‘Terminator Genisys’ Review: Latest Film Reinvents ‘Terminator’ Saga for Better and Worse
So I finally got to check out Terminator Genisys, the latest in what’s basically one of my favorite film series of all-time. Sure, T3: Rise of the Machines was a bit of a mess, and Terminator Salvation was straight-up garbage, but let it never be said that a deep, passionate love affair with the first two movies of a film series can’t inspire a lifetime of devotion. I’ve loved the Terminator series for as long as I can remember, which is why I had such trepidation about this latest reimagining of the saga.
Terminator Genisys is a reboot, the first in a planned trilogy that will essentially offer a twisted take on the original Terminator mythology. Humans are still at war with machines, and the machines still send a Terminator back in time to kill the mother of resistance leader John Connor. And John Connor still sends back soldier Kyle Reese to protect his mother and ensure his own existence. But that’s largely where the similarities end. We get a new cast offering versions of the original characters that feel both familiar and utterly unrecognizable. And I suppose that’s where we should start, because there’s a lot to rant about, both good and bad.
Emilia Clarke is Sarah Connor, and her resemblance to Linda Hamilton in T2 probably isn’t an accident. But even without the resemblance, she offers a nice take on Sarah’s portrayal in that movie as a woman who’s hardened but also scared. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as the T-800, and his charisma practically carries the movie. Sure, he’s a robot, but he offers one of the film’s most human performances, showing just how badly Arnold has been missed in American action movies. Terminator Genisys also has Doctor Who star Matt Smith in a role I won’t spoil, although, needless to say, he steals every scene he’s in. Oh, and J.K. Simmons is wonderful in his brief role as a law enforcement officer who’s convinced time travel is possible. Seriously, that guy is on FIRE right now, and while his part isn’t exactly load-bearing, it’s a great treat throughout the movie.
That’s the good, at least where the cast was concerned. But I wasn’t particularly in love with the rest of the performances.
Jason Clarke is John Connor, and while he has the battle-hardened quality you’d expect from the legendary resistance leader, he doesn’t exactly strike me as someone who’d inspire humanity to victory. There’s a certain dryness to the portrayal that only works if we’re only meant to view John Connor as a military leader, rather than the enigmatic symbol of hope he’s become. The performance lacks warmth, and that hurts this particular portrayal of John Connor. Clarke is a tremendous actor, but I ultimately feel he was miscast here. And that goes double for Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese. Part of what made Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese so effective in the original film was his ragged, raw quality. There was a harrowed nature to the character, a desperation from years spent fighting machines, from knowing only death, desolation and hopelessness. Biehn’s Kyle Reese was in shape, but he was also raggedy too, like he hadn’t been eating that well. I mean, really, how well could humanity possibly be eating when they’re at war with machines who control supply lines?
Biehn’s Reese had urgency to him, and it was a portrayal that felt immediately lived-in. Courtney’s Reese feels like a discount Han Solo, a would-be rogue who’s not only well-fed, but looks like he’s been hitting the gym in-between skirmishes. He’s not ragged or raw-nerved, he’s not haunted by the horrors of growing up in a world in which humanity was completely oppressed by robots. Hell, he cracks jokes and has quippy back-and-forths with Sarah Connor! He smiles! It just felt all sorts of wrong, and it isn’t just the poor writing of the character, it’s also a severe case of miscasting. And I say that as someone who’s really enjoyed Courtney’s work, particularly in Jack Reacher and, especially, Spartacus. And I’m looking forward to seeing him next summer in Suicide Squad as Captain Boomerang. But this performance was just all sorts of wrong, and I recognize the inherent unfairness of that critique. Had I not seen the first Terminator, and if I didn’t know how Kyle Reese is supposed to be, I might not have had a problem with his portrayal here. But even ignoring all that, Courtney’s Reese makes for a forgettable hero. Arnold is far more compelling as a male lead.
But how about the plot?
In a lot of ways, the script succeeds in replicating the tone of the first two films in the series. It has the grim severity of The Terminator, and the heart-pounding action (and sense of humor) present in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. However, what worked about the first two movies — the fairly straightforward nature of the overarching plot of the series — is completely absent here. A diagram, if you will:
(Spoilers for the first Terminator movie)
Terminator 1: In the future, humans are at war with machines (Skynet). And, after a long series of battles, the humans are actually winning, thanks to the leadership of resistance leader John Connor. So, in a last-ditch effort to win the war, Skynet sends a Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, John’s mother, so that the resistance leader will never be born. In response, John sends Kyle Reese, a trusted soldier in the war, and — unbeknownst to Kyle — John’s own father.
Terminator Genisys: In the future, humans are at war with machines (Skynet). And, after a long series of battles, the humans are actually winning, thanks to the leadership of resistance leader John Connor. John, having apparently seen the previous movies in this series, knows Skynet is planning to send a Terminator back to 1984 to kill his mother. So he sends back Kyle Reese, with instructions on how to help prepare Sarah for Judgment Day. However, Kyle gets back to 1984 only to find out that Sarah isn’t some meek damsel-in-distress at all. She’s actually quite capable, perhaps more so than Kyle, due in large part to the fact that she has a Terminator of her own, appropriately named “Pops”. Turns out, Pops raised her after rescuing her from a T-1000 that was sent back to the 70s to kill her as a child. They’ve basically been on the run ever since, and the rest of the movie involves Skynet sending other threats back to various points in history to ensure its own creation. Who sent Pops to protect Sarah? Hell if we know, Pops has been programmed never to reveal that information, creating a mystery the movie never solves, presumably because it’s lined up for the sequel.
I suppose the premise itself isn’t that hard to process, but the resulting twists build from there, and multiply beyond necessity. Once we got into discussion of “nexus points” and being organisms being “rewritten at a cellular level,” I mostly just gave up trying to maintain any sort of continuity between this mythology and the one that came before. Once you separate the movie from the burden of what came before, it’s actually a really fun blockbuster.
There are some absolutely stunning setpieces, such as a car chase on the Golden Gate Bridge, the multiple fights in 1984 against the T-1000, the helicopter chase, and the brawl at the Cyberdyne complex. Game of Thrones helmer Alan Taylor knows his action, and he shoots it with a pace that borders on manic, at times. But it adds to the energetic feel of the movie. It’s intense but not exhausting in the way Michael Bay’s Transformers of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies are. Where the destruction keeps going and going until you just want it to end already. This was action-packed but not excessively so, as there are just as many moments focused on exploring the new mythology and its implications for these characters, such as whether or not Sarah and Kyle even should be together at all, fate be damned. Really, it’s the smaller moments that help make this a movie worth checking out, for Terminator fans. Some iconic scenes from the series are exquisitely recreated here as callbacks, such as the Terminator threatening some young punks for their clothes, or Kyle Reese’s escape through the clothing store upon arriving in 1984. And the CG recreation of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the coolest things I’ve seen on screen all year, for how seamless it was.
Ultimately, I suppose what I’m saying is that Terminator Genisys reinvents the Terminator saga for better AND for worse. For worse, because it’s needlessly bogged down with way too many unnecessary twists. For better, because the action is more grandiose, there’s a more effective sense of humor than in past entries (well, outside of T2), and there seems to be an actual plan in place for the franchise, moving forward. Is it my favorite movie of the year? No. But it’s definitely a fun way to kill two hours, if chilling at the movies is your thing. Lord knows, it’s mine.
But what did you think of Terminator Genisys? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Terminator, check out Arnold Schwarzenegger pranking fans for charity while dressed as The Terminator himself!