I do not have a ton of investment in the Terminator franchise. The notion of it being a “universe”, a term uttered in conjunction with properties such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the MCU, to me is presumptuous fanboism at best. I’ve never felt tightly coupled to the notion of a firm Terminator continuity, since the whole premise is built around a super AI that develops the ability to muck with the timeline. Continuity. Exploded. Right there. As I entered the theater to see Terminator Genisys, I was bereft of any cups that needed to be filled by that movie. I skipped the 3rd and 4th flicks, and really did not need anything from this one. The end result was that I came away from this film feeling pretty damned positive.
Terminator: Genysis takes up the story by introducing us to some shards of Kyle Reese’s life that we had not seen before. We see the strength of the bond that exists between he and John Connor. We see how the two met. Notions of Reese’s childhood. We see the actual launch through the time machine that started it all way back in 1984. Then things start to diverge from what we thought we already knew.
Most of the on-screen time revolves around the interaction between Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), and the T800 Model 101 (Pops, or Guardian; Arnold Schwarzenegger). The chemistry between these three has bright spots, but is not perfect. As a Cold War kid, I would be inclined to say that Linda Hamilton is “my” Sarah Connor, but I am not betrothed to any single rendition of that character. And her trip rendering Sarah as a bad-ass was the first, but it stands in stark contrast to her first appearance where she was a complete damsel in distress. So Emilia Clarke’s rendition does not necessarily need to surmount Linda Hamilton’s performance or Lena Headey’s (but her overly diminutive stature is a bit out of place). Hamilton’s initial portrayal as bad-ass in T2: Judgement Day is also marred by the weakness of her offspring, John Connor. In almost every case, main characters having children in a glorified escort mission movie come off about as great as escort missions do in games. Pretty sucky. My point is that I think most people will or are comparing Genisys to T2 and my point is, let’s not overly glorify that flick in that comparison. Yes, Linda Hamilton was awesome as Sarah Connor, but there is room for others to put on that role. And there was little to no chemistry between that cast. It was another special effects extravaganza and a showboat platform for Arnold. I liked T2, but I keep that appreciation in perspective.
In Terminator: Genisys, the actors on-screen chemistry is best when it is just two of the three mains on-screen at a time. The metaphor of the T800 as father as a foil to Reese as courting son-in-law-to-be works with just Schwarzenegger on-screen with Courtney, and Clarke popping in to ask “What’s up with you two?”. As Reese develops more and more trust for Pops, that dynamic works. And Courtney playing off of a Sarah Connor that, not only he thinks he knows, but we all think we know, and constantly being surprised works as well.
All-in-all, I like this movie because it meets one of my major requirements for a film to be more than average, and that is that the main characters move from who they are at the outset to what they are at the end. The triumvirate of Connor-Reese-T800 grows through the adventure, gaining each other’s trust, and arriving, ultimately, at the same questioning space at the end, asking each other, “What now?”.
I will also mention that one of the reasons I really like this movie is because it is the first Terminator that I have seen where I really, really despised the villains. This is another key element for me giving any form of media a higher-end score. I will not say who the villains are, as that ruins a bit of the movie for those who still plan on going to see it. But man, the two of them really, really, piss me off. In the past, the Terminator has just been a pre-programmed automaton whom I could not really blame for their acts. But in the realization of the two villains in Genisys, there are opportunities for them to take off-ramps and pursue other directions for dealing with humanity. They simply choose not to. So here is another breakpoint where I diverge from the popular comparisons to T2; that movie was great for 20-something Agasicles, but it would not fly as well with twice as old Agasicles.
Here within the GWW Screens crew, we have talked about the effect of coming out with a sequel when that franchise is no longer in the cultural zeitgeist. It often hurts a movie as the content is just no longer relevant in the movie-goer mindset. For me, in Genisys, the opposite happens. Because there has been enough breathing space between this movie and Judgement Day (1991 and considered by many to be the last relevant Terminator movie), Genisys feels like it can stand alone and be considered as something decoupled from the rest of the franchise. As I said, I have never considered these movies or the TV show to be building blocks on one another. They are more so a series of individual adventure tales in the same universe that do not necessarily thread together. And, in fact, in Genisys, that is exactly the picture that is painted. That there are, potentially, so many incongruous timelines and possible outcomes that you cannot really say that any single episode of a Terminator tale that is told is necessarily part of a specific timeline concurrently with another tale.
For me, this is a solid adventure romp that leans on the previous installments of the franchise just enough to evoke nostalgia, while not being chained to what has gone before. I am really starting to like old Arnold Schwarzenegger. He needs to continue doing stuff like this and The Last Stand where he plays engendering father-figure/grizzled veteran roles and steer clear of the train wreck that the Expendables franchise has become. Emilia Clarke creates a genuine role as Sarah, evoking the frustration of an iconic figure fated to take a pre-determined path to save the world. Courtney has to do a twist here, whereas most renons of Reese are of the bad-ass who knows more than everyone else. Here he is the clueless one compared to Sarah and Pops and has to play catch-up to show his value in comparison to the others.
The main thing that sets this apart for me is that the film makers, smartly, chose to leave behind the drudging melancholy and darkness of the previous movies with their 1980s Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust and the overall dystopian future bend. I get it. Things are bleak for humanity in the 2030’s, but I do not need to be beaten over the head with it. The tone here in this last movie is spot-on. We are informed how serious it is, but they back off enough to let you enjoy the adventure in between the opening and closure so that you are not in that dreary mindset for two hours. I have to commend the film crew here with taking a franchise that had been driven into the doldrums (you know, it really does not take much creative skill to create a dark world without hope) and crowbarring out a AAA movie with the high-adventure and heroic inspiration of other, brighter fantasy worlds, despite its iconic history. It was a risky and ballsy move, it worked for me, and I applaud it. Scene.