Remember back when movie sequels were inevitably terrible?
With the recent run of amazing sequels, we forget there was a time when a second movie was just another way to milk money out of a credulous audience before they wised up. Nowadays we’ve become accustomed to sequels that breathe new life into dead franchises like Jurassic World, or fix problems with previous instalments like X-Men: Days of Future Past. Or just remind us what we loved about the original, like Mad Max: Fury Road.
Unfortunately, some film had to break this recent winning streak, and that film is Terminator Genisys.
To be clear; Genisys is not unforgivably bad. In fact it starts out brilliantly, following resistance-leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) as they defeat Skynet in the post-apocalyptic future. As everyone with an even passing familiarity with the Terminator franchise knows, they discover they’re too late and the T-800 cyborg has been sent back in time to kill John’s mother before he’s born. Naturally Kyle Reese volunteers to go back and protect her, and the plot rolls from there.
So far, the movie is very promising. Jason Clarke makes a warmer, more human John Connor than his predecessor Christian Bale and despite some painful exposition that Courtney manfully struggles through, the relationship between the two is solid and powerful. You can believe that these two men have been through hell together and with only the slightest quirks of expression Jason Clarke manages to convey all the inner turmoil of a man sending his best friend to his death. There’s even a hint of a reversed father-son dynamic which makes their friendship all the more poignant.
Unfortunately for Reese, the past he goes back to has already been interfered with. Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is not a waitress, but a trained soldier raised by yet another T-800 cyborg that was sent even further back in the past to protect her (that’s not a spoiler if it’s in the trailer). This time, Kyle is not the all-knowing protector, but a liability who must be protected until it is time for him and Sarah to ‘mate’, as the T-800 eloquently puts it.
Again, there is nothing wrong with the movie until this point. The twist on the original premise is new and exciting, and affords interesting possibilities for the characters. Emilia Clarke makes a sharp, determined Sarah Connor who, if not quite the badass as she was in the second film, is well on her way. Arnold Schwarzenegger kills it as the cyborg ‘Pops’, who’s as dedicated to protecting Sarah as he was to protecting her son in the second film.
However, the plot soon becomes convoluted and clunky. The explanation of time-travel makes very little sense, and no, the filmmakers don’t get to fall back on the old excuse of “time travel is difficult to explain”. Star Trek (2009) had no problems with it. X-Men: Days of Future Past was remarkably clear and logical. Previous Terminator films arguably set the standard for how to concisely outline the rules of meddling with the time-stream, so there is no excuse for Genisys to be as baffling as it is.
Watching this film, you get the feeling there was a coherent scrip at some point, but it was re-written a dozen different times by a dozen different people. There are a lot of good ideas, but, thematically, it’s all over the place and doesn’t answer any of the questions the audience is really interested in. The shock twist thrown in around the middle makes less sense the more you think about it, and only avoids being a complete deal-breaker due to the performance of the actors.
Speaking of, it has to be said: Jai Courtney was not the best choice to play Kyle Reese. He’s certainly an okay actor – his reaction to John’s paternity, for example, perfectly walks that fine line between comedy and tragedy – but his performance bears little resemblance to Michael Biehn from the original Terminator. This Reese doesn’t have Biehn’s desperate intensity, and his faint injured air of self-entitlement makes him difficult to relate to. He suffers in comparison to Anton Yelchin from Salvation, who managed to capture the frantic energy of a teenage survivor.
This relates to the other, more serious problem, which is the romance depicted between Reese and Sarah. Or lack thereof. Sadly, their interactions are trite, cliché, and any ounce of chemistry the actors managed to scrape together was crushed by the script. Forced bickering that’s supposed to mask sexual tension? Check. Getting naked/changed between a barrier while watching each other’s shadows? Check. Contrived reasons to get into sexy situations to then deny any feelings afterward? Double check. Considering that this relationship is a major part of the storyline and mythology, it’s a very serious stumbling block.
Luckily, the film is saved from complete disaster by Schwarzenegger. Terminator films have always been about the Terminator, and it’s never been more true than here. ‘Pops’ might have been a top-of-the-line killing machine back in the day, but now he’s damaged and his flesh has aged. There’s a vulnerability to him, this creature that’s no longer just a machine and not quite a man. His father-figure role to Sarah – and eventually Reese – provides the most heart-felt emotions we see onscreen. In a way, it could be taken as a metaphor for the franchise as a whole. Yes, it’s old and clunky and things no longer work the way they’re meant to, but there’s life in the old boy yet.
It’s a shame that Genisys had to break the recent run of strong sequels, but if you push that aside, its sins are more or less forgivable. It’s a world above Rise of the Machines and it doesn’t discard the original themes as Salvation did. The action is sound, most of the actors deliver decent performances, and it’s arguably the funniest movie of the franchise. While not up to our current ridiculously high standards, there are much worse follow-up films out there. Just set your Neural Net Processor to ‘read only’, sit back and enjoy the ride.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10