This week’s Terminator: Genisys did a smart thing: it completely ignored the below average Parts 3 and 4 of the franchise, while putting a new spin on the awesome as f–k Parts 1 and 2. Basically, it knew beforehand exactly what not to do and exactly what to do, what doesn’t work and what does, what’ll get fans of the original two films cringing in disgust and what’ll keep them seated in the those dark theaters with overpriced but crunchy popcorn in tow. In other words, director Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys got its hands on a cheat sheet.
But despite the obvious and enviable insight that was available to Taylor, Genisys somewhat misses the boat in creating a franchise reboot that is equal parts nostalgic and innovative.
It takes off from the story thread established in the first two James Cameron films: John Connor, the leader of the Resistance against the Artificial Intelligence Skynet that has waged war against mankind, sends back in time his deputy Kyle Reese to safeguard his mother Sarah Connor — who’s under threat from a terminator sent back in time by Skynet to eliminate her before John Connor is ever born.
For a lengthy duration from the beginning, writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier seem to be having a lot of fun toying with the original mythology and people’s expectations from a set of rules they’ve come to accept. The 1984 that Kyle Reese travels to, the one where he’s expected to safeguard Sarah Connor, doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, Sarah is now the savoir (with the little help of a reprogrammed T-800 Terminator).
Within the first hour or so itself, you get Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting Arnold Schwarzenegger, the scary-as-hell T-1000 Terminator from the 1991 Judgment Day, and a whole lot of parallel timelines and time travel, enough to make your head spin but also enough to pique the curiosity of the admirers of the original Cameron films. Alan Taylor does a commendable job as a director in using nostalgia as a weapon of entertainment.
It’s post the highly convenient and highly unconvincing “nexus in time makes you remember two pasts” theory and the time travel to 2017 that the writer duo have to start creating original material instead of recycling the past ones, and this is where the film slips like an imbalanced kid on an oil rig.
Kalogridis and Lussier get so caught up in the film’s proposed alternate timelines, that they paint themselves into a corner there’s no escaping from. You get a befuddling subplot of a discredited cop from an earlier timeline (poor J.K. Simmons in an excuse of a part), you get an aging Schwarzenegger Terminator which is kinda-sorta scientifically impossible, you get a time traveling John Connor to add to the chaos, and you get the film’s BIG TWIST that it had already revealed in its countless trailers and posters.
Everything that’s meant to impact you one way impacts you completely differently. What’s meant to draw gasps from the audience instead induces weariness. By the time you get to plot convulsion number xyz, you’ve already lost count of the xyz times xyz number of possible futures which could turn out to be safe ones for mankind, but more importantly, safe for all the key people in the film who’ll get to return in a sequel.
The film takes its body from the successful Terminator films, but it’s a completely different cup of tea to capture their essence. Those two films had so much heart that they didn’t have to rely on mechanical and technologically created action pieces to keep audiences hooked. They were more about finding the human inside the machine than machines ripping humans apart.
So, it’s in further detriment of Alan Taylor that he isn’t able to produce any big and memorable emotional or comedic moments in a film that could’ve been ripe with them. The emotions are as superficial as the skin on the terminators and the comedic one liners are mostly low hanging fruit that were there for the taking.
Taylor isn’t new to large-scale action, having directed some of the best and grandest episodes of Game of Thrones, and he keeps the explosions and the collisions coming big and fast. Even though they don’t manage to cover any new ground (except for the sadly short climatic helicopter chase, something you don’t get to see everyday) and hardly have the nail-biting quality that made Judgment Day such a masterpiece, they keep your mind distracted from the inevitably oncoming new subplot that’ll complicate matters further.
Schwarzenegger pulls off his best Terminator monotone, returning in his iconic eponymous role. Giving his character a bit more of a humane side wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but the film never manages to explore it further than the expected dilemma in the finale. Taylor’s Game of Thrones cohort Emilia Clarke doesn’t always look comfortable in the tough-but-soft part of Sarah Connor, but she’s good enough to pull it off without attracting too much negative attention.
Jai Courtney actually pretty much looks the part of Kyle Reese, and he’s effective enough in a character without any layers whatsoever. Jason Clarke is quite fun to watch in the initial few minutes of the film and a even a few minutes into his reentry in 2017, before his character’s cliche-ness brings down the level of his performance. Why an actor the caliber of Matt Clarke was present for two scenes in the film is beyond my comprehension, unless they bring him back in a more prominent way in a sequel.
And a sequel shall come, as indicated by the off-putting post-credits scene that indicates that all our turmoil and efforts at understanding the film’s complicated timelines were for nothing. Well, not nothing, to be fair. You do get a few well-choreographed action sequences and fresh takes on old characters and plotlines — not enough to ignite my interest in a potential sequel or forgive past mistakes of the franchise, but enough to make this time-traveling adventure a decent way to pass time this weekend.