“I don’t know why I’m remembering a life I never lived, but I know that it’s real.”
With those words, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) sums up and tries to excuse Terminator Genisys and the problematic mess that it is. No matter if James Cameron, writer and director of the seminal 1984 film that started a revolution in special effects in film, endorsed this film as the official sequel to his first and second Terminator films, Terminator Genisys quickly spends little time destroying the legacy that those first two films labored hard to establish. In the opening minutes of the film, the previous timeline is laid waste, almost as if to cop a tagline from a bacon product called Sizzlean: “Move over bacon; now, there’s something meatier!”
You should never mess with bacon, much less tell it to move over for anything, which is what Terminator Genisys is doing with The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Well, hey – it worked for Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions with their 2009 Star Trek reboot; the same studio and production company have taken the same approach here and pulled a “scorched earth” on the previous canon. Here’s the thing: it worked fine with Star Trek because the film followed its own logic. Origins weren’t messed with to the point where occurrences in the film were physically impossible due to the space-time continuum and how characters developed.
Terminator Genisys doesn’t follow its own rules, nor can it. It sticks itself in a quandary in the film’s opening minutes and dares you to come along with it, higher thought be damned. As an action film with a single timeline, it works and entertains the way a crackling summer movie should. There’s explosions, chases, suspense, and finally, the event never seen in the previous Terminator films – sending the original T-800 (played in various incarnations by the man himself, Arnold Schwarznegger) and Reese, the man sent to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), back to 1984, where the battle for the future would take place in the then-present.
The Terminator’s opening minutes are either reformatted for big screens or redone with new actors – thankfully leaving the film’s only MPAA-sanctioned heavy profanity in the appropriate place – before all of the established canon gets blown to bits by “Pops” (Schwarzenegger), a pump-action shotgun-wielding T-800, and the waitress-age Sarah with a Barrett M82 (that big gun from the end of 1987’s Robocop) when the original, naked T-800 arrives from the future. Across town, Reese’s arrival starts differently, as he was met with an African-American police officer (Ed Dogans) in the first film; this time, he’s greeted by an Asian police officer (Lee Byung-Hun), almost as if wanting to scream out “HEY! NOTE THE DIFFERENCE!”
Fans of the original, welcome to the new timeline that has been skewed well out of the timeline we’ve come to know and love these last 31 years. Everything you know is wrong now.
Sending Reese back through time is the battle-scarred John Connor (Jason Clarke), having already won not just the battle, but the future war in 2029; just before Reese disappears, he sees John attacked by a T-5000 (Matt Smith), a new brand of a kind of nanobot Terminator that is nigh indestructible. After watching this thing in action, a lot of the suspense gets taken out of the movie because T-5000’s capabilities make it the cybernetic version of Superman – to quote Reese from the first film, “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever… until you are dead.” Aside from maybe one minor weakness, this thing is the end-all, be-all of Terminators, never letting anything like a grenade launcher, an C-4 explosion that sets off every piece of ordnance in its vicinity, or a broken-off helicopter skid get in its way.
All Reese, Sarah, and Pops (listed as “Guardian” in the end credits) can do is run and look scared, because if that’s the future they’re fighting, then they’re in way over their heads. However, all they have to do to stop it is shut down Skynet, which was originally thought to have happened in Terminator 2. As this is the alternate timeline, not only is Cyberdyne Systems scientist Miles Dyson (Courtney B. Vance) alive, he’s also brought his son Danny (Dayo Okeniyi) into the fold, teaming up to bring us Genisys, a revolutionary killer app that would be able to control virtually every piece of technology in our lives. No one except our off-grid leads is seen without some kind of tech on them – a cell phone, Bluetooth headset, comm unit, iPad – the social commentary of which may be making more of a statement about where we are with all of the tech and social media linking everything together, living and dying by these little gadgets made of plastic.
In the aforementioned life that Reese never lived, there seems to be one constant flashback he keeps seeing: his child self speaking into a mirror, telling himself that Genisys is Skynet. By the time that Reese, Sarah, and Pops are in a place to do anything about it, it’s already counting down to mere hours before it’s uploaded for all users to have. We’re shoved so close to Judgment Day, and our heroic trio have to deal with a T-5000 and shutting down a program that will surely cast this world into oblivion.
Sounds pretty straightforward, eh? Like I said, on the surface of it, it’s a crackling summer movie that works when you think of it as a single-timeline film. However, when you incorporate the multiple timelines and the time-jumps in between times where people were supposed to have existed, it falls completely apart. As soon as the timeline skews when we’re told it skews, someone should have disappeared or not have been born in the first place, which leads me to a whole host of head-spinning questions concerning Terminator Genisys (all of which may be answered by the dubious mid-credits scene – there’s a reason why the first part of the credits are in 3D).
If Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor meet in 1984 but do not produce the offspring that is John Connor, how could John – as we know him now – possibly exist? How would Reese have been able to travel back in time? Who sent Pops to protect Sarah from a T-1000 all those years prior to Reese’s arrival in 1984? Who sent that T-1000 back to kill Sarah? If the resistance killed Skynet’s functions and found the time-displacement unit after Skynet was only able to send one T-800 back to 1984, how was Skynet later able to develop a better Terminator and send that back in time to kill John Connor as a kid and OH WOW MY HEAD HURTS.
Terminator Genisys seems to work on the faith that there will be another film after this one, being merely the first part of an at least two-part series. In every sense of the word, and an ironical sense due to the subject matter, the Terminator series has been rebooted afresh, mind-bending space-time continuum issues be damned. It really isn’t a bad watch in theaters (avoid the 3D), but it falls apart by not obeying its own rules. Alan Taylor’s direction keeps things humming and thrumming with few lulls amid the chaos of time travel, and to be fair to him, he’s managed to make a fun film for summer moviegoers. However, as a film in the Terminator pantheon, it suffers a bit from what happened Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street series – he started off as a vicious killer with few words to say, yet grows more into a caricature with every successive installment. No longer are we shaking in our boots at the Terminator’s approach like we did when he zeroed in on Sarah at Tech Noir in the 1984 film; instead, we kind of find him cute and fun.
Well, of course, we find him cute and fun. As Arnold Schwarzenegger ages, so must the Terminator; when Reese exclaims that he’s never seen an old Terminator, Sarah repeats the “living human tissue over the metal endoskeleton” line we’ve heard so many times, but she adds that it ages, just like everyone else’s skin does. Along the way, we see signs of Pops not being what he once was – his joints are starting to freeze and shake, just like an arthritis patient’s – and it’s getting worse. However, because it’s Schwarzenegger, the oft-repeated phrase “Old, not obsolete” rings true in this movie; he is a staple of American action cinema, and we wouldn’t be in theaters watching Terminator Genisys if it weren’t for him. He plays Pops as a softened version of his usually stolid character, filled with more humanity than we’ve ever seen him have before in these films. You know that you’re in the theater to watch the former California governor kick cinematic ass, and that’s at least one thing that won’t let you down.