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Josh Reviews Terminator: Genisys

In my review of Jurassic World, I commented that the problem with all of the disappointing sequels to the great Jurassic Park is that they’ve basically been the exact same movie retold over and over again.  The Terminator has also had disappointing sequel after disappointing sequel, but for the exact opposite reason.  Both Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, and now Terminator: Genisys have gone in wildly different directions.  Each has been a (failed) attempt to kick-start a new trilogy of Terminator films. Rather than being frustrating because these films feel like the same film over and over again, they are frustrating because they are so all-over-the-place, removing any sense of narrative flow or continuity from this series.  Neither Terminator 3, Terminator: Salvation, nor Terminator: Genisys are absolutely terrible.  There are some good ideas and good moments in all three films.  But none of them are able to come anywhere close to James Cameron’s amazing original two films.

The best thing I can say about Terminator: Genisys?  It’s not as horrible as its title.

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Terminator: Genisys actually has a decent idea at its core.  The film begins by showing us what we never got to see in James Cameron’s original films: the day John Connor and his resistance defeated Skynet, found the time displacement center, and sent Kyle Reese back in time to save John’s mother Sarah Connor from death at the hands of a Terminator.  Kyle is prepared by John to encounter the Sarah who we met in the first film: an innocent waitress with no idea of the danger she’s in or her importance to the future.  But when Kyle arrives back in 1984, he discovers that the timeline has been changed and a T-1000 is there waiting for him.  Now it’s Kyle who has to be rescued by Sarah — not the damsel in distress he was expecting but a tough warrior-woman (reminiscent of Linda Hamilton’s depiction of the character in T2) — who has been raised since youth by another Terminator to prepare for this day.

While I dislike the idea of erasing the events of the first two films, I can get behind this idea as a way to tell more Terminator stories when things had seemed pretty wrapped up by the end of the second film.  (All three subsequent sequels have really had to struggle to continue the story beyond the end of T2, in which Sarah and John destroyed Skynet before it could be born, thus preventing Judgment Day and the destruction of mankind.)  Indeed, the most fun to be had in Terminator: Genisys is the way the film, in the first half-hour, recreates so many iconic moments from the original Terminator film.  I was very impressed by the attention to detail!

But while the film is chock-full of action and incident, the rest of the story is quite a mess.

First of all, I couldn’t believe that the film never explained the change to the timeline that was the inciting incident for everything else that happens in the movie!!  The central premise of this film is that the timeline was changed because Skynet sent another Terminator farther into the past to kill Sarah Connor as a little kid, but someone else sent yet another Terminator back to protect her.  This is what changes the timeline from what we saw in the original film.  But the film never explains why or how that happened!!!  We never learn how and why Skynet sent another Terminator back to kill Sarah, nor do we ever learn who then sent yet another Terminator back to protect her!!  It’s unbelievable that this key piece of information was left out of the film, presumably left to be revealed in a hoped-for sequel.  What a cheat!!  I couldn’t believe it.

And while I can say that I can buy the central hook of the timeline of the original film being changed, the film’s time-travel story-line is filled with enormous plot holes and twists that make no sense.  Why was there also a T-1000 waiting for Kyle when he arrived in 1984?  Did Skynet send THREE Terminators into the past?  (One to kill Sarah in 1984, one to kill Sarah as a kid in the seventies, and then a T-1000 to sometime before 1984 to do I-don’t-know-what?)  Was that T-1000 supposed to be the same T-1000 played by Robert Patrick in T2?  (On that note, while it’s clear that this film ignores Terminator: Salvation, I am unclear if the film also ignores T2 and T3 as well.  I think it does, because though we see Skynet send back the Arnold-model T-101 from the original Terminator, we don’t see any other Terminators get sent back in time, nor does John in this film have time to reprogram an Arnold-model to send back, as he did in T2.)

Then there’s the idea that, in this altered timeline, Judgment Day was delayed from 1997 (the date given in Cameron’s original films) to 2017.  So Kyle, Sarah, and the older Terminator she calls “Pops” (ugh) time-travel forward to 2017 using a makeshift time-machine that Sarah and the Terminator constructed.  It’s funny that the film borrows that plot device from the short-lived Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show.  But putting that aside, it’s a ridiculous plan!  They know the exact date when Skynet will go on-line in 2017.  So instead of jumping to a point a few years before that, to give themselves plenty of time to destroy the burgeoning artificial intelligence, they jump to only 24 hours before it goes on-line, thus giving themselves a ridiculous — and totally needless! — super-tight deadline to prevent the end of the world!  It’s so silly!!

By the way, how do they know the exact date Skynet will go on-line in this new timeline?  Because for some reason Kyle now possesses memories from two different time-lines.  This feels like an out-of-place twist for a Terminator film, more in line with, say, Back to the Future than with how time-travel has ever been depicted in the Terminator films before.  But more than that, it’s such a bald-faced way for the writers to make sure the characters know key information for the story of the film to work.  It’s laughable!  Kyle only knows something from the new timeline when the writers needed him to know something to move the story forward.

By the way, not only does the film’s time-travel story not work for me, but for a film so focused on recreating the original film I was surprised by some pretty big inconsistencies with the original film.  Most notably: Kyle lost the photo of Sarah long before he traveled back in time — it burnt in fire during a Terminator attack — but here we see Kyle still has the photo on the day John sends him back in time.  Oops!

But, you know, it’s easy to pick-apart time-travel films and I am sure that great time-travel films also have plenty of plot-holes.  None of that would matter if the film had strong characters with complex arcs, but sadly that is not the case here.  The film flirts with a lot of interesting ideas that could have been really complex and compelling.  The idea that John developed a friendship with Kyle, all the while knowing that Kyle was his father and that eventually John would have to send him back in time to his death.  What would that be like for John when that moment finally arrived?  The idea that, in the altered past, both Kyle and Sarah now know that they’re supposed to fall in love and father John, but how do they feel about being trapped in that destiny?  The idea that Sarah has spent her whole life believing that all the men she would love would die, and so doesn’t want to allow herself to feel anything for Kyle lest he meet that same fate.  And the connected idea that, after living her whole life believing that her main purpose was to give birth to and protect John from the machines, that suddenly she not only has to kill a future version of her son, but also that perhaps she now needs to NOT fall in love with Kyle as the only way to prevent John’s birth?

These are all some wonderfully knotty ideas, any or all of which could have been the basis for some complex character story-lines to anchor this film.  But the film doesn’t commit to any of these ideas.  It’ll throw them out for a scene and then move on to something else.  And unfortunately, hampered by a weak script, none of the actors in the film are able to sell any of these ideas.

Jai Courtney is horribly miscast as Kyle Reese.  Michael Biehn was a wonderfully three-dimensional character in the first film: a tough soldier who was also a very human, fallible man with a big heart and a tender side.  But Jai Courtney is just a buff, blank-faced He-man.  Kyle’s relationship with Sarah is supposed to be the heart of this film — as it was in the original — but it falls entirely flat, and this cripples the film’s story.

Game of Thrones’ Khaleesi, the Mother of Dragons herself, Emilia Clarke, felt like a good idea for recasting Sarah Connor, but I found that in the finished film she’s just OK.  Any time I compared the way she played a scene to the way Linda Hamilton did, Ms. Clarke’s work fell short.  There was, nevertheless, a lot that I liked about her depiction of Sarah Connor, but she wasn’t able to sell any of the film’s key character relationships.

I have long felt that Terminator sequels, after T2, in order to be good needed to stop trying to shoe-horn in an aging Arnold Schwarzenegger.  One of my favorite aspects of Terminator: Salvation was that they found a way to do just that.  (I’ve long had similar feelings for the Alien franchise: after Aliens, I wish the series had stopped trying to twist itself into increasing knots to keep Ripley involved — just tell new stories in that universe, with new characters and new situations!)  And so I must confess to some surprise that I thought Arnold Schwarzenegger did a fine job in this film!  His story-arc is an exact reprise of the superior version of this story seen in T2 — down to the teaching the Terminator to smile moment that was in James Cameron’s excellent director’s cut of T2 — but somehow Mr. Schwarzenegger made it work.  I must admit that it was fun seeing him in this role again!  And the only time the film’s attempts at emotion worked at all for me was late in the film when the beat-up Arnie Terminator admits, reluctantly, to Kyle that he is “old.”

Other thoughts:

J.K. Simmons was a welcome surprise as a cop who’s wise to the time-traveling shenanigans going on around him.  All of his scenes were great.  I just wish his character had some purpose in the film!!  How would the story be different if that character was edited out?  Not at all is the answer, and that’s a big failure of the script.

Jason Clarke, like Emilia Clarke (no relation!), was great casting on-paper and Mr. Clarke tries his best, but this film’s version of John Connor is a non-character.  I’d read that an abandoned idea for the end of Terminator: Salvation was for John to become a Terminator himself, or some-sort of man-Terminator hybrid.  Thankfully that idea was rejected.  It was a bummer to see it pop up again here.  The film didn’t manage to milk any drama from the idea of Kyle and Sarah being forced to try to kill their beloved John, because the “John” we see in the second half of Genisys isn’t John at all, it’s just a robot wearing his face.  Had the character had some of John inside him, had we seen that John struggling to get out, then there might have been some weight to this character.  Instead, we got yet another new version of a Terminator, one not in the end much different from the T-1000 seen in T2 or the T-X from T3.

Then there’s Matt Smith’s character as, I am not sure exactly, is he supposed to be an embodiment of Skynet itself, or just another souped-up Terminator?  The idea that any Terminator could have so easily infiltrated John’s team seems silly to me.  And why this character — essentially the ultimate villain of the series — has just a few scant minutes of screen-time escapes me.

I loved that the film brought back Miles Dyson, and introduced us to a grown-up version of his son, Danny (both characters were featured in T2).  I just wish they had anything really to do in the film.

I loved the CGI recreation of 1984-era Arnie.  (Though does everyone forget that Terminator: Salvation used the very same trick??)  I loved the modern Arnie versus 1984-era Arnie fight.  I wish that had gone on longer.

Wait, why didn’t Kyle Reese vanish from existence once his future timeline had been changed?  Why did the Skynet/John Connor hybrid travel back in time in the first place if it had already defeated John and its forces in the future?  If Skynet was able to send all these evil Terminators back in time (one to kill Sarah in 1984, one to kill Sarah in the seventies, the T-1000 that was waiting for Kyle in 1984, and the Skynet/John hybrid, not to mention the T-1000 from T2 and the T-X from T3 which maybe never happened in this film’s new continuity but I’m not sure), when exactly in the future did all that happen, and why send all these different Terminator models to all these different time-periods rather than a hundred Arnie models or T-1000 models or just one of whichever was the best model to wipe out Sarah or one of her ancestors???

Sigh.

I feel the same way about the Terminator series as I do about Jurassic Park.  I love the first film (in this case, the first two films), and I love the world of these stories, and I would love to see more great stories with these characters/ideas set in this world.  But this latest sequel attempt, just like Jurassic World, is a big swing-and-a-miss for me.

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