While no one should be applauded for choosing to dust off the Terminator franchise for one more film, I do at least credit the powers that be for not simply hitting the reset button and giving us a complete remake.
Instead, they choose the more challenging path of rebooting the franchise using the already-established canon. That, of course, creates a whole host of questions they must answer, everything from “Why haven’t they successfully stopped Skynet from launching yet?” to “If Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is a cyborg, why has he aged?” To tackle all of the issues presented causes quite a bit of maneuvering, but somehow writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier manage to piece together a narrative that (mostly) makes sense and gives us a Terminator film set in the near future that doesn’t betray the films that came before it.
If you need a quick refresher – the original Terminator centered around a time-traveling cyborg who goes back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to John Connor, who will lead the human resistance in 2029 to take down our robot overlords. The humans send Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah and an epic battle for the fate of humanity ensues.
This film starts with the moments leading up to the original Terminator. John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a final charge against Skynet and defeats them, but not before Skynet sends back a cyborg to kill Sarah (Schwarzenegger). Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) goes back in time to protect her, but as he climbs into the time machine, an unexpected event alters history, creating two possible timelines.
When Reese gets to 1984, it is nothing like what he was told it would be like. Sarah (Emilia Clarke) isn’t a meek waitress with no knowledge of the future to come. Instead, she is a hardened bad ass who has been fighting Terminators since she was a child. She also has her own reprogrammed Terminator protecting her that has been by her side since she was eight, that Terminator, of course, played by an aged Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The film uses some fairly-convincing CGI to give us a 1984-era Arnold for our gang to do battle with.)
(Side note: It is funny that the film goes out of its way to justify having an aged Arnold Schwarzenegger in it, but has no qualms just recasting Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn’s roles with no effort to explain why they both look completely different.)
Since Sarah and her Terminator, which she has adorably nicknamed “Pops,” have had a few decades to plan for Kyle’s arrival, they have built their own time machine. Sarah’s original plan was to go to 1997 to ensure Skynet isn’t launched at that date (as it is in the original franchise mythology), but Kyle convinces her instead to travel to 2017, which he believes will be the new date Skynet is launched based on a new set of memories that crop up in his brain once the timestream has been altered.
This has always been a franchise that has played with time travel and fate vs. free will, so it’s fun to see them go full Back to the Future II, exploring alternate timelines where the battle between man and machine played out very differently than the original story. It also adds an intriguing dynamic to the characters of Sarah and Kyle as they try to figure out if they actually do have free will or if they are stuck living out this same script over and over again. (Further complicating things is the fact that, in the original film, the two fall in love, John turns out to be their son and Kyle is ultimately killed protecting her, which neither of them knew in the original timeline but now Sarah is keenly aware of in this version.)
Having the three heroes jump to 2017 doesn’t just keep them from having to portray a world of big hair and shoulder pads. It also allows them to incorporate our modern dependence on technology into the story. In this new version, Skynet is launched through an app called Genisys, which promises users the ability to integrate their smartphones, computers, tablets and all other devices into one streamlined experience. In 1984, robot armies and an all-powerful AI like Skynet seemed far fetched. But in a time when we are all so plugged into technology and we all regularly give up privacy and animosity for convenience and fun gadgets, the idea that we would all willingly download the implement for mankind’s destruction feels terrifyingly-believable.
On an intellectual level, I really enjoyed the film. I liked the way it played with fate and time travel. And it had a few good twists and turns in it, including one fairly-shocking reveal. They had to do quite a bit of finagling in order to present a story that made sense, but I thought they did a great job with the hand they were dealt.
Surprisingly, I was less-enamored with the action scenes. There are a handful of great sequences, particularly a car chase/shootout on the Golden Gate Bridge, but many of the big action scenes felt hollow and looked too slick and computer-generated to be convincing. Perhaps that’s fitting though – like the character in the film, it was director Alan Taylor’s over-reliance on modern technology that did him in.
Still, unconvincing-CGI and underwhelming action scenes aside, Terminator Genisys is a surprisingly-entertaining film. It never reaches the heights of The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but considering the nosedive the franchise has been in since those two films, Genisys finally gives us a new Terminator story worth watching.