Movie Review: Terminator Genisys

By Ben Gruchow

July 7, 2015

He just found out what his political and professional future would be.

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The characters in Terminator: Genisys take to time travel the way Jurassic World visitors take to dinosaurs. When a time-travel event occurs, Sarah Connor and/or Kyle Reese (played here by Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney) have no time to express surprise or fear or awe; they're too busy talking out the mechanics.

This is a film franchise about an ongoing war between humanity and AI, where the AI is represented by murderous cyborgs made up of varying constitutions of metal. It's a remake, of sorts, of 1984's The Terminator; it shares continuity with that film and its immediate sequel, but it also rejiggers crucial events to produce a different outcome.

The wild card in this one is the presence of John Connor himself, savior of mankind and leader of the resistance against the machines, consequential since the first film. He plays a bigger role in the narrative than he has in films past, but he has to share screen time with the two main characters and a demo reel’s worth of Terminators: solid metal, liquid metal, and one that’s intriguingly in between. I wanted to know more about this last one, but Terminator: Genisys has other things on its mind. This is an action film, slick and impersonal; it’s not in the business of explication, and if it ever was, the deeper meanings got lost in between screenplay drafts.

The first two films in the Terminator series were exceptionally well-made on a technical level, but they were also written with a kind of nuts-and-bolts approach to their concept that found respect for their characters more intriguing than their many and varied action sequences. The humans were broadly drawn, but appealing and believable, and we were invested in their fate. The second and third sequels in the franchise lacked creator James Cameron's involvement, and both were a massive step up in CGI-augmented cacophony and an equally sizable step down in consequence and gravity. Now comes Terminator: Genisys, with absolutely poisonous pre-release buzz, and here's the non-surprise: it is not the soul-sucking void of horror that was threatened. Instead, it's just a predictably disposable action movie.


I've noticed something interesting about this franchise: each of the latter sequels is, in some way, a reflection of the cinematic action ethic of the time. 2003's Rise of the Machines was the over-CGI'd, plasticky wobbliness of the early 'aughts, with quite stupid characterization. 2009's Salvation was the underlit, noisy, grim, and visually ugly tedium of the "let's make everything gritty" ethic, with quite stupid characterization. And Genisys is the avatar of corporatized, slickly-packaged, predictable quarterly investments - with quite stupid characterization.

Because by God, are the characters in Terminator: Genisys ever its biggest liability as an enjoyable experience. The rest of the movie is child's play by comparison: none of the various action sequences really excite, but it's not like bamboo fingernail torture, or watching a Transformers movie. The effects are good (very good, in some cases), and you can follow what's happening easily enough. There are even a few moments, like a sequence involving an overcranked MRI machine, that evoke a species of visual symmetry and metaphor. For a franchise entry as mercenary as this, it could be worse. And then in comes the triad of Sarah, Reese, and the T-800, and the screenplay’s level of sophistication drops to that of a sitcom. The movie comes up with a decently logical reason for why the T-800 looks significantly older than before, but all this really does is pave the way for a forced and vaguely creepy father-daughter dynamic that pretty much obliterates any sense of menace from the killer cyborg from the future. Into this dynamic comes Kyle Reese. Can you guess from which angle the filmmakers incorporate his character and motivation? If you've seen the earlier films, you'll know, and you'll be irritated.

Courtney, perhaps sensing the futility of the situation, puts forth the absolute minimum of effort he needs to in order to stay in character. Clarke fares a little better (it helps that she bears a resemblance to Linda Hamilton, if a passing one). She tries for a replication of Sarah Connor's coiled, sinewy tension and fails utterly, but that's not down to her acting...or even the script, really; I doubt anyone could convincingly mimic what Hamilton did with the character. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger mugs his way through the film with abandon; it's as if he decided that what the franchise really needed was a goofy uncle (Sarah even refers to him, apropos of nothing, as “Pops” throughout the film). I found it amusing in its absolute weightlessness. If you've seen the earlier films, and you harbor a personal attachment to the menace inherent to the Terminator in those, and you're looking for a reason to dispose of this film, screenwriting team Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis have a take on the T-800 that should do the trick.

If you haven't seen the earlier films: what ultimately transpires here is something akin to an apocalypse fantasy in a young-adult context and written by committee, built for minimum offense and maximum franchisability, unconvincing as parable in the way the best science fiction is. On that level, viewed only as a reflection of its contemporaries, divorced from any deeper ambition, Terminator: Genisys is bland and inoffensive and stops there. Sequels to worthy cultural properties have committed worse crimes, I guess.

Note: The movie’s CGI is considerably better than what was shown in trailers, the beneficiary (or victim?) of cutting the marketing material while the movie is still in the thickets of editing. There are some dodgy moments (the CGI Schwarzenegger in 1984 alternates between horrendous and unsettlingly realistic in a single scene), but the overall quality level is much higher than expected.



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