I’m not and have never been what you’d call a die hard fan of the Terminator franchise, which is odd because I consider 1984’s The Terminator to be one of the most chilling science fiction movies ever made. I’ve also been a huge Arnold Schwarzenegger fan for as long as I’ve loved movies, but this “saga” on the whole has always left me underwhelmed.
There never seemed to be much of a need to go beyond the first movie. The story is finished there. The machine assassin has been thwarted, making Skynet’s Hail Mary a failed endeavor. Judgment Day’s inevitability is at hand, so when Sarah Connor rides off into the approaching storm clouds, we know what’s in store for her. For mankind. It’s grim. It’s poetic. It’s fantastic.
I was 11 when Terminator 2 came out. It was a notable experience for me because even then I remember being annoyed with Sarah’s opening narration. Suddenly Skynet had sent two terminators back in time. That’s not what Kyle Reese told her in 1984. His story was how they’d defeated Skynet and in the computer’s final moment, it sent a single T-800 back in time. A last-ditch effort to prevent its extinction. I can understand why people love T2: It’s well crafted and acted, but it’s never been a revered movie where I sit. And while I don’t dislike 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it feels like a dumber version of T2 saved by some very fun action sequences and a killer ending.
2009’s Terminator: Salvation, on the other hand, is a total bore that couldn’t even get James Cameron’s future war right, its vision owing more to Mad Max than Terminator. I can forgive a lot, almost anything, really, as long as a film earns my emotional investment. Salvation’s central hero is portrayed by the lifeless Sam Worthington, and Christian Bale cranks the morose meter to 11, ensuring I didn’t care for anyone in Salvation or, by extension, humankind’s survival.
Terminator: Genisys, though? Yes, it was made for the most abysmal of reasons (make money before the franchise rights revert back to James Cameron), but every tentpole film is made firstly to line studio pockets. This movie hasn’t reversed my thoughts on the franchise (I still think the original is the only necessary one), but Genisys is a largely entertaining ride. And, honestly, its convolution is a part of that fun.
I was never wowed by the trailers and, Arnold aside, the cast did nothing to inspire my patronage. So imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese. The handling of this Reese sort of reflects the way I feel about Genisys on the whole. It circumvents expectations by turning the story on its ear. This Reese travels through time with the expectation of being Sarah’s protector. He’s spent years romanticizing that faded polaroid, and is aware this is a one way trip.
The marketing did everything it could to spoil the surprises, but it’s fun to watch Reese travel back to 1984 and find a Sarah who isn’t in need of saving. Who instead knows the rules as they now are. If Sarah was our cipher in the 1984 film, it’s now Reese, whose expectations are dashed, spending the entirety of Genisys struggling to catch up. It’s why Kyle and Sarah have a contentious relationship this time around, devoid of the tragedy that so perfectly underscored Cameron’s original. If you are going to make another Terminator movie, I’m okay with you disrupting the status quo.
In The Terminator, Kyle Reese was a fatigued soldier haunted by a nightmarish inevitability. We get very little of that here. I wondered if this Reese wasn’t somehow “changed” during his trip through time, remaining half the hardened PTSD solider we’re familiar with, but becoming half an optimistic fighter who grew up in a world never ravaged by nuclear annihilation, and with the benefit of nurturing parents to boot. Again, this is partly why I liked Genisys. It’s the fourth sequel to a movie that didn’t need a single follow-up. That it tossed me into uncharted waters is exactly why I had fun with it.
Emilia Clarke makes for a surprisingly endearing Sarah. She isn’t the battered survivalist we found in T2, softer around the edges this time, thanks in part to the perpetual presence of the Pops terminator preventing any prolonged hardship. Clarke is an amalgamation of Hamilton’s Sarah in 1 and 2, perhaps never as convincingly or effortlessly badass, but serving as a satisfying stand-in all the same. Like Reese, she will never become the Sarah we once knew. This allows Clarke to put her own stamp on the character, which she does rather nicely.
Genisys changes everything. By the end, past films are erased to the point where the T-800 itself becomes little more than a holdover from a previous timeline (Cameron’s movies). Skynet seems to have reconciled the fact that its always destined for doom and reinvents itself as an operating system that has fooled humanity into clamoring for its arrival. I like the idea of mankind willingly enslaving itself to our synthetic masters, and wish Genisys had explored this aspect more.
Much has been written about the convoluted nature of the story. You either go with it or you don’t. Personally speaking, the story and characters are enjoyable enough so that when the concept of a Terminator “multiverse” comes into play, it’s easily embraced–at least for me. I like the idea of Skynet somehow achieving singularity and (apparently) learning how to travel through dimensions as a result of its evolution. Its determination to guarantee creation is so fierce it needed to happen outside of the established continuum. Does this take us far away from Cameron’s Terminator movies? I suppose it does, and why not?
What does irk me about Terminator: Genisys is its handling of open-ended questions. Most of these seems like topics for potential sequels that may or may not happen. I’ve never been a fan of this type of storytelling, nor do I find these open-ended mysteries all that fascinating. If we never find out who sent Pops back to protect 70s Sarah, I’ll survive. Genisys does try laying the groundwork for future movies, but it’s not exactly beholden to them. As a rule, however, filmmakers should stop worrying about potential trilogies and focus entirely on the current story at hand. It’s the only one that matters.
But still, props to the filmmakers for making me interested in the franchise once more. Outside of the Cameron movies, this is the only Terminator story I’d care to watch again. It’s not a patch on the original, but it’s entertaining. Arnold is still effortlessly charming, selling even the most ridiculous aspects of the character this time out (like its ability to construct a time machine). Think of this as some kind of extended universe comic book continuation you might’ve read years ago. Not perfect, but good fun.