Terminator Genisys is cinematic nihilism, a snake devouring its own tail. It tells the story of two parents who time-travel around different periods of recent history, discussing why they need to never fall in love and thus never have the child they are currently trying to kill. Meanwhile, the film never misses a chance to wink and wave at its own parents–Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day–both of whom are likely as appalled by their offspring as this movie’s protagonists. If James Cameron could, I’m sure he would zip into the past and wipe this movie from history.
And yet, here we are, with another terrible Terminator movie, a film that musters only one interesting idea in two hours.
The plot of Terminator Genisys is as incoherent as it is irrelevant. Which is amazing, when you think about it, because this same plot has been used in this franchise three times, only now, it has more time travel. The movie starts in 2029 with a very long voice-over that sets up the post-apocalyptic earth and includes nuclear annihilation of San Francisco. Again, repeating what we’ve seen before. But this time it all happens in PG-13 because ticket sales, so we don’t see get the reality of the horror James Cameron gave us, with skin melted from the bone. This time it’s all cleaned up: just kids playing in a park, then a cut away, then they’re blown-up.
Eventually a man named Kyle Reese stops talking, and is sent by the human military leader John Connor back to to 1984 to protect his mother from time-traveling machines known as Terminators.
Reese arrives in 1984 to find and kill the Terminator who went before him, but time-travel, so its a different 1984 and Arnold Terminator is already there, only he’s on the human team. He actually arrived in 1973, and has been raising Sarah Connor ever since. He’s now named Pops, and he fights a bad Terminator Arnold, and that is really pretty cool. Then Sarah and John and Pops all argue about time-travel before Sarah and John time-travel to 2017 because in this reality, it’s 2017 when Skynet will wake up and kill us all. Should I keep going?
In 2017, Sarah and Kyle show up and find that their child, John Connor, has time traveled back to 2017, too, and is working for a tech company on a time-travel device. And that’s where the one interesting idea in Terminator Genisys comes alive. If you’ve seen Terminator or Judgment Day, you know John Connor is the Christ-figure of this franchise (JC!), the savior of humanity that will defeat the robots and bring humans back to power. That savior story continues here.
And if you haven’t seen those films, well, don’t worry because John Connor is literally referred to as Christ, when his father refers to his son by saying that John is a compassionate guy. “That’s just the kind of man your son was. Is. Will be,” before exclaiming, “JESUS!” Time-travel Christ-figure metaphors are so confusing! But that was 2029 John. The 2017 John Connor is different. As one of Terminator Genisys trailers says (because all plot twists are now revealed in trailers) John Connor is now “one of them,” an evil robot, traveling through time to ensure that Skynet lives. He’s still the Christ figure, he’s just not our Christ figure.
Which means, for a few minutes Terminator Genisys purports to be a movie about a human transformed into a terminator, time-traveling to kill his parents. That’s cool shit. I mean, if Robot Jesus went back in time to kill his human parents to ensure that his machine army killed all the humans, wouldn’t you just be killing yourself? Let’s explore that! Or not. This interesting line of development is quickly lost in the clumsy adherence to the movie’s complicated plot (Matt Smith something something…) and lame social commentary about how we’re too connected to our phones (this is Skynet’s new plan: human annihilation through digital interconnection. Good one, machines!).
The frustrating feeling that accompanies watching Terminator Genisys is becoming too familiar. Alan Taylor, who directed Thor: The Dark World, and has directed on Game of Thrones, does his job well, here. Everything looks terrific (especially in IMAX 3D), the action scenes are coherent and accomplished, but it all happens in the service of nothing. When Sarah and Kyle are fighting a T-1000, shooting it and watching its metal wounds heal, it looks just like it did in 1991 when James Cameron did it. Then, twenty mintues later, when they blow up the same T-1000, and the music builds as the pieces turn to liquid and then the liquid coagulates and then rises back into the man that it was you’re just left wondering why we’re wasting our time on this.
By the time that 2017 story finally arrives (which takes way too long), and John Connor comes back and brings a new version of the terminator technology, the audience is not given any sense of what the hell is going on or that it has any consequence in a world with so many different timelines and futures and pasts. Even in the movie, no one knows what any of this means or why it matters. At one point in the film a completely unnecessary character, played J.K. Simmons, comes into the action and speaks for the audience, saying: “I’m sure whatever you’re doing is all really really complicated but…” and then the main character, Sarah Connor shouts at him “We’re here to stop the end of the world.”
Is that good enough for you? Because it’s all you get. The whole picture is a meaningless exercise in studio franchise exploitation. The point of this movie is to draw a line from the excellent James Cameron films to this awful one. The end.
The forces behind Terminator Genisys are betting big on their belief that audiences do not want something fresh. That’s the only conclusion that makes sense in the wake of this $179 Million wager. These forces argue that audiences have abandoned even a fake desire for new ideas, new stories, new characters. Skydance and Paramount, the studios behind this movie, think that you will buy the same thing, over and over and over.
This problem isn’t new, of course. Old things have been thinly veiled into new things throughout the history of Hollywood, though the practice has never been more apparent than it is today, and it’s never been quite as transparent as Terminator Genisys. This is close to what J.J. Abrams did with 2010’s Star Trek, rebooting inside the existing universe, with some success (Star Trek is pretty successful; Into Darkness a disaster). Abrams is now doing the same thing with Star Wars.
This summer’s Jurassic World was enchanted by its own hyper-awareness of Jurassic Park, but at least World put forth the effort to build nostalgia around that awareness. Nostalgia is something the audience can feel, and making the audience feel things is basically the point of making movies. Or at least, it used to be.
The overlords at Paramount and Skydance are moving past the notion that audiences care about what’s on-screen. If this movie is a smashing success, we’ll all be put onto alternate reality, where studios know they don’t have to try because we will gobble up the same actors saying the same words to the same characters in the same action scenes in the same franchise that we were watching more than 20 years ago. Because, hey, if we don’t care, why should they?