Terminator Genysis

The Terminator films are curious things. Much like their characters, they’ve changed over time. I enjoy them. Like most, I favor the first two. Rise of the Machines has it’s moments, but it pales in comparison and makes a joke of the series. I respect that Terminator Salvation tried to go in a different direction, but I think I’ve enjoyed it the least. At their best, these movies represent great science fiction, entertaining action, and fantastic special effects. The franchise also features one of the most iconic characters in movie history. Yes, I understand that Arnold has played a different machine each time, but you get what I mean. 

Terminator Genisys brought Arnold back to take another shot at jumpstarting this series. Most of the other characters are back, just with new faces. I was eager to enjoy another adventure in this series.

Warning: This is a spoiler-filled reaction to Terminator Genisys, if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably seen too much form the trailer. In any case, go watch the movie first, it’s fun.

I don’t know if this is the point where the franchise made this turn, but this movie is self-aware. I think it knows what we expect from the franchise, and what it has been, and what it can hope to achieve. Each film seems to be a reflection of it’s own time. The grittiness of the first shifted to the special effects of the second. The special effects were became the crutch of the third, in an era of forgettable action films trying out new digital toys. The reboot came at a point where reboots were extra hip, and Bale and Worthington were at their height. Now we get the semi-reboot that changes the timeline and gives us an extra nerdy yet nostalgic take on what we already love. Perhaps that an overgeneralization, but thats how I walked away from this movie.

To be fair, I also recently read Matt Singer’s excellent analysis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body of work. I highly recommend it. Arnold is far from perfect, but I admire much about his career. Terminator Genisys worked for me primarily because the the use of Arnold worked for me.

I had a lot of fun watching this movie. I don’t think I’d recommend it to people who haven’t seen the first two, as the references are part of the fun. Another title that could have been considered was Terminator: Remix. This movie takes all the key elements of series, shakes them up, and represents them to us in alternate order. It’s fun, just not necessarily substantial. It’s not that different of an approach than what was taken with Jurassic World.

If this movie fails, I place the blame squarely on the trailer. I am often fascinated with how a movie is marketed. I think Arnold personally made some smart moves in social media to market the film; but that trailer did serious damage. In my opinion, the trailer for Terminator Genisys included one of the worst spoilers in recent memory. I was baffled that they gave away the John Connor twist. In retrospect, we didn’t have too much time with John in 2017 before everyone else discovered what we already knew, but it still detracted from the movie. I think knowing John was a terminator robbed us from one heck of a shock when Pops (Arnold) shoots him. Instead of growing suspicion, the audience just got to watch our hero catch up. Such spoilage was unnecessary and completely avoidable. The studio would have gained from protecting the mystery, which would have paid dividends as people talked about the crazy twist.

I wasn’t familiar with director Alan Taylor before, but one look at his IMDB profile confirms him as a fitting choice. In particular, work on Game of Thrones and Thor:The Dark World were likely good preparation for this gig. I appreciate the director’s choice of pacing here. We saw just enough of each area, character, and timeline to appreciate it. Recreating the 1984 scenes and turning them on their head was an excellent idea, but leaving it for 2017 was also  a smart, as 1984 was wearing thin. Perhaps this is due to my missing much of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but I didn’t anticipate the time jump forward. It was a smart addition to reset the timeline and open up some new possibilities.

Perhaps there are elements of this story that don’t hold up to deeper thought, but I feel ok giving most of them a pass. I’m not sure how Pops was able to create a time machine in the 80’s or hold a job in construction. I’m not clear why Cyberdine could create as much of the tech that it could. I’m also afraid to think through the mechanics of Kyle’s new timeline memories. I’m giving it a pass. It seems like a fair trade for some new creative possibilities (as opposed to Looper, which requires you to buy its flawed idea of time travel). 

In addition, Genisys leaves a few unanswered questions to this kickstarted franchise. Who sent Pops back to the 70’s? Why have those records been erased? What kind of emotion has Pops developed? Was Cyberdine smart enough to keep a backup or Genisys? How will they handle all of the refunds for those pre-orders. I’m happy to see some room to be explored in the future.

Much of the fun in this movie is seeing familiar pieces in new configurations. J.K. Simmons may not have been necessary to the plot, but he is a nice upgrade/stand-in for the psychiatrist in the first three movies. He adds some levity, and is a refreshing addition as the guy who puts the pieces together an realizes that Clark Kent looks a lot like Superman with glasses on. I’m curious to see if they have plans for anything bigger for him in the sequels. Open questions are a good thing.

Terminator Genisys also makes the necessary changes to make the film fit in our modern context. I perfectly happy to find a way to work in our older Arnold. The series revolves around him, so I support any effort to make it work. Genisys is a stupid name that absolutely fits the trend of using common names with odd spelling choices. In fact, I’m surprised they didn’t replace one of the vowels with a number (or skip one entirely).  The modern Skynet would absolutely be some few type of network for the growing number of devices we want to be connected; it is a fitting reimagining of the villain. The new Skynet even has a personal assistant (I’m keeping an eye on you, Siri.).

I’m glad to see Arnold returning as our T-800. He’s more of a supporting character this time, which is fitting; but he unquestionably drives the success of this movie. In one of the many points where the movie seems to be talking to the audience, as Sarah hugs Pops, he asks why humans hold onto someone even when they inevitably have to let go. For me, that line fits this movie well. One day, Arnold will stop playing this character. This franchise may end, but one of our action heroes will hang up his hat, like John Wayne and others before him. The moment also feels like recognition that we can embrace forward momentum, enjoying what we have while looking ahead. Sure, I’m probably giving too much credit to Genisys’ version of “Why do you cry?”, but let me have this.

While the film was sold as Arnold’s movie, the rest of the cast does solid work. Emilia Clarke does an excellent job a our new Sarah Connor. She gave us a new spin on a familiar role. She was’t quite as battle-ready as Linda Hamilton in T2, but she could hold her own. Meanwhile, this Sarah still held more humanity, looking at Pops in as a father figure (just another part of the remix). I would have liked to have seen the ass-kicking dial turned up just a bit higher for her character, but I guess we need a little room to grow in the sequels (which I am hoping for). Perhaps that is the challenge of working in the shadow in of such a strong performance. I really liked Jason Clarke as the hero and villain of this movie. He continues to do great work and own each role that I see him in. For me, he stands as the strongest newcomer; and I wouldn’t mind if they found a way to bring him back. Jai Courtney held is own as Kyle Reese, and Matt Smith (I mean “Matthew” Smith) was a fun choice as the face of Skynet. None of these names are bankable stars in 2015, but they all do their job well.

This movie even shows us remixed elements of action sequences we’ve seen in earlier movies or other franchises, such as the shootout in a police station (first Terminator), the bus flip (The Dark Knight), or the bus drop (The Lost World, The Dark Knight Rises plane sequence). Genisys doesn’t necessarily give us the best version of any of these, but it offers us a fun mash-up of what we already like. 

Terminator Genisys works well as a sign of the times. It’s big action with just enough intelligence. Like Pops, it’s just smart enough to be effective, but imperfect. It remixes elements of action and nostalgia in an era where big names rarely drive box office success. It manages to tell an entertaining tale around a 67 year-old action star that we love. In a summer where Fury Road practically reinvented the action film, Terminator Genisys gives us a remade version of what we already know and like.