There is no future, there is no past. Let’s hope this Terminator is the last!
Terminator Genisys comes courtesy of SkyDance Productions at a cost of $170 million. It is distributed by Paramount/Viacom VIAB -1.5% Inc. and will be released in a dozen markets this weekend before dropping in America and elsewhere on July 1st and throughout the July 3rd weekend frame. It is of course an attempt to reignite the 31-year old Terminator franchise, and Paramount is outwardly optimistic, since they have slotted a Terminator Genisys 2 for May 19th, 2017. But the future is what we make of it, and the fate of this franchise appears a bit uncertain. Like a number of reboot/franchise revivals current and future, this one is a sequel not to all of the Terminator movies but only the ones that are considered “superior.” This installment brings back Arnold Schwarzenegger as another protector robot from the future and operates as a quasi-sequel/reboot to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The film ignores and discards Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation, to say nothing of the cult Fox television show The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
To be blunt, the film’s box office prospects are uncertain. Schwarzenegger hasn’t been a lead in a hit film since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines back in 2003, and Eraser in 1996 before that. Yes there is obvious value among older moviegoers in seeing him return to a variation on its iconic character, but the rest of the cast is made up of people you may have heard of (Jai Courtney, Emilia Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Jason Clarke, etc.) but are not remotely box office draws. The marketing campaign has been something of a disaster. With a laughably bad Entertainment Weekly photo shoot kicking things off to a second major trailer that gives away the film’s biggest plot twist to word of a cell phone game that you are supposed to play inside the theater at select IMAX screenings, this has not been a shining moment in tent pole marketing. To be fair, you have to advertise the movie you get, so I imagine Paramount is having a bit more fun with Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation than they were able to with this one.
Nonetheless, Schwarzenegger in the lead means a world of difference versus Terminator Salvation, or at least it might have in 2006. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines earned $433m worldwide back in 2003, which is still among the larger-grossing R-rated movies of all time. But 2003 was a lifetime ago in movie going. Schwarzenegger has been mostly DOA onscreen save for the surprisingly robust China performance of Escape Plan back in late 2013. Kids won’t care about the revival of that franchise they occasionally sampled on TNT or DVD and grownups probably can’t justify the babysitter to relieve their movie going glory days. At a glance, Terminator Genisys feels like a franchise that was resurrected just because it could, regardless of whether it should have been. In terms of old-school SAT questions, Jurassic World is to The Avengers as Terminator Genisys is to Battleship. Unless overseas audiences are clamoring for a new Terminator film, this franchise may have no future.
Terminator Genisys is a film that spends much of its 125-minute running time straining to justify its existence and justify the extension of the brand. It is less a movie than a full-length commercial for the potential of ongoing Terminator movies that use the concept of time travel to keep itself alive well past the point of expiration. And it is clearer now than ever that this is a series that belongs in the past. It would be easy to say that the Terminator franchise should have ended in 1991 with the second James Cameron chapter, but that negates both the surprisingly solid Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and (according to those I trust who watched it) the decent Sarah Connor Chronicles television series. Say what you will about Terminator Salvation, and I can say a lot of mean things about it, but at least it was telling its own story and charting its own path. This limp and discombobulated reboot/sequel/side-quel clings to the memory of the first film, slavishly recreating the narrative of the first film and then the structure of the second, offering little-to-nothing that we haven’t seen before and presenting it in a visually drab and emotionally vacant fashion. With the important caveat that Terminator 2 is merely “almost as good” as The Terminator and I genuinely like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, we know have a five film franchise that has gotten worse each time out.
The film starts out well enough, with a good twenty-minutes showing the yet another presentation of Judgment Day (we have now seen Judgment Day onscreen almost as often as we’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents get shot) and a look at the night when John Connor’s rebellion won the war against the machines but failed to stop a terminator from traveling to 1984. On one hand, it’s the kind of “explain and show everything” filmmaking that thinks it’s mimicking Batman Begins but really is mimicking a Saw sequel, but the big robot war stuff is terrific (director Alan Taylor is good at the whole mass battle thing) and at the very least this is new material. But once Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, an exploding fireball of charisma per usual, and technically the film’s lead character*) travels to 1984 the film turns into a hodgepodge of scenes we’ve already seen and then wholly new material that is only somewhat like what we’ve already seen. This isn’t a clever Back to the Future II-style revisiting of the prior chapters. This is a franchise clinging to its own past and clinging to the one brief point in time when it was culturally relevant.
As you probably know, the hook is that “the past has been changed,” we means the status quo of our characters has been messed around with a bit. It takes a good 40 minutes of the 125-minute movie to truly go its own way, but sadly this rehash stuff, which includes a new variation on the T-1000 and the introduction to a new T-800 (sent to protect and then raise Sarah Connor when she was a child), is the best stuff in the movie. The film ironically plummets in interest once it charts its own future, with a good 15-20 minutes spent during its second act making the choice to use a homegrown time machine to travel to 2017 and theoretically stop Judgment Day. If the notion of our heroes hopping through time shows promise, don’t get your hopes up. The film does basically nothing with the time jump, with the film leaping into the future and then getting involved with the same “caught by police, chased by a terminator” shtick that wouldn’t look out of place in any era.
The action scenes are efficient but perfunctory and dull, with many of them doing little to progress the story beyond offering trailer-friendly beats. There is nothing in terms of scale or entertainment value that equals any of the big chase scenes from the four prior installments. Even Terminator Salvation had a barn-burner of a first act chase sequence. This film fails even that token requirement. It is bizarre to realize that the comparatively small-scale thrills of watching Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick beat the stuffing out of each other back in 1991 is significantly more exciting and engaging than this film’s presumably more expensive robot versus robot showdowns. And not only is the film PG-13, it lacks even all that much violence and contains zero tension throughout. In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, we wondered if Nick Stahl and Claire Danes could stop Judgment Day because we were emotionally invested in the outcome. In this film, we wonder if Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney can stop Judgment Day because we’re hopeful that the film will actually have something resembling a definitive ending either way as opposed to bazillion loose ends for a theoretical sequel.
Emilia Clarke is supposed to be a “strong-from-the-get go” Sarah Connor, but Emilia Clarke lacks both Linda Hamilton’s charisma and individualism. It’s sad that we’re still supposed to be impressed in 2015 that a female character in an action film can handle herself in the action beats, even as this revamp makes her a supporting character to Courtney’s would-be future savior. Worst of all is that the film makes her primary arc into whether or not she can/will fall in love with that totally not-cute/totally too bossy future boy who she knows will eventually father her child. I’m not sure why anyone thought we needed to see Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese fall in love all over again. Heck, even when Shrek The Final Chapter played that game it was about Shrek coming to terms with an unplanned life (it was Greenburg for kids), but Clarke and Courtney’s would-be “Ew, I would never fall in love with him!” courtship doesn’t exist for any other thematic purpose.
The second half of the film seems to make up rules about time travel and/or changing the future as it goes along, ending in a boring skirmish in a boring office building that amounts to characters yelling at holograms while terminators fight each other. By the way, there is a pretty big surprise that is revealed both in the film’s trailer and even on the main poster, but it bears little significance to the overall story. I will be vague here, but the would-be revelation doesn’t remotely change the progression or outcome of the story, and it’s only a plot twist in the sense that it goes against what we know from the prior films. And that’s one of this picture’s biggest problems. It hangs onto the first two Terminator movies for dear life, using the familiar character and plot beats as a key point of relevance. Yes we have eye-rolling callbacks and visual references galore, but more importantly the film absolutely fails to stand on its own absent its connection to the Terminator and Terminator 2. Say what you will about Jurassic World, but it operates both as a sequel to a popular franchise and a stand-alone story that doesn’t depend on its predecessors to fill in the blanks and/or offer thematic relevance.
But I could forgive much of what I complained about above if the end result weren’t so relentlessly dull. Schwarzenegger gives the film what life it has, even if we’ve seen most of the “Can a machine be a father and crack jokes?” beats before. Jai Courtney is the most generic of generic heroes, while Emilia Clarke is forced to basically infantilize Sarah Connor. J.K. Simmons provides welcome amusement, but it strains credibility that his character would be allowed to participate in the manner that he does. But the film is visually drab and narratively bland, with few truly memorable moments amid a watered-down, over-explained, and more explicitly kid-friendly version of the first two films. Like Terminator Salvation, this isn’t just a PG-13 film but an out-and-out “constructed for kids” variation on a previously adult story. But at least Terminator Salvation tells its own story and thus justifies its existence in the realm of the Terminator franchise.
Terminator Genisys, which is about as bad but exponentially less engaging, falls into the Amazing Spider-Man/Nightmare On Elm Street trap of telling a story we’ve mostly already seen in a greatly inferior fashion. In the days to come, should I ever want to watch a Terminator film, I might choose one of James Cameron’s first two masterpieces, I might choose Jonathan Mostow’s underrated third entry, or I might even give McG’s future war sequel another shot. But I can’t imagine I will ever choose to revisit Terminator Genisys, which is a relentlessly unenjoyable variation of past/future glories. Why sample the knock-off, when you can savor the original?
* I tend to pick on Jai Courtney quite a bit, as he is one of those “came out of nowhere, seems to get tons of high profile roles despite not making much of an impression on audiences” would-be new movie stars. But while I find him incredibly uninteresting as a hero, he’s not half-bad as a baddie as evidenced by Jack Reacher and Divergent Series: Insurgent. If he gets to keep his natural accent for Suicide Squad, I will remain optimistic.