“OLD BUT NOT OBSOLETE.”
Terminator Genisys, the fifth entry in the 30-year-old Terminator series, is the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Helmed by Alan Taylor (TV’s Game of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World), Genisys is both a sequel and soft reboot of the series, using time travel shenanigans in a similar way as the successful Star Trek reboot in 2009 – which used time travel and alternate timelines to continue the series without discounting what had come before.
It’s no surprise then that Genisys pays tribute to the 1984 original (and also Judgment Day), even going so far as to recreate certain scenes shot-for-shot – and then turning them on their head. Scribes Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier have a lot of fun playing with the alternate reality story, which allows them to revisit several iconic moments and then usurp expectations by taking things in a different direction.
This is both Genisys’ greatest strength and weakness, with many critics feeling that the film panders too much to the classics without doing anything original, and many others bemoaning that Genisys doesn’t rely on Cameron’s movies enough. In effect, Genisys straddles a fine line of the nostalgic and the new which may alienate some viewers – but for me it worked and it worked very well. Evidently, Genisys also worked for series creator James Cameron, who has come out and stated his support of the movie which is ‘extremely respectful of the first two movies’ and ‘reinvigorates’ the series.
Whatever it’s doing though, Genisys is interesting – which is more than can be said of so much of what we see on the silver screen these days. I reiterate that Genisys is the fifth Terminator movie in three decades, and only the fourth to star Arnold Schwarzenegger. It hardly screams franchise fatigue. In fact, let’s take a brief moment to revisit the franchise before delving into the story of Terminator Genisys.
Spoilers for the Terminator series
Terminator Genisys therefore brings the series full circle, as we’re back to where it all began. The movie starts with the future war after the apocalyptic Judgment Day, and has a terrific opening Act that brings us up to speed on the series’ history. By all rights this could have been the concluding chapter, as the war against the machines is all but won and we know how the rest plays out once Kyle Reese is sent back in time to 1984 (just watch The Terminator) – except we don’t.
The Terminator films have always played with the idea of destiny (“There’s no fate but what we make”) and if there’s one thing we do know it’s that not everything has played out in the movies exactly as the characters anticipated. Although I don’t profess to have a firm grasp of the series’ time travel, I’ve always viewed it as reasonably sound. Let me coin a phrase from Hank McCoy in X-Men: Days of Future Past: “There’s a theory in quantum physics that time is immutable. It’s like a river – you can throw a pebble in and create a ripple, but the current always corrects itself. No matter what you do, the river just keeps flowing in the same direction.”
Hank’s quote is a good summary of how I understand time travel to work in the Terminator universe in that there are certain key events – Sarah Connor giving birth to John Connor, Judgment Day, John Connor leading humanity to victory against the machines – that always happen or can’t be avoided as the river keeps flowing in the same direction despite the pebbles being thrown in along the way (it’s entirely possible that this series of events has happened again and again and again, but no matter what each time the machines ultimately lose). But if something big enough intervenes, even a river can change course.
This is what Genisys dubs a ‘nexus event’, an event of such importance that a new timeline is created and all the old rules are thrown out of the window – and this is exactly what happens when Kyle Reese is sent back in time this time around. I won’t spoil what happens, save that it’s refreshing to have a story that’s prepared to play with audience expectations. Maybe Judgment Day can be stopped or maybe the machines will win – it’s an all-new future. After all, ‘New Mission, New Fate’ is the tagline of Terminator Genisys. Do yourself a favour and avoid the trailers, which completely spoil what would have been one of the year’s biggest twists (I won’t spoil it, as I’ve linked the first trailer to this review which doesn’t ruin the surprise).
Now with the time travel mumbo jumbo out of the way, I can finally spare a few words about the cast, action, effects and all that jazz. Arnie is firing on all cylinders as an aged Terminator who is ‘old but not obsolete’ – we learn that the living tissue which surrounds the Terminator’s skeleton is, as the name suggests, actually living and so ages like normal tissue. Arnie’s Terminator is a little more human this time around, having lived amongst humanity for a long time, although he’s very much so still a robot. This builds on the theme in Judgment Day, represented by Sarah’s Connor’s quote at the end of that movie: “If a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”
Speaking of Sarah Connor, this time around she’s played by the Mother of Dragons herself, Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones). Clarke brings her trademark fierceness and authority to the role, but it’s balanced by her youthful looks which is appropriate as this is basically a younger version of the battle-hardened Sarah Connor who we saw in Judgment Day. Meanwhile, Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher) fills the Nike shoes of Kyle Reese, and is serviceable in the role. Rounding the cast is Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zero Dark Thirty) as a much more charismatic John Connor than Christian Bale’s brooding version in Terminator Salvation.
I won’t dwell on the action or effects, suffice to say that they are as polished as you would expect from a blockbuster such as this. Director Alan Taylor demonstrates an assured hand, with several solid set pieces and quieter moments to allow the characters to develop. The horror roots of the series have been shed with time however, so fans looking for another tech-noir chase movie will be in for a disappointment. There’s more humour this time – and it’s very Marvel-esque. Some will find this jarring, but I enjoyed the levity it brought.
All in all, Terminator Genisys is a very ambitious movie obviously made by fans of the franchise. A lot of care and effort has gone into reinvigorating the series, for at least another two more movies anyhow – Genisys was envisaged as the first of a trilogy of films (apparently the sequels have already been written so the story is mapped out). Not all questions are answered by the end of the movie, so hopefully Genisys does well enough to warrant the sequels being made. Tonal issues aside, Genisys remains ambitious and interesting, subverting expectations and offering audiences something new while tugging at those nostalgia heartstrings. As Arnie says: “Old but not obsolete.”