Destroy All Monsters: Nihilism And Time Travel As Franchise Filmmaking In TERMINATOR GENISYS
If you've long nursed a suspicion that Hollywood sequel-making is actually a shell game concealing a vast nothingness at the core of blockbuster franchises and, perhaps, all of life itself, have I got a movie for you: it's called Terminator Genisys.
Early in this earnest fifth entry in the Terminator film series, former Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith turns up at the exact moment Kyle Reese is being sent back in time to 1984, and my half-addled brain wondered for five or ten of the following minutes whether it was possible that Smith was in fact playing the Doctor, who had somehow jumped across fan universes to visit the moment in Terminator when the human race first successfully employed time travel.
(He wasn't. My idea's better, though.)
Time travel is central to this Terminator movie, as it has been for three of the other four... and holy shit, is everyone bad at it. These are pathologically bad time travelers.
About halfway through Genisys, I found myself thinking to myself that for Skynet to have invented temporal displacement only to turn out to be this colossally terrible at using it is nearly poetic justice when weighed against the stupidity of a human race that (in the movie universe) surrenders all of their digital information to a cloud-based app that wipes out the human race, and (in the real world) nicknames NSA programs "Skynet" because, apparently, we don't think karma is "a thing." Paging James Cameron: when does the Titanic II set sail?
If you don't count The Sarah Connor Chronicles (and really, you should, but let's leave them on one side for now), Skynet has now sent, I think, five terminators back in time to kill some member of the Connor family. One T-800, two T-1000s, one whatever-the-fuck-Kristanna-Loken was, and now there's even a Skynet/John Connor hybrid, whose Terminator superpowers are kind of like if a T-1000 fucked some volcanic sand and Jason Clarke popped out.
And they all. Failed.
How is that even possible? It's time travel, for crying out loud. Even if you leave aside the fundamental continuity flaw at the heart of the entire Terminator franchise (the one-or-two-hour "delay" on the ripple effect of sending the first Terminator back, which allowed the resistance to send Reese back as well before a Biff Tanen 1985 sprung up as a result of the T-800's unencumbered actions), are you telling me that at no point did Skynet - sending the third or fourth machine up into the time travel pod, perhaps - think to itself, "shit, this just is not working"?
What's with the centrality of John Connor himself? This occurred to me watching Terminator 5, too. Perhaps it's borne from the fact that something like fifteen separate actors have played the role at this point, but my faith in the notion of JC as the One True Saviour of the human race is at a low ebb.
Somehow, in this universe, no matter what is flung at him, some version of John Connor survives to 2029 and single-handedly leads the human race to victory against the machines. It's the sort of premise that worked nicely as backstory for The Terminator back in 1984 - when the original Terminator was Skynet's hail-mary pass at the end of a long and costly war - but which becomes more and more incredible with each passing sequel.
Each Terminator film forces Skynet to come up with a newer, bigger, badder, more indomitable Terminator to be sent against John Connor, and each Terminator film consequently reinforces John Connor as the indestructible super-nexus of the entire history of the human race to such a degree that one suspects that if Skynet were to send a robot back to the Dawn of Man to wrestle both Adam and Eve to the ground, Adam would promptly hotwire the Terminator and force him to build the Pyramids.
Jurassic World lamented the modern blockbuster's need to jerry-rig greater and greater spectacle in an era of habituation and plateaued audience interest, but the Indominous Rex is King Kong himself next to the walking law of diminishing returns that is the T-3000.
Because it's no longer a matter of, in these films and - I suspect - a great many other franchises as well, whether or not the filmmakers can come up with a threat who is theoretically more powerful than the one our heroes faced last time. It's simply that these movies have proven, repeatedly, that the T-3000, Ultron, Moses, Andy Serkis, Kermit the Frog and every Ewok on the forest moon of Endor could all team up to take on John Connor, and they wouldn't stand a chance.
And Terminator Genisys proves it, albeit entirely through faulty logic. T5 is so resilient on the point that John Connor cannot be killed that in this pretzel-logicked continuity, by the beginning of the second act of Genisys, John Connor no longer even needs to have been born to secure the victory of the human race. Wasn't that the point of pretty much every single one of these films from the beginning?
(For those who miss the mistake, Sarah and Reese time-travel to 2017 immediately after thwarting the 1984 Terminator, having never had sex, conceived John, or squirted the saviour of humanity into the world. And the world just a' keeps on spinnin'.)
And so, as Terminator Genisys finally did what every post-Cameron Terminator entry has threatened to do and scratched all over the surface of Cameron's groovy vinyl till the record was no longer playable at all, it paid off the nihilistic joke at the heart of the whole premise:
Nothing means a goddamned thing.
As a closed loop, The Terminator had a kind of wry ironic fortitude about it; Skynet created the engine of its own destruction by instigating a scenario that allowed a 2029 soldier to impregnate a 1984 waitress.
As a repeating series of loops, however, the Terminator franchise has nowhere to go but nowhere: an endlessly repeating series of if/then statements where time travel scribbles marginalia and red zigzags over a broken sequence of events, where somehow Sarah Connor and John Connor and Skynet and Kyle Reese always exist, and always fight each other, forever. And no matter how you dice it, there's only one reason why: because there are more sequels to be made.
It shits in the face of Hollywood thinking so bluntly that I would applaud it were it not for the fact that I can't credit any of the people involved with having done any of this purposely. They just iterated the cycle for one more loop and hoped for the best, and forgot to let John be born in the first place, and didn't notice.
He's still there, because he'll always still be there; because there will always still be Terminator movies, and none of them will matter.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture; Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.