Arnie’s latest action opus has suffered a horrific reception and hasn’t even crossed $100m domestically. Our resident Terminator nut thinks critics have overlooked a playful narrative remix – even if James Cameron’s touch is missed
Left for dead by the garbled, unloved and all-round ironically named Terminator: Salvation, the franchise that made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name seemed, to all intents and purposes, about as shot as Dick Miller’s gun-store clerk in that scene from the first film. Surely, after squandering the talents of Christian Bale by making him the dullest John Connor ever, and failing to capitalise on Sam Worthington’s post-Avatar ascendancy (now itself stalled, presumably until the Avatar sequels burst out of their moon-sized server room), there couldn’t have been a shred of hope for this fictional realm – let alone the post-nuclear dregs of mankind that loom over it.
But as the Terminator duly informed Dick Miller’s gun-store clerk: “Wrong.” Well… sorta.
Genisys wisely handwaves Salvation and begins with its own take on the “future war” setting beloved of Terminator head geeks. In this latest look at the series’ post-apocalyptic world, John Connor – managing director of what’s left of the human race – is imbued with inspiring, tough, yet everyman-ish qualities by Jason Clarke, most famously seen as a far less appealing handler of military intel in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Flanked by right-hand man and bestie Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), Connor is on the brink of the Great Victory against the machines that have ruled over us in the years since Judgment Day – the date in 1997 when US supercomputer Skynet decided we were all wrong ‘uns and consigned us to a planet-wide furnace.
After Connor’s troops crack the compound housing Skynet, the digital nemesis grabs a T-800 Terminator out of its fridge and lobs it back to 1984, on a mission to eradicate the human commander’s mother, Sarah. Finally, the franchise treats us to a full visualisation of that Fateful Moment when Reese – spurred on by his infatuation with a Polaroid snap of mankind’s matriarch – gets nekkid and goes on the assassin’s trail as Sarah’s devoted protector. But there’s a glitch: Something That Would Be Spoilery To Discuss Here interrupts the time-displacement process and, on his way to ’84, Reese sees a flurry of visions – perhaps memories, perhaps glimpses of a parallel world, some of which show himself as a child speaking of a thing called “Genisys”.
Once Reese arrives at his destination, director Alan Taylor goes all “Gus Van Sant’s Psycho” on us and clearly has a ball mounting shot-for-shot re-enactments of entire scenes from The Terminator, James Cameron’s mighty original. But almost as soon as those echoes emerge, Taylor spins them anew with the introduction of major changes: one of the cops who pursues Reese as he takes his first lungfuls of ‘80s air turns out to be a liquid-metal T-1000 – far more dangerous than the quarry Reese volunteered to take on. Meanwhile, the soldier’s primary target – the cyborg we know and love from the first film – also runs into unexpected flak in the shape of a doppelganger (Schwarzenegger) who has lain in wait for years. That’s not all: this older T-800 has effectively brought Sarah Connor up after scuppering a Skynet bid to kill her as a child – and the woman herself (Emilia Clarke) is in tow, destroying with an explosive shell the very Terminator that, in Linda Hamilton’s version of events, she’d spend a whole film struggling to get rid of.
It is in these scenes and their immediate aftermath that Terminator Genisys is at its most confident – playing out as nothing so much as the franchise’s equivalent of Back to the Future Part II, whereby moments from a debut film we’ve watched countless times are revisited and repurposed, while preserving some of the original resonances: yes, we do see the wrecked Film One Terminator come back for more – but not in the computer factory where the first film ends. We do see it stripped of flesh by a fireball – but not because it’s at the wheel of an exploding fuel tanker. While the results are similar, the whys and wherefores have been dramatically altered.
Throw in a few elements from Terminator 2 – such as the T-1000, and the fact that Clarke plays Sarah as a younger version of the hardened character she became in that landmark sequel – and Genisys’ opening salvo amounts to a briskly witty feast of narrative remixing. It also retains the first two films’ taste for eye-popping grotesquerie, with one incident involving a T-1000 and a torrent of acid rain primed to pump up the horror crowd as much as the Terminator’s self-surgery in Film One and Robert Patrick’s mimetic cyborg rising from a chessboard floor in Film Two.
Crucially, though, the dynamic between Sarah and Reese is twisted 180 degrees in the opposite direction from how it worked in The Terminator – with Sarah armed to the teeth as a long-forewarned doomsday prepper, and Reese struggling to keep up as the would-be saviour whose mission brief and romantic intentions have been crushed in the hydraulic press of timeline sabotage.
It also turns out that Sarah has her own time machine, built with the help of her paternal T-800, and as the device sparks to life, Genisys plunges into yet another round of inter-franchise burglary. Acting on info from his time-travel visions, Reese persuades Sarah to join him on a trip to 2017 – potential site of a reset Judgment Day – and the pair land in the buff on a busy freeway: a moment nicked from the pilot episode of TV spinoff The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In this era, tech giant Cyberdyne is gearing up for the launch of Genisys – an operating system designed to rule the Internet of Things, but which also contains the seeds of Skynet: an idea nicked from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, where the lethal AI quashed in T2 resurfaces as an online virus. Once Reese and Sarah are there, well – who should they run into, but their offspring John Connor. On the basis of details revealed in the trailer, it’s not giving much away to say that his appearance is far from a blessing.
Terminator Genisys has had not merely the worst reviews of the franchise so far, but some of the most savage to have bitten into any big-budget Hollywood product of recent times and certainly the most negative of Arnie’s career. After almost three weeks on release, it has failed to cross the $100 million mark domestically, sitting at the time of writing just above $81m with its takings on a daily slide. By contrast, Salvation managed to rustle up a US gross of $125m before shuffling on to disc – and that film was hardly embraced with open arms. Sure, Genisys has its problems. Not unlike a shape-shifting T-1000, its 2017 section begins to feel more and more like it’s blending in with the tone of the superhero flicks that have come to hog the mainstream since Salvation shilled its last tub of popcorn. That gradual Marvelisation of the film is especially prominent in some increasingly cartoonish action set-pieces – not to mention the inclusion of a mid-credits teaser – and ensures that Genisys, despite having all the required weaponry at its disposal, never stands a chance of hitting the heady heights of the new Planet of the Apes franchise: films that have mulled the apocalypse with an altogether straighter face.
Despite tipping a sea of hats to Cameron’s Terminators, Genisys could arguably have gone even further. It’s a pity, for example, that Brad Fiedel wasn’t re-hired to scoring duties, as his iconic washes of sinister synth are sorely missed in the ’84 section. That goes double for the thumping pop-rock of Tahnee Cain & Tryanglz, whose anthems ‘Photoplay’ and ‘Burnin’ in the Third Degree’ provided Film One with some of its most memorable cues. All told, though, Genisys proves far more adept at remodelling ideas from earlier on in the franchise than coming up with compelling thoughts of its own – and it’s clear that the absence of Cameron’s titanic IQ, which empowered his entries with such eerie menace, is the main reason why Rise, Salvation and, to a lesser degree, Genisys have wavered. Amid the sunny glare of the annual summer blockbuster race, it’s easy to forget what a harsh, nasty and genuinely shocking film The Terminator was, and still is, largely because it was an indie made for just $6m at a time when the concept of the “sleeper hit” was a touchstone for US directors who didn’t have access to studio funds. In that sense, none of the Terminator sequels – including Cameron’s lighter T2 (budget: $94m) – have truly captured the spirit of the first, which revelled in close-up, execution-style murders, callously mowed down an entire precinct of cops and featured an explicit sex scene between Sarah and Reese.
It’s on that last point that Genisys is at its wobbliest, unable to square the circle of the time-crossed couple’s disrupted relationship arc and leaving them by the end like a pair of heavily armed bounty hunters who might kind of fancy each other – bedroom grappling a distant prospect. Their cause isn’t exactly helped by Courtney – likeable enough, but devoid of bite, and not even remotely a match for the raw desperation of Michael Biehn, who played Reese to the hilt as a sufferer of chronic PTSD. Indeed, when you ponder the reams of frantic exposition Biehn had to rant through in the first film, it’s clear that his performance did as much as Schwarzenegger’s – perhaps even more – to sell the Terminator’s whopping threat level to the audience. Anton Yelchin’s respectful take on Reese in Salvation, which was the best thing about that film, leaves Courtney’s version standing.
That said, Terminator Genisys is still an entertaining 125 minutes, driven by a playful approach to Cameron’s material that could only be the product of writers who are enjoying their own mischief. In Reese’s interactions with his childhood self, there are even some pleasing touches of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. While Genisys may be hamstrung in key areas, the near-universal slating it has received is wildly over the top, and risks obscuring the film’s marked superiority over Rise and Salvation. As the franchise often reminds us, the future is not set – so with any luck the Terminator brand will be back sometime, hopefully with some powerful, new things to say.
Terminator Genisys is out now in UK cinemas