There’s a moment early in TERMINATOR GENISYS that is eerily prescient.
As Kyle Reese and John Connor stand before the time machine that has been sending androids into the past to target Connor and his mother before him, Reese presses him about how all this time, Connor could know so much about what their enemy will do before they even do it. Connor comes clean – his mother, who was told so much about what will happen, imparted it all to him in detail.
All up until that point. This moment – where a T-800 and one soldier from the resistance were sent back in time was the last thing Connor knew for sure. After that, the story was unknown.
Turns out, for the Terminator franchise, knowing the future was pretty darned important.
GENISYS begins at the last stand described above, with Connor (Jason Clarke) sending his top lieutenant (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke). Unbeknownst to Reese, is that he will also father John Connor with Sarah while back in the past. However, when Reese arrives in his destination, something is amiss. During his encounter with a T-1000 Terminator, he is saved by an unexpectedly badass Sarah, who has a weather-worn T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in-tow. Loaded on their truck is the destroyed T-800 Reese thought he’d be chasing.
Turns out, something – or someone – has already started messing with the past before the events we knew were set in motion. The T-800 explains that for reasons unknown, a Terminator had already been dispatched to kill Sarah Connor at age nine. Likewise unknown is who (or what) reprogrammed and sent this T-800 back to thwart that execution. What is known is that the T-800 was successful in both saving young Sarah’s life and training her to be the survivor she has grown up to be. What is also known, is that Reese needs to be protected, since he and Sarah will parent a child that goes on to be kind of a big deal. Actually, Reese doesn’t know that part…but everyone else seems to know.
With all incoming Terminators taken care of, the team turns their focus to a makeshift time machine they have built. The last piece needed to make it work was a Skynet-designed guidance chip, one the team can pull from one of the destroyed Terminators. With that in-hand, Sarah gives the order for she and Reese to be sent forward to 1997 in order to stop Judgement Day from happening. At this, Reese hesitates.
Seems as though he has a memory, a memory that cannot possibly be, but one that feels completely genuine. He believes that Judgement Day is no longer in 1997, but has now bee pushed back to 2017 and involves something called Genisys. Why this might be, he cannot explain, but both he and the T-800 are able to persuade Sarah that the future was never set, and that to make fate for themselves they need to jump 20 years further than expected.
Once they get there, the race to stop Genisys from going online begins in earnest.
While I count myself a fan of TERMINATOR: SALVATION, I know I’m deeply in the minority, so when I talk about “Terminator films”, let’s just assume I’m talking about the first three.
So far, what has allowed the Terminator franchise to be largely successful is the way they’ve built a formula and played around with a few variables. “A machine from the future is hunting a mortal from the present; the machine won’t go down easily, and the human must survive”. Now in GENISYS though, we have dropped that formula. The mortal targets feel more equipped to fight back, and the machine feels like less of a lurching killer than a series of obstacles, and one final snivelling twerp. This time, it feels less like mankind is fighting to survive, and more like it’s trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle.
However, there’s seems to be a sliver of hope when we discover that Genisys is a cloud-based, social media-esque, widely popular OS. Thirty years ago, during the year that George Orwell warned us about, the concept that one gathered collection of AI would prove to be humanity’s undoing was a truly terrifying thought. Big Brother was no longer just “watching”, he was shooting, and bombing, and killing. Yet here we are in the new millennium – not just unafraid of AI but actively arming it with every key detail of our lives. Yet, this too feels like an underdeveloped thread. We aren’t truly given a sense of the inherent dangers, or how it would initialize this doomsday scenario.
If Skynet has evolved into Genisys in days of future past, than we deserve a little more exploration into how that evolution took place, and what the next jump in evolution will entail. Instead, Genisys is just a boogeyman, here to point a finger at we who depend too greatly on a sleek OS.
What might be the saddest bit in all of this muddy mess is the way the film seems to waste Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. Both Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke are serviceable as Kyle Reese and John Connor, but Emilia Clarke arrives poised with a little something extra. She doesn’t have nearly the hard edges that Linda Hamilton had back in 1991, but that’s forgivable given how the different Sarah’s became who the were. Clarke finds the middle ground; between who Hamilton was and what she became. She doesn’t have the killshot look in her eyes, but also seems to handle her weapons and herself as if she has stepped into the ring before. However, the film never truly lets her loose. After an opening act that shows her in complete control and unafraid of any sort of Terminator the future might send back at her, she is largely sidelined, and left to play getaway driver, or back-up shooter. Pity.
Terminator films have largely thrived on one fact; that the present was taking its cues from the future. The present always had to scratch and claw to keep itself intact, lest the future become drastically altered for the worse. However, now that the future is an unknown, so too is the present. Forgetting for a moment that the rewritten timeline has undone everything we have cared about over the course of four films, we have wandered off the map and our guide’s compass is broken. That’s why this film never finds its footing; why the danger of social media and the badassery of Emilia Clarke both feel wasted.
Its prime directive is unknown. It’s code is missing crucial keystrokes.
For the first time ever, Terminator is self aware…and yet it doesn’t know what function it serves, so it cannot execute on any commands. It’s not old, nor obsolete – it’s just deeply, and terribly corrupted.
Note – Somewhat related to why this film doesn’t work is the curious marketing campaign that revealed a major spoiler that occurs in the film’s second half. The spoiler is so important to the narrative that even in this negative review, I still decided not to allude to it. I understand that promotional materials for films – including trailers – are usually created by creative teams that have nothing to do with the creation of the film itself, but why anyone at Paramount allowed this major detail to be depicted so clearly is beyond me.