Review: TERMINATOR GENISYS, The Embodiment Of Fan Disservice
The fifth instalment of the troubled sci-fi time travel series reveals itself to be a frustrating reboot-sequel hybrid, cherry-picking iconic moments from throughout the franchise and reworking them into a confused and mostly absurd new narrative. The result is a film that will likely infuriate fans, confound newcomers and fumble yet another attempt to carry the torch of James Cameron's mould-breaking creation into the future.
In 2029, John Connor (Jason Clarke) successfully leads the rebellion against the machines and destroys Skynet. In its dying seconds, however, the sentient technology sends a T-800 terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 to kill Connor's mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke). John has no choice but to send his best soldier, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to protect her. However, rather than an unsuspecting waitress, Reese discovers Sarah is already primed for the attack, thanks to another T-800 (also Schwarzenegger) who has been at her side since she was nine years old.
"Pops", as Schwarzenegger's guardian is affectionately known, swiftly dispenses with his doppelgänger but must then contend with a liquid metal T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun), which also appears in 1984. When they discover that their additional preparation may have inadvertently rescheduled Judgment Day from 1997 to 2017, Sarah and Reese (still unaware of his full role in the Connor family future) use their own time travel device to jump forward 33 years. However, there they find a new, even more advanced threat awaits them, emerging from the most unlikely of places.
"The future's not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves". So goes the mantra of the Terminator franchise, but in Alan Taylor's Terminator Genisys, not even the events of its own previous instalments can now be taken for granted. Within its first half-hour, Genisys manages to cannibalise the set-up of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, render them obsolete, relocate its three main principles (Sarah, Reese and the tamed T-800) into a brand new near-future and unveil a new antagonist so illogical that any remaining investment in this material promptly vanishes in derisive disbelief.
Time travel is never an easy dramatic beast to tame, as tension all but evaporates the instant anything can be corrected or pre-empted by another leap back. To its credit, Terminator Genisys mostly manages to keep hold of the bucking bull that is its own narrative logic, even as it destroys the china shop of its own franchise. The events unfolding onscreen may upset and infuriate anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of Cameron's offerings, but these new narrative somersaults are easy enough to follow. Their course and final destination, on the other hand, are not in the least bit worth the sacrifice.
The chequered and troubled past of the Terminator franchise over the past three decades has been well documented. From rights issues to superstar meltdowns, the three feature films and two seasons of television that have emerged since 1991 have never been able to hold much of a candle to Cameron's initial one-two punch. It is baffling really, as Cameron's films themselves don't have a great deal in common - the first is essentially a low budget slasher with a smart cyberpunk backstory, while the second was the most expensive cat and mouse movie ever made employing groundbreaking CGI work. Even with the maligned McGuffin of time travel at their disposal, the results that followed were uniformly weak.
Nevertheless, Terminator Genisys plunders from all of them, whether to relocate the action to the present(ish) day a la The Sarah Connor Chronicles, to have Schwarzenegger continue to lampoon his once frightening character (as in Rise of the Machines), or to attempt to explore the conflicted personality and pressures of an emboldened adult John Connor (as McG attempted with Christian Bale in Salvation). One of the great ironies in Genisys is having its characters repeat the line "old, not obsolete" to justify Schwarzenegger's inclusion, while the film displays precisely the opposite attitude towards its own legacy. Genisys strips its own franchise clean only to repurpose the remains to baffling, lacklustre effect.
There is so little innovation or original material in the film that the resulting mess proves an almost impressive display of kaleidoscopic consolidation. J.K. Simmons pops up as a veteran cop who has been following the case since the 1980s, only for nobody to pay any attention to him. Fingers are pointed at iCloud technology, and how its interconnectedness leaves the world vulnerable to a large scale cyber attack...but no effort is made to explore the impact it has on society or humanity. There is also the new evil terminator design - which is essentially the same as the T-1000, only constructed from iron filings. It may look cool at times, but it fails to pose any kind of new threat or wow factor. Meanwhile the action set-pieces never come close to matching the best aspects of its predecessors.
Perhaps most upsetting of all is the amount of mis-judged fan service permeating Terminator Genisys. The film frequently retools famous lines of dialogue from earlier films, re-stages whole sequences shot for shot, and even inserts cameo appearances from the likes of Michael Biehn, as if it truly believes the audience is on board with what it is doing. In its disrespectful opening act, Genisys blows through plot points so confidently it must assume viewers have seen the earlier films, only to then rehash and disregard them with all the panache of a careless reboot. Who do Taylor and Co believe their audience to be? As newbies and aficionados will be equally dismayed.
Performances are as perfunctory and derivative as one might expect. Schwarzenegger just looks happy to be there, even though his character has relatively little to do. This time round his surrogate father duties are for Sarah's benefit, whom Clarke plays as a softer version of Linda Hamilton's psychotic one-woman army. Without a son to protect or innocence to lose, there's nowhere for her to evolve either. Sadly, that falls at the feet of Kyle Reese, as played by wet-weather Sam Worthington stand-in, Jai Courtney. Reese is the character out of time, wrong-footed by Skynet's meddling with continuity, and wrestling with his role in the planet's uncertain future. Sadly, Courtney has none of the skills required for portraying a charismatic, sympathetic leading man. Jason Clarke, as the conflicted, dubiously-motivated John Connor, is gifted little more than scowling and monologuing, which are well within his reach.
Instead of forging a new future for itself, Terminator Genisys travels back to the past, plundering its own successes and reworking history to fuel its own nefarious plans for box office domination. It cannot be bargained or reasoned with, and it absolutely will not stop. But the future is not set, an unwelcoming public has derailed this franchise at least twice before, and it is more than capable of doing it again. There can be a future free from more subpar Terminator sequels, if we simply stop going to see them. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves, after all.