In Hollywood’s quest to wring every last dollar out of any intellectual property it owns, audiences have been bombarded with all sorts of efforts to reinvigorate long-dormant franchises. These attempts tend to take on different approaches. There’s the method used by 2009’s Star Trek, which saw the creation of a parallel timeline that let new actors inhabit familiar roles without erasing the stories fans love. There’s also the approach used most recently by Jurassic World, which looked to the basic outline of Jurassic Park and created a much larger version of it. There’s even the way X-Men: Days of Future Past brought back fan favorites from the original films with a new cast to create something that wiped those original films out of canon. Or, if a series has too much bad baggage, there’s the Superman Returns approach of ignoring just the films fans don’t tend to care for in the first place.
Then there’s Terminator Genisys, which takes parts of all of these approaches and attempts to relaunch this long-troubled franchise. In the process, though, Terminator Genisys just confirms that there’s nowhere compelling for this series to go.
In the year 2029, John Connor (Jason Clarke) and the Resistance are finally about to beat Skynet. In shutting down Skynet’s central core, they’ve discovered Skynet’s newest weapon – a time-travel device that has just sent a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger and CGI) back to 1984. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is given a mission: go back in time and save Sarah Connor. But when Reese arrives, things aren’t quite as he was told they would be. Sarah (Emilia Clarke), for example, isn’t a terrified waitress. She’s a warrior who has an old Terminator (Schwarzenegger) by her side. This Terminator, referred to as “Pops” by Sarah, has been her protector since 1973, when a T-1000 tried to kill her. With history being altered, Reese has new memories that urge him to go to 2017 to stop Genisys, an operating system that’s cover for Skynet and that, when fully activated, will bring around a rescheduled Judgment Day.
In trying to restart the series, Terminator Genisys wants what made The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day work. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s back – this time as both killer and protector – with a few lines about Terminator skin aging to explain Schwarzenegger’s advancing age. The romance between Reese and Sarah is factored in, with a hint that it could continue into future films in this rebooted series. The badass Sarah Connor from T2 is also back, because that version of the character is the more iconic incarnation. The T-1000, a fan favorite from T2, now shows up in 1984. The film even finds a way to incorporate John Connor, in a way Paramount has chosen to spoil in advertisements that the film’s creative team has acknowledged they don’t like, so I won’t specify it here.
Essentially, the film wants fans to remember the better days of this franchise, before Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation saw it veer wildly off-course. The film even makes sure to write the two films out of continuity; Judgment Day is in the originally-predicted 1997, not the 2003 seen in those previous two films, and the film rewrites the initial meeting between John Connor and Kyle Reese (first seen in Terminator: Salvation) to more closely match the original date.
The way the film ultimately handles its acknowledgment of the first two Terminator films, though, can be easily demonstrated in the initial 1984 sequences. Iconic scenes from The Terminator are reshot with new cast members, but they otherwise mirror what audiences remember from that film. As the scene where the original Terminator is blown apart by Pops shows, though, Terminator Genisys is ultimately more than willing to blow up what worked before in order to create its own messy path.
And boy, does Genisys like to create a messy path. In the name of fan service, the film doesn’t try to explain how elements that were introduced in later films now find themselves coming into the storyline far earlier, like the inclusion of the T-1000 a full decade before the original film. It just hopes fans are excited by this mixture of popular elements, and that includes the return of Schwarzenegger to his most iconic role.
At least Schwarzenegger seems like he’s having a good time. In other areas, the film shows how right the casting choices from a decade ago were for the series. First of all, let’s take Jai Courtney, taking the role originally played by Michael Biehn in The Terminator. Biehn had a certain scrappiness to him that made him charming, and made it believable that Sarah Connor would be able to fall for him in a brief amount of time. Courtney, on the other hand, is the definitive example of Hollywood repeatedly casting an actor completely devoid of charm, talent, or anything beyond a painfully generic attractiveness and expecting for the film to work. He is, in a word, bland.
At more of a disadvantage is Emilia Clarke. Linda Hamilton certainly owns the role, and part of what makes the role definitively hers is that she played two very different variations of the character in the two films. The decade of distance between the events of The Terminator and T2 let Hamilton naturally take Sarah from innocence to ruthless edge. Here, Clarke is expected to have the grit of T2-Sarah at the age and youthfulness of Terminator-Sarah. That’s a tall order for anyone to pull off, and while Clarke bears a striking resemblance to a young Hamilton, she’s too soft to be convincing as someone who’s spent a decade preparing for war.
Also, because it bears mentioning: of course the film felt the need to push Judgment Day to a time more adjacent to our own, and of course they chose to do it through popular modern technology. One character refers to Genisys as a “killer app,” with the internalized response from Reese and Sarah being, “If you only knew.” The way the film tackles the subject, it comes close to condemning the nature of our increasingly interconnected world, like the film itself isn’t going to do that.
I can’t even venture to guess how audiences will respond to this film, not after the unexpected phenomenon that is Jurassic World. To its ever-so-slight advantage, Terminator Genisys is more watchable than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines or Terminator: Salvation. Then again, those films are just plain unwatchable. This one is more like a massive wreck that won’t let you turn away. Instead, it’ll just make you root for Skynet to win. At least the film has Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons (God, does that feel nice to write) to liven up a few scenes and talk about the “goddamn time-traveling robots.”