Warning: This review reveals the plot twist already ruined by the movie’s poor marketing.
In one of many heartbreaking scenes in Terminator Genisys; that’s pump smashing for fans, not emotionally affecting; Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor tells Jai Courtney’s voided Kyle Reese, “that movie you love? The classic? It’s gone.” I’m paraphrasing but the audience are under no illusions: James Cameron’s first two movies have been expunged from the Terminator timeline; they’ve been – oh, I don’t know – what’s a good synonym for discontinued?
As with J.J Abrams’ vandalism of the Star Trek universe, one’s left feeling that nothing says respect for an in-built audience than the wanton obliteration of the thing they love. That doesn’t stop director Alan Taylor and Skynet’s handpicked writers, Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, from trying to fool the audience into thinking they’ve come to tell a serious story that builds on Cameron’s films, however. The key, they think, is to litter the movie with multiple callbacks to the first two – a sort of Terminator mix tape, going so far as to recreate whole scenes, shot for shot, from Cameron’s original, before adding fan fiction twists. The inspiration for all this alternate timeline madness is, we’ve learned, Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future Part II. But fan fiction scribes seldom understand why the stories they love work, only that they love them, and Kalogridis and Lussier are no exception.
Zemeckis revisited scenes from his original movie but had the sense to create a new story around it, leaving the original intact. A Terminator film in which a band of characters tried to protect the original movie’s timeline to safeguard an assault in the present, with the likes of Linda Hamilton’s waitress and Michael Biehn’s Reese blissfully unaware, might have been a hoot. That story at least would acknowledge the importance of cause and effect and how each struggle is a staging post on the long road to ultimate victory. Instead we get a sequel that cruelly trades on the audience’s knowledge of Cameron’s movies before junking the duo wholesale for a plot that looks to have been devised by kids in conversation at comic con and half-remembered by a producer who was close by.
Cameron’s movies have been asset stripped, their iconography sold cheap and used as props in a new film about nothing. The real Terminator movies that Genisys effectively parodies were tech-noirs, thrillers – pervaded by menace and well-cranked tension. The first was a grimy, nasty piece of sci-fi horror, the second an anti-war movie with grit. Taylor’s film ticks on without style or atmosphere, never troubling the brain or adrenal gland and hamstrung by a premise so convoluted and confused that the movie must waste much of its screen time explaining itself. In a movie featuring not one but three time machines, there’s no time for suspense or intrigue, and none for developing the characters from Cameron’s 1984 movie, who in their alternate state, are empty vessels to link scenes.
In a new Terminator universe that makes fanciful leaps from the old, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s geriatric, family friendly T-800 is an all-knowing font of exposition, who mystifyingly has all the historical, biographical and scientific knowledge required to destroy its creator. That’s quite a punt on Skynet’s part – sending infiltration units into the field with that virtual Aladdin’s cave in their brains. What if such a unit was captured and reprogrammed? You’d think a super-intelligent computer would try and rectify its mistake by sending an advanced Terminator to shut down the old model, as its enemies are useless without it, but the target remains a few ignorant humans.
That Kalogridis and Lussier’s script retrospectively weakens Cameron’s original by bringing the backstory to the foreground and inadvertently interrogating its logic, is not in doubt, early scenes exposing the ontological paradox at the story’s heart. Cameron was smart to keep the tech in the margin; his movies weren’t about the rudiments of time travel, just existential brushstrokes like self-determination. Genisys, in a bid to service its mercenary reboot plot, contorts wildly and talks like a snake oil salesman.
It’s a bad move to focus on John Connor’s assault on Skynet’s time weapon, as it begs the question of how he knew what lay within a protected facility in the first place. No talk of Bothan spies here. He also appears to know everything about it, which isn’t bad for a well organised grunt. His mother and the good Terminator told him, you say? But who told them? And so we get into the kind of thorny, circular plot territory that ruins movies, the use of which is unfortunately underlined by the presence of Doctor Who’s Matt Smith. His plot holes come with him.
Said holes could fill ten reviews, and each and every member of the audience who isn’t distracted by ill-advised references to Michael Bay movies and trite attempts at humour will have their own list (topped by how did the T-John Connor, whose body is metallic, time travel?). But the real story of Terminator Genisys isn’t the idiot plotting and empty pyrotechnics, it’s the choices the filmmakers have made with the old characters, ruining them with a certain flippancy.
Never in your Terminator-loving life did you imagine you’d watch a sequel in which a young Sarah had a lovingly crafted child sketch of a T-800 on her wall, or that a plot twist would mean she effectively had both a Terminator father and Terminator son. Never, you thought in your naivety, would you hear Kyle Reese say of a T-800, “he loved you”, or hear the murder droid lament, “I can’t kill Sarah Connor”. Well maybe he can’t but there’s nothing to stop us killing ourselves. In fact there’s so many of these legacy corroding moments in Genisys that you’re left feeling like Hamilton’s heroine in T2 at the moment her flesh was torn from her bones by a nuclear blast. Two sequels are threatened. Isn’t it time someone stripped off, got in their time machine and put a stop to all this?