NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
In a year of reboots for the long-dormant Mad Max, Jurassic Park and Rocky series, another Terminator movie isn’t quite a revive-the-franchise proposition on their level. The mostly disavowed Terminator Salvation – a McG joint! – only came out in 2009. Discounting the TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Salvation was the only Arnie-free episode in the saga. This is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-gubernatorial return to the world of the 1984 film which set him up as an action star for the ‘80s. It arrives after a couple of Expendables cameos and the blah likes of The Last Stand and Sabotage, so there’s an edge of desperation in the way an older Terminator is set against a CGI version of Arnie’s youthful self. A Legend of Conan is in the works to keep his multiplex career running if odd indies like Maggie (in which he’s very good) don’t secure him enough cred to stay around as a character actor. In the ’80s, Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins reprised career-defining roles in The Color of Money and Psycho II – proving that there was mileage in revisiting characters in later life, but this is about falling back on a proven formula rather than taking the story in a new direction.
‘The 1984 John sent you to doesn’t exist anymore,’ Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) tells newly time-jumped Kyle Reese (Jai Courteney) – at once the cleverest stroke in the film and the most infuriating thing about it. The script by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Pathfinder) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry, Dracula 2000) is pretty much Terminator fanfic. It opens in that robot-overrun future revoked in Terminator 2 Judgment Day (1991) and put back on schedule in Terminator Rise of the Machines (2003). After yet another précis of the war between humanity and Skynet, scarred John Connor (Jason Clarke, following up last year’s Planet of the Apes sequel with another Survivor Human role) simultaneously defeats the robo oppressors and sends Reese back in time to thwart Skynet’s last-ditch attempt to assassinate him before he was born. Then, we get a semi-remake of the original, down to casting a Bill Paxton lookalike as a street punk, with Reese pursuing the original Terminator only for an older Terminator, Pops (Arnie), to show up and take the young machine out. Then, kickass Sarah delivers the ‘come with me if you want to live’ signature line and the bewildered Reese is dragged into a mix-up between the 1984 terminator, the liquid metal cop from T2 (Byung-hun Lee) and the creaky Pops, whose human parts have grown older. In the new backstory, Pops – who sent him is a question left for more sequels – has been protecting Sarah since she was nine, and the only help she needs from Reese is to get pregnant eventually.
The Star Trek franchise did a similar time-tinkering reboot, mostly to strip out 1960s elements that were becoming a hard sell (making the black woman a receptionist in space), and Marvel and DC have worked over their own universes in comics so many times that no one can keep track any more. Arguably, all the problems with Terminator Genisys go back to James Cameron’s own revision of his premise in T2, which is where we started to get cutesy good guy killbots and a fluid timestream that allowed for individual films to have happier endings. Like a rogue AI, things are now so out of hand we’re in Back to the Future Part II territory where even a diagram on a blackboard wouldn’t sort out the knots of parallel timelines, characters existing at different ages and remembering contradictory realities, a hop between 1984 and 2017 that allows Arnie’s hair to go grey, robo-treachery that subverts long-standing characters, and doodad-based gubbins about timewarps that need the CPU from a robot head to work (you know, like you can fix your Jaguar with the innards of a toaster). Skynet, no longer a WarGames-style military doomsday machine, has turned into Genisys, an app with a billion pre-orders which will go live and end the world when the countdown clock expires – an attempt to take account of the way our interface with tech has changed since 1984, though any satire of Google or Apple or Microsoft is toothless.
What all this adds up to is that, in the timeline of the series as it stands as of this entry, The Terminator – the 1984 film we all loved in the first place – didn’t happen. Sarah Connor was never a helpless waitress terrified of the unstoppable killing machine sent after her and – considering the lack of chemistry between Clarke (from Game of Thrones) and Courtney (in his second no-threat-to-the-ageing-lead franchise reboot supporting hero role after A Good Day to Die Hard) – it’s likely John Connor is never going to be born. The crowded screen finds room for a decent J.K. Simmons cameo and a throwaway bit (in a franchise-significant role) for ex-Doctor Matt Smith (disguising himself under the alias Matthew Smith). Director Alan Taylor impressed with the little heist movie Palookaville in 1995 and went on to years of high-end television (from Homicide Life on the Street to Game of Thrones) before making his blockbuster bones by taking over from Patty Jenkins on the troubled Thor The Dark World. Here, he is required to deliver PG-13 mimicry of James Cameron and run through the Terminator series’ greatest hits with a few superficial upgrades and variations that mostly emphasise how familiar CGI shapeshifting has become since T2. It’s a noisy, action-packed picture with a few moments of trademarked humour – here, the once-taciturn Terminator is given to long-winded instruction manual techspeak and there’s one good ‘short’ joke about Emilia Clarke – but very little emotional content. Dialogue is relentlessly flat and the few attempts at poignance terminally banal. Given the general scrambling of time, even the worst betrayals and reversals are only provisional. The ending is merely a first draft, subject to infinite revisions as long as these things are still making money and revoked before the end credits are over. A middling summer picture, this is no fair exchange for The Terminator, which it tries to wipe out of existence.