By Brett Bunge (Avery, CA)
At one point during the new Terminator film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character (yet another Terminator) declares that he is “old, but not obsolete.”
It’s a funny line at the expense of Arnold’s age to be sure, but it can also be applied to the entire film series itself, which has soldiered gamely on since the first film was released in 1984. This new film comes to us courtesy of director Alan Taylor, best known for his television work on LOST, The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones, among others. His vision for Terminator tries—with mixed results—to shake things up and put a fresh spin on the classic formula.
To that end, the deliberately misspelled Terminator Genisys (the film gives a reason for the weird spelling, but it’s still silly) begins in the grim future of 2029, during humanity’s final assault on the genocidal AI known as Skynet. Just like the first film, upon realizing its imminent defeat, Skynet sends a T-800 Terminator (this time played by a body double with Schwarzenegger’s face superimposed on him), back in time to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor before her son John can be born and grow up to lead the future human resistance.
This time, however, upon stepping into the time machine, soldier Kyle Reese witnesses a Terminator attacking John, which changes the timeline drastically. Upon arriving in 1984, he finds that twenty-year old Sarah is already a soldier, having survived a Terminator attack when she was nine years old in 1973 with the help of the Guardian, a reprogrammed Terminator nicknamed “Pops” who has guarded her ever since. Now Sarah, Kyle, and Pops must not only figure out what has changed, but also contend with both the original T-800 Terminator and a liquid metal T-1000 who has shown up in 1984 instead of 1997, this time played by Korean actor Lee Byung-hun.
This then, is the basic premise of the film: watch as the new cast reenacts scenes from Terminator and Terminator 2 with a twist (the film is billed as a direct sequel to the second movie, and largely ignores T3 and Terminator: Salvation, which is just fine). To be fair to the film, the first half of it is excellently done. Much like the recent Jurassic World, which also ran on nostalgia, this film recreates the iconic scenes and lines that everyone remembers (“I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live,” for example) but with enough changes to make things new and interesting. By staging the shots the same, the film can appeal to both new and old fans with subtle (and not so subtle) shout outs and references. Hearing Brad Fiedel’s iconic Terminator theme while seeing one of the robots stride out of an inferno, for example, is sure to get your blood pumping (unfortunately, the rest of the score, composed by Lorne Balfe, barely registers).
It’s the second half of the film where things fall a bit short. Convinced that the timeline has changed, the trio—who happens to have a time machine of their own—decides to go not to 1997 but instead the modern day San Francisco of 2017, where they contend with an entirely new Terminator dubbed the “T-3000,” whose story I won’t spoil.
While the scenes in 1984 are well paced and interesting, the 2017 half of the film ultimately feels too fast-paced, rushing from plot point to plot point with no room for much character development or drama. The action scenes are good and filled with cool guns and explosions, if a bit CGI-heavy, but there’s too many of them, even for a Terminator film, and they tend to blur together. The Terminator effects somehow seem less interesting that they did way back in 1984 utilized now computer effects rather than practical ones. That said, one of the set pieces, featuring a car chase on the Golden Gate Bridge, is thrilling and fun, and easily one of the best action scenes this year (although even that pales in comparison to the practical effect car chases of Mad Max: Fury Road, which is the new gold standard for such films).
The core problem with the film is the casting, which is all over the map. The script is poorly written and wooden, but it’s consistently funny with its pithy one-liners, and the plot, as detailed above, is generally straightforward enough and easy to follow despite its seemingly complicated time travel narrative (the series has played fast and loose with its continuity, so you can’t think too hard about it).
Of the main cast, on the Terminator side of things, Schwarzenegger seems to be having the most fun, playing both his new self and the 1984 Terminator, and their fight scene is one of the highlights of the film, if a bit too brief. Sure, he’s emotionless and robotic, but he’s a Terminator, so it’s to be expected, and Arnold is sincere enough to sell it. While Lee Byung-hun is appropriately menacing as the new T-1000, he pales in comparison to the original, which Robert Patrick infused with unsettling creepiness. It’s a shame that the T-1000 is only in the first half of the film, as the new T-3000—while unstoppable and cool looking—just doesn’t have the same vibe.
Emilia Clarke leads the human cast (Daenerys Targaryen for Game of Thrones fans), who takes over the role originally played by Linda Hamilton. While Clarke has taken some flak over her somewhat bland performance and bad dialogue (much of which can be attributed to the script), she really sells the young soldier and cements her badass action girl status, and her performance is fun enough that you can overlook the fact that she looks much too young to be Sarah Connor. John Connor, meanwhile, has been recast yet again, with Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia) taking over from Christian Bale. He’s fine, and he delivers his lines with enough gravitas to be acceptable, but he just doesn’t fit the role physically, and watching him, one can’t help but wonder if another actor—Christian Bale or otherwise—might have done better. J.K. Simmons is also on hand as the one cop who believes Kyle and Sarah, and he provides some welcome comic relief, delivering his lines with over the top sincerity and humor. Finally, there’s the Eleventh Doctor himself, Matt Smith (here billed as Matthew Smith for some reason). Smith, who has had a sporadic screen presence since leaving Doctor Who in late 2013, is tragically underused here: he appears in three scenes and steals every single one (it was recently announced that Smith will have a bigger role in the upcoming sequels, so there’s hope).
The weak link of the cast turns out to be Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese, who struggles mightily to fill the shoes of Michael Biehn, who played Reese in 1984. While Biehn brought a sense of torment to the future soldier, Courtney plays him as simply a generic action hero (his physique doesn’t help, which turns Reese from an ordinary man into a hulking strongman). Additionally, Courtney’s delivery is so devoid of emotion that it completely destroys any chemistry between him and Emilia Clarke, making their attraction seem utterly artificial. While he performs well enough in action scenes, he just can’t seem to bring any depth to the character.
Ultimately, Terminator Genisys falls flat. It’s a decent summer action movie, and fans of the series will eat it up, but the casting problems and the emotionless dialogue rob the film of any emotion or complexity. The plot, which shows promise, devolves into one gunfight and chase scene after another. There are better action movies already out this year.
If you want to turn your brain off for a couple of hours and just watch things explode, go see this movie. Otherwise, you’re better off waiting until a new timeline comes along.
Final Score: 4/10