WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS FOLLOW
There is a plague running rampant throughout modern movies, and it goes by the name of “Just okay.” Think about it. When John McTiernan made the first Die Hard movie back in 1988, it was considered a landmark, and all it did was put the then unknown Bruce Willis in a building with a few Russian baddies (led by the memorably villainous Alan Rickman). Still, simple as the plot was, it was a film which had a script that fleshed out its central character and didn’t make him some kind of superhero. We believed in John McClane because he was a human, just like us.
But the sequels did him no justice. I liked all three sequels (A Good Day to Die Hard is an atrocity that doesn’t exist in my eyes), but there’s no question that the franchise took its once human character and eliminated the flesh and blood, steadily transforming him into some of kind of immortal superhero that can flip a car without receiving a single scratch. Now, just like Die Hard, let’s examine the Terminator franchise.
James Cameron’s 1984 classic is still, to this day, considered a grand achievement; one of the finest pieces of sci-fi entertainment to ever grace the big screen. It’s one giant chase sequence, beginning to end, something we haven’t seen accomplished many times afterward, with the exception of the recent Mad Max: Fury Road. And it didn’t stop there. The sequel, T2: Judgement Day is not only considered one of the best sci-fi sequels of all time, but one of the best action movies ever made, with set pieces that redefined what an action movie could do.
But… what’s happened since then? It’s been 24 years since the release of Cameron’s blockbuster follow-up, and we’ve had three movies inserted into the franchise. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the first movie to not involve Cameron, was a flop, with overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics and for good reason. It barely did anything to keep the timeline of the first two intact, and ended up feeling like a unrighteous mess. But really, why wouldn’t it? How many times can you write a movie about the machines’ attempt to survive extermination from the human race, namely an individual named John Conner? Not very many. Two to be exact. And once those two were made, there was nowhere to go but down.
Terminator Salvation, McG’s attempt at distancing the franchise and focusing entirely on the war between Conner and the machines, was also a dud, but I won’t be so confident to criticize it since I’ll admit to not having much knowledge of it since only seeing it once back in 2009.
Which now brings us to Terminator Genisys, released six years since the fourth installment and thirty one years after the original. Interestingly, this fifth installment makes some interesting decisions regarding the timeline, going all the way back to the events of the first film and paralleling them. However, most of these interesting decisions don’t mean much when it takes its preexisting narrative and jumbles it all up, offering some cool explanations for weird things in the first movie while also making some things head-scratching and confusing.
Without giving too much away (if you’ve seen any trailer for the film, you’ve had a hundred more spoilers than what I could possibly unveil in this review), here is where we are in this fifth installment. The timeline is sometime in the future after Judgement Day. We meet John Conner (Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty), who, after seeing the machines send a terminator back in time to destroy his mother (yes, the Terminator from the first movie), he sends back his longtime pal Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, A Good Day to Die Hard). “Pal” may be a strange and unfortunate word used, as those of us who have seen this franchise know just who Reese is to John Conner.
So, you would think that this movie is just a remake of the first film, with the same set of characters taking over the storyline in the same location and in the same time period. And for the first act of the film, that’s exactly what you get. It’s a little more behind-the-scenes, but it’s still the same introduction that we got in the first movie, with a little more explanation as to why certain things occurred (or how they occurred) that may have baffled viewers for years.
Sometimes, it feels a little off-putting, as it’s hard to tell if they simply converted the scenes from the original film into this one or just did a splendid job at recreating them. These are the scenes that include the Terminator arriving in Los Angeles in 1984, and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger tears through the street. The plot kicks in when the Guardian arrives (Schwarzenegger returning in the heroic role of the second film), killing his old self and confusing the hell out of Reese. This clearly isn’t the past he expected, and that’s made clear when Sarah, the young, helpless girl he’s sent to protect, arrives in a semi with a shotgun and yelling “Come with me if you want to live!”
So, once Sarah and the Guardian reveal to Reese that the past has changed drastically, he is determined to find out why, and he’s also curious as to why he’s being haunted by strange visions of a memory he had as a little boy warning him about “Genisys.” During all this, the two (Reese and Sarah), must travel to the future to stop Judgement Day from ever happening.
I know. There’s a lot going on in this sequel, and to be completely fair, I respect it for at least trying to do something interesting with the material (although I would’ve preferred to see a story about the machines and Skynet and one that doesn’t involve Conner and Reese at all). Still, I didn’t find myself rolling my eyes at the contrivances of the plot because I found there to be enough in it to keep me interested for two hours.
That being said, keeping us interested isn’t all we should expect from a Terminator movie. After all, this is the same series that began with two movies that are sci-fi classics. Two of the best pieces of science fiction cinema to ever hit our screens, and a series that introduced many to grand ideas beyond our grasp but within our control. Now, this same franchise has become nothing more than mind-numbing fluff.
If fluff is your thing, you’ll probably like this one. It’s certainly not a terrible movie, with enough action and plenty of Arnie to keep you entertained. And while we’re on that subject, let’s talk about Mr. Schwarzenegger. One of the most captivating screen presences in the past few decades (seriously, he’s an icon), Arnold is a true cinematic force, and in Genisys, he rocks it, almost seamlessly bringing back his lovable side from the 1991 movie. The awkward smile is still there. His iconic voice is still there. His size is still there. His tenderness is still there. And his need to “pwotekt Sawah Connewr” is still there. Rest assured that Arnie is back and he’s back with a vengeance.
The rest of the cast, however, is just meh. I particularly liked Emilia Clarke (the Dragon Queen herself) as Sarah, who is sometimes forced to say awful lines that seem to embarrass her greatly, but for the most part shows that her past work with director Alan Taylor (who also directed a few episodes of Game of Thrones, most notably “Valar Morghulis” and “Fire and Blood”) has shaped her into a strong female actress. It isn’t the breakout feministic performance of the year (that belongs to Charlize Theron in Fury Road), but I found her to be better than people are giving her credit for. And who couldn’t get lost in those eyes of hers? That alone is worth the price of admission. Well, maybe.
Jai Courtney is about as wooden as Aaron Taylor Johnson was in Godzilla (but Taylor Johnson’s was redeemed by everything else in Gareth Edwards’ film), and it was a bit embarrassing to see J.K. Simmons in his role, which is a believer in time travel who tries to prove to all the other cops that he’s right. He isn’t bad in the role, but coming off of the heights of the superb Whiplash (my favorite film of 2014), you would hope for something better than this. Even Matt Smith, who is burned in my memory after excellently playing The Doctor in BBC’s hit series Doctor Who, is practically wasted, in a role that requires almost nothing but calls itself crucial.
As the movie goes on, director Alan Taylor piles on the action sequences, all of which have been spoiled by the marketing campaign (surprise surprise!). Sometime’s they’re fun. Other times they’re ridiculously off the wall. One involves Arnold’s Guardian diving out of a helicopter head first and going through the propellors of another helicopter unscathed. Not to mention that the helicopter is swerving around buildings sideways and upside down. I’m not sure about the mechanics of helicopters, but I do know that I’ve never seen that done before, and it was about as excruciatingly bad as the stunts in Die Hard 5.
If you go into Terminator Genisys expecting a masterclass of sci-fi revivalism, you’re way off. At its best, Genisys is dumb fun, with a consistent sense of humor that will, to be sure, make you laugh quite a bit. Really, Arnold Schwarzenegger is hilarious in T5, and that’s really all I have to say about it. And when I’m talking about a Terminator movie, I wish I could have a better report.
2 hrs. 5 mins.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Matt Smith, J.K. Simmons
Written by Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier
Directed by Alan Taylor