In the year 2029 mankind wages a war against the machines after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out nearly all of humanity. When the human resistance led by John Connor gains the upper hand the enemy attempts one last attack; not in the present, but in the past. They send a robotic killing machine disguised in living human tissue back in time to the year 1984 to kill John Connor’s Mother Sarah Connor; therefore preventing him from ever being born and in turn never defeating them in the future. With destruction imminent the human resistance only has time to send one single person back to protect her; a brave, resourceful soldier named Kyle Reese. Arriving back in 1984 with no weapons, no clothes and no back up it’s up to him alone to protect meek waitress Sarah Connor at all costs from the relentless and unstoppable pursuit of the killing machine aptly named The Terminator.
This is the plot of the 1984 science fiction horror film The Terminator directed by a hungry young film maker and future king of the world named James Cameron. It was made on the fly on a shoe string budget and filmed in real life locations (sometimes with no permission) around the streets of Los Angeles and like its title character it was taught, lean and relentless. Terminator Genysis follows this exact same plot but with a twist; when Kyle Reese returns back in time he finds himself unexpectedly overwhelmed by a second Terminator, a liquid metal T-1000 (like the one from Terminator 2 Judgment Day) with the ability to morph into anyone it touches and form stabbing weapons from its hands and arms. Boxed into a corner with seemingly no way out, a van bursts through the glass store front knocking the Terminator across the room. The door swings open and inside sits a hardened Sarah Connor spouting the long time Terminator adage, “Come with me if you want to live!”
Instead of the meek waitress she was in the original film, Kyle Reese finds himself rescued by an already tough-as-nails soldier in her own right and this is where the movie splinters off into its own story; as everything you’ve known to be lore in this franchise is now off the table. In this timeline when Sarah was just a girl, her parents were murdered by this liquid metal assassin and she was rescued by a T-800 Terminator (Model 101 giving it Arnold Schwarzenegger’s likeness). Coming to know him as her only family and growing up under his watchful protection she lovingly referred to him as “Pops” as he trained her for a future against the machines. But that is only what the trailers would have you believe. The real plot of the movie kicks off when Sarah reveals that she and Pops have built a time machine of their own and plan to travel to 1997 to stop the nuclear holocaust from ever happening. When new memories from an alternate timeline begin to fill Kyle Reese’s head he discovers the real threat is in the year 2017 where a new operating system is about to be launched named Genysis.
Genysis will link all of your electronic devices be it phones, tablets, computers together as well as connecting the worlds, government, medical, financial and military databases; therein giving the machines complete control through their central processing system Skynet. Sarah and Reese travel to 2017 together as Arnie’s Terminator (unable to travel through time in his metal form) waits patiently for 33 years ageing gracefully while anticipating their return. Once there they are startled to find an adult John Connor already waiting for them. After much mind-melting time travel jargon he reveals himself to be the real John Connor but merged in to a new breed of Terminator, not quite man not, quite machine but a hybrid of self repairing nanites that can take any form and that is what the movie is actually centred around. If you find this a lot to take in I don’t blame you. Whereas the time travel paradoxes took a back seat to a very simple killer stalking its prey horror thriller in the original Terminator, this movie has a lot of exposition and back story to give the audience before it can get anywhere on its own two feet.
The characters themselves are constantly shouting at each other, “this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be” or “remember this is supposed to happen” just in case its audience is coming in fresh to this tale or because the audience who may have seen the original can’t exactly remember the minute details of a movie made 34 years ago. Fortunately for me, I am not one of those people. Terminator 2 Judgment Day is one of, if not, my favourite film of all time and The Terminator ranks close behind; so as a huge fan I commend what they’ve attempted here: trying to bridge the old movies with the new by revisiting events of the past. But all of the best parts of Genysis, like the aforementioned scenes taking place in the events of the original Terminator are really only padding around the actual plot of this movie. In fact without these 1984 elements Terminator Genysis could still function as a by the numbers Terminator sequel with minor script tweaks, but its these Back to the Future Part II style returns to events in past movies and the return of Arnie that are the things that make it even remotely worth checking out. On top of that anything else mildly entertaining outside of the time travel paradoxes are all leftover ideas and concepts from other films in its very own franchise.
The opening set piece of the resistance storming the machine strong hold and sending Reese back in time is a scene written in to the script for Terminator 2 but removed due to budget restraints at the time. The reoccurring gag of Arnie’s Terminator being unable to smile is lifted straight from the extended director’s cut of Terminator 2. This idea of a half human half Terminator hybrid was the plot of Terminator Salvation and the idea of Connor himself being a Terminator was something written out of that films many, many script drafts even as they were filming. But the regular movie goer wouldn’t know that and only some Terminator fans would; but at the end of the day that really is their target audience the core Terminator fans as the movie clearly taps heavily in to that nostalgia level that Jurassic World did not too long ago.
One of the biggest problems this movie has is miscasting. Not to say that anyone is particularly bad they are just, well… serviceable. They say the lines, they perform the action, they shoot the guns but you never feel like they’re not just reciting a script, hitting their marks or did their mandatory two day course in gun handling. Jason Clarke as John Connor stood out the worst to me. John Connor is supposed to a legendary Messiah figure like Jesus or Santa Clause but Clarke has a very harsh look to him. His nose is sharp, his eyes cold, his jaw is thick and half his face is covered in a scar that looks like it has been applied with clay and then carved in to with a plastic fork. It is so poorly done that it just becomes distracting and off putting and yet when he makes an inevitable turn to the dark side these scars heal up and he looks his least scary or intimidating.
Emilia Clarke channeling Linda Hamilton’s Terminator 2 version of Connor were big shoes to fill, just behind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley from the Alien series Hamilton’s Connor was one the strongest female heroines in cinema history. Clarke looks the part as a younger, prettier version of Hamilton bearing a striking resemblance at times but she just seems to be playing the tough girl instead of embodying her. Though the toll of Sarah’s life being mapped out for her and knowing that her single purpose is to rear a child was an interesting angle to the character but explored very little.
Jai Courtney is there. I’m sure he’s a nice guy but he has no personality, no charm, no charisma and no screen presence. The original Kyle Reese played by Michael Biehn had these soulful brown eyes that had seen nothing but a life time of war and death yet he was still a gentle caring man even in the face of such horrors. When Courtney recites a line about “finding a nice house to get away from all the killing” it’s just wooden. If you put him next to a lamp post I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference and even outside just his acting ability he seemed to be taller and more physically imposing than Arnie which was an odd choice.
Which brings us to the reason we would even consider giving this sequel a chance, the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the role that (at one time in his career); made him the highest paid actor on the planet. He is without doubt a welcome return playing the surrogate Father role, and his over protection of Sarah makes for great comedy. Sizing up Kyle Reese figuratively and literally he looks a naked Reese up and down and tells him he doesn’t “measure up” or when they have an unspoken manly competition of loading bullets up it makes for a fun new dynamic for the T-800. The unfortunate thing is he’s really only a supporting actor this time around and every single line that comes out of his mouth is a joke. I’ll give you that nearly all of his lines or even physical comedy got a lot of laughs but it is so far removed from what made the first two so great, which are the movies it heavily tries to compare itself to that it just comes across as an odd tone.
In fact the tone of this movie is a strange mix, the studio focus group seems to have had a good long sit down to try and understand what made the originals so good and what made the sequels not so good and then tool the best elements of each to carve a new movie. So you have the blossoming love story between Kyle and Sarah (from The Terminator), the Terminator trying to learn how to be more human with his relationship with a Connor (taken from T2) the T-100 making a return (again taken from T2) and then there are countless lighter jokes and humour like the Terminator carrying a giant Teddy bear stuffed with a gun that are more in line with the sub-par Elton John glasses wearing “talk to the hand” Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Arnie appears in 1984 looking older but it’s not until he appears in 2017 that you realize just how old he has become sporting grey hair and many wrinkles, and the movie emphasizes the motto “older but not obsolete” as the Terminator seemingly sports a variety of ageing ailments like a bad knee or arthritic hand. Schwarzenegger looks good for a 67 year old and apparently managed to get to the same muscle measurements he had on Terminator 3 twelve years ago in 2003; which were the exact same measurements he had twelve years prior to that in Terminator 2 in 1991 which just shows that he still has love and dedication for the role.
Even though there are actions scenes throughout including a school bus crash on the Golden Gate bridge and a chase between two helicopters through the city skyline they all look completely CG and devoid of any tension. Director Alan Taylor known best for his work on Game of Thrones, Mad Men and the most recent Marvel Thor movie Thor the Dark World does an ok job recreating Cameron’s style early on but just devolves it in to a standard actioner as the movie progresses and the lack of Brad Friedel’s Terminator score is an absolute crime. That music is as iconic as John William’s Star Wars theme, or the Indiana Jones march yet they only really use it in the end credits. Using that score over something even as mundane as a person reading the newspaper would make that moment a hundred times more epic and here would have elevated the movie to another emotional level; instead they settle for a dull, boring score from Lorne Balfe.
A sub-plot involving JK Simmons as a cop who witnessed the initial 84 Terminator attack and has spent the last 30 years of his life being treated as a conspiracy theorist is mostly used as comedy relief. His character is introduced, pops up a few times, but is never really utilized and his story doesn’t go anywhere, at all. In a blink and you’ll miss it cameo Courtney B. Vance appears as Miles Dyson played by Joe Morton in T2. Why they would not bring Morton back for this minor cameo blows my mind, it’s not like Morton’s phone is ringing off the hook and his performance was so honest and real in that movie that I can still picture him drawing his last breathes as he holds his hands over the detonator in T2. In fact there’s a lot of little things scattered throughout that are clearly set up for future sequels including an all too brief appearance by a fellow pop culture time traveller than I won’t spoil.
There are many nods to the original movies some subtle and some blatant, though seeing the new John Connor Terminator slowly walk from the flames just as the T-1000 did in T2 with the advantage of 22 years of advancement in digital technology just made me realize how little has changed. The first two movies were pioneering in their special effects both practical and computer generated and it’s just sad to see things just half-heartedly thrown together here. More money does not equate to better special effects, the younger digital version of Arnie shows that we are close to photo-realistic actors and I was really impressed by what they could achieve even if it’s not there just yet; but any time a CG Terminator endoskeleton walked on screen it just stood out as an effect.
Not to say that it’s bad, it’s just not very good and average at best. If you’re a Terminator fan you’ll be seeing this anyway and the audience I saw it with seemed to have a good time laughing at all the Arnie moments; but if you’re looking for a memorable instalment this may not be for you. Some might argue that when a film has reached its fifth instalment it has run its course but only last year X-Men Days of Future Past showed that time travel can be used to clean up a franchise’s muddy continuity and reinvigorate it. Rocky Balboa showed that if there’s still a story to tell then a sequel can be worthwhile, even just this year George Miller returned to a franchise 30 years dead and delivered a masterpiece with Mad Max Fury Road. Hell, The Empire Strikes Back was the fifth instalment in the Star Wars movies and that is unquestionably the best!
James Cameron himself (a man known not to mince words) went on record as saying that this is the true sequel to his movies but I think it was just a generous kind of lip service to his old friend Arnold down on his luck, which he can’t be blamed for. The rights to the Terminator franchise will fall back in to the hands of Cameron in just three years, until then Arnold will inevitably “be back” as Paramount has plans to play this out as a trilogy with two sequels already green lit and scheduled. As they say “the future is not set”; so I hold hope for a time in the not too distant future where James Cameron can return for one last ride in the director’s chair and gives us the swan song that this franchise deserves.
Review by Dylan Boaden.