terminator from killing his teenage mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke). It tries to tell us that he sends his lieutenant, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), but that when Reese arrives he is confronted by a killer Terminator that looks like the Korean incarnation of the T-1000 of Judgement Day (Lee Byung-Hun). It tries to tell us that the T-800 Skynet sends from the future is not the first T-800 to arrive, and that an earlier one (the old Arnie) has already been in the past (present) for eleven years. It tries to tell us that because Old Arnie has been guarding Sarah since she was nine, she’s no longer helpless, and that she now calls Arnie Pops. It tries to tell us that Pops and Sarah have been preparing for Kyle’s arrival, but Kyle doesn’t know. They’ve built a replica of Skynet’s time travelling device in a bunker, from materials they no doubt collected from Paramount’s Handy Prop warehouse. It tries to tell us that Kyle, Sarah, and Pops now have to stop Judgement Day by blowing up a building, and that there’s a cop from 1984 (J.K. Simmons) who in 2017 has become a frantic amateur journalist trying to prove he really did see the same Kyle Reese all those years ago. And then John Connor appears in the present, which is actually the future, and… well, I’ve lost myself.
About halfway through the film I surrendered myself to the contradictions of the plot and just absorbed the images, most of which are delicious to a fault. But at the end of the day, I had to ask myself, and presumably the filmmakers: Why was this movie made? How much story can you tell about the same four characters over and over again?
Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a blockbuster that catered to the mass population, but back in the day it was a blockbuster with a beating heart; it had substance. Contemporary blockbusters like Terminator Genisys forgo all plot and character and decide that what we all want to see are more explosions and CGI, even though they arrive with the potential to be great. Have movies made people more stupid, or have people made movies stupid?
Best Moment | I suppose it’s when 1984 Arnie makes an appearance, because it brings me back to a happier time.
Worst Moment | Every single time the screenplay attempts humour. Fellas, Arnie’s robotic smile just doesn’t work. And Clarke’s Sarah Connor is an annoying know-it-all who thinks she’s protected by the laws of feminism.