TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015) review
written by: Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier
produced by: David Ellison and Dana Goldberg
directed by: Alan Taylor
rating: PG – 13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language)
runtime: 126 min.
U.S. release date: July 1, 2015
“Terminator: Genisys” is yet another studio attempt this summer to get you to forget previous entries in a blockbuster franchise. It wants to play off your familiarity with the first two films that came out in 1984 and 1991, respectively, and it hopes you can forget the last two films that came out in 2003 and 2009. The problem is that this convoluted and often ridiculous movie relies so heavily on such nostalgia and mind-wiping, offering an abundance of repetitiveness and exposition amid a mess of CGI that feels like it came straight from a video game. As much as moviegoers have chuckled at the idea of a 67-year-old Schwarzenegger returning to play one of his most recognizable characters, he almost winds up being the best part of “Terminator: Genisys” – almost.
This fourth sequel starts the repetition right at the beginning by dropping us in the Future War in the year 2029. A war where John Connor (Jason Clarke) is the fabled leader of the human Resistance that fights the machines. Judgement Day, triggered by Skynet has come and gone and, well – if this is all too confusing for you, hang on because director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”) and screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis (“Shutter Island”) and Patrick Lussier (“Drive Angry 3D”) will rehash the story beats from the four previous movies here. It’s like a mashup and a rehash – a remashash. In case your memory banks were erased or for those who haven’t ever seen a “Terminator” movie. In that case, I feel sorry for you if this is your first.
Connor and his crew are in the process of launching a final attack on Skynet in Los Angeles, when they learn that a T-800 model Terminator (portrayed by a successfully rendered CGI Schwarzenegger from the original movie) was sent back to 1984 by Skynet in order to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the Messiah of the Resistance. John’s right-hand man, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers for a time-travel rescue mission, using the same time travel device that Skynet used. Sound familiar, yet?
The writers try to be clever once we arrive in ’84 by combining iconic moments from the first two movies. We see a naked T-8oo arrive at the Griffith Observatory at night, encountering a trio of punks (minus Bill Paxton, I guess he didn’t wanna be CGI’d) only to be interrupted by an antiquated T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), resulting in an Arnold vs. Arnold altercation. We also see Reese landing naked in an alley, steal some bums pants and then is attacked by a liquid metal/shape-shifting T-1000 model Terminator (Lee Byung-hun “I Saw the Devil”) only to be rescued by a militant Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke “Game of Thrones”) who spouts, “Come with me if you want to live!”
We come to learn that this old T-800, who looks exactly like Schwarzenegger does now because apparently “the skin ages” (just accept it?), has been protecting Sarah Connor since he saved her hide from a T-1000 back in 1973. Nevermind who sent the T-800 or how and why a T-1000 was sent after her, because this movie doesn’t care about your questions nor does it consider how smart viewers are. Just accept it and move on or be a part of a growing Resistance that will fight against this movie.
Explaining the rest of the movie is kind of a waste, but if you’ve seen posters and trailers you’ve seen how Paramount has spoiled their own movie. Not that it matters, since what they’ve spoiled makes very little sense in context and makes the film even less interesting or original. As it continues, it is revealed that Kyle, Sarah and this old T-800 – who she calls “Pops”, because he raised her since she was a kid (no joke) – have to make their way to 2017 to make sure a program called “Genisys” (aka Skynet) never goes live. If it does, it will – wait for it – destroy all humans. Yes, this again. Thus completes the endless Rinse & Repeat cycle that “Genisys” spins for a little over two hours.
The movie delivers recycled lines from the previous films at an annoying level, thinking it’s clever, but if only it knew how pathetic it comes across. We’re supposed to be impressed with how ‘clever’ the filmmakers are here (they insert a tepid commentary on how we’re all glued to electronic devices nowadays), but in reality it’s just a sad attempt to resurrect the greatest hits from the other movies. The screenwriters try to take Abrams’ “Star Trek” approach by injected an alternate timeline in order for certain characters to co-exist, but it’s a jumbled attempt, coming across like a group-think gimmick instead of a succinct and compelling story.
There’s also the bad decision to frame this movie around Kyle’s perspective. It’s certainly not because the very vanilla Jai Courtney has a strong lead presence, if anything, it’s another desperate attempt to apply something new here – something that’s just not naturally there. It doesn’t work because Courtney’s Kyle Reese is bland and not nearly as frenzied and intense as Michael Biehn was in the original or even as committed as Anton Yelchin was in “Terminator: Salvation”. Courtney brings the same blah presence as he did to “A Good Day to Die Hard”, another overextended franchise that has offered diminished returns. It’s almost as if his presence in franchise films produce the exact opposite of the addition of Dwayne Johnson’s to an established franchise.
Emilia Clarke fares no better as Sarah Connor. It’s not necessarily that she’s miscast, it’s more like her character makes zero cents. In “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” it’s quite clear why Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor has turned herself into a lethal weapon and the way Hamilton balanced her hard-edged disposition and tender vulnerability made her character a surprise highlight of that film. In “Genisys”, there’s no clear motivation for Sarah to turn into a soldier and, if Clarke is to emulate Hamilton (which it’s obvious they’re going for here), then she needs to be more intense, harder – instead of looking doe-eyed and dumbfounded at every turn.
It’s hard to watch characters like Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in this movie without thinking of the other actors who’ve portrayed them in the past. They just embodied the roles better. “Genisys” confirms that. That’s a problem if we’re to be invested in this story. Especially if most of what these characters do is a pale imitation of what we’ve seen them do and say in previous films.
There are a couple new characters in “Genisys”, one seems familiar and the other is an uninteresting mystery. Detective O’Brien (J.K. Simmons) is a seemingly washed-up cop who is disregarded by his peers and is probably the only outsider who believes Sarah and Kyle’s story once they arrive in 2017. Simmons is just fine as usual, but his character just felt like a replacement for criminal psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Silberman, played by Earl Boen – a character who was in the first three movies and becomes increasingly anxious and frenzied. There’s also the physical embodiment of Skynet (manifested in hologram form by several child actors and then in physical form by Matt Smith), which is a flat-out dud of a character. No one needed the Skynet to take corporal form, which was much more ominous as an artificial-intelligence (A.I.), a “less is more” presence that loomed over the other movies. In a year where A.I. has been successfully featured in “Ex Machina” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron“, what “Genisys” does with Skynet is of little impact or import – it feels like a reboot of SID 6.7 from 1995’s “Virtuosity”.
“Terminator: Genisys” mostly got me thinking about Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and how franchises often take a compelling and entertaining character and water it down to a flimsy exoskeleton of what it/he/she once was. The same thing happened with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Die Hard” movies and now, sadly, the “Terminator” movies. Having bowed out of the last movie, “Genisys” finds Schwarzenegger playing his iconic role for the fourth time. When he made his debut in James Cameron’s “The Terminator”, his killer robot from the future became an imposing figure in the sci-fi genre. Then Cameron reprogrammed the character for the groundbreaking 1991 sequel, creating a very entertaining twist for a movie star whose talents had grown considerably since the original film. Then there was the serviceable 2003 sequel “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”, which found Schwarzenegger returning to the role (his last before becoming The Governator), without Cameron at the helm. This is when an element of cornball was thrust upon the character, with Schwarzenegger’s Terminator wearing Elton John sunglasses and saying to the camera, “Talk to the hand”. Unfortunately, “Genisys” continues with cornball bits, Schwarzenegger’s old man Terminator awkwardly trying to crack a smile, straying far far away from the imposing hulk that first said, “Are you Sarah Connor?”
Is there a problem with that? Yes. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is a killing machine – sure, it can be reprogrammed, but any cornball qualities pulls us out of the picture and reminds us that we’re watching a movie star playing a robot trying to emulate human qualities for laughs. Why would a cyborg do that? Of course, there were some laughs and even some heartfelt moments when the Terminator was seen as a father figure to young John Connor in “T2”, but at least that fit contextually and never broke the wall. The character has become less and less of a threat each time Schwarzenegger has played it, which may be how the charismatic actor chooses to play the role and probably why Pops drops a joke about Kyle’s size after he disrobes to board the time machine – but it doesn’t mean it’s best for the character and story. At this point, it feels like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is just Arnold dressing up as the Terminator. That’s fine if it’s for charity events, but in the “Terminator” movies, he’s best getting lost in the role. It’s possible though, he’s such a large presence that he can no longer do that.
“Terminator: Salvation” gets a bad rap, but at least it was offering several unique elements to the franchise and, if I had to decide whether to watch that again or this, I’d choose “Salvation”. What Taylor and his screenwriters are doing here comes across as unimaginative and desperate, attempting to repackage what’s been done before and hoping that if any of us notices it’ll come across as clever. It’s not. It’s more like the cinematic equivalent of a White Elephant gift. Nevertheless, Paramount plans on re-gifting at least two more films.