Terminator: Genisys is the best of the franchise since the original two. Now, before you diehards out there go all bananas, let’s agree that, initially at least, that’s not saying very much. Jonathan Mostow’s 2003 Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was an instantly regrettable follow-up to James Cameron’s two masterworks (The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day). The ham-fisted humor and grossly ineffective CGI took the pitch-perfect source material, which gained international acclaim because it took itself seriously and operated with the gravitas and power of an emotional science-fiction opera, and diluted it with studio schlock. Fans didn’t want a parody of their beloved, and hard R-Rated, romantic sci-fi actioneer. Six years later, director McG was given the reins with Terminator Salvation, convoluting the mythology and tone with his typical crassness. It was better than Rise, but the franchise just couldn’t rediscover Cameron’s brilliance. Genisys gives Terminator junkies exactly the kind of fan fiction that Hollywood is cashing in big on these days, but, in doing so, it gets back to some of the franchise basics that made the first two work.
Kyle Reese (created by Cameron favorite Michael Biehn and continued here by Jai Courtney) battles Skynet in the Future War with John Connor (Jason Clarke). Giving the visuals to accompany the origin story that Biehn told Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in the original, Connor and Reese bring Skynet down and discover the time travel device that sent the first Schwarzenegger T-800 back. Reese strips down and time jumps, but, just as he goes, something attacks Connor. Reese is flooded with memories of a childhood he didn’t have and arrives in a 1984 that is not the original film. A T-1000 liquid metal Terminator is already there, awaiting his arrival, even as an aged T-800 fights the franchise’s first T-800 at Griffith Park. Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) puts the bad T-800 down hard and proceeds to rescue Reese. The timeline is all wrong, and Reese knows it. Battling the T-1000 and revived T-800, Reese, Sarah, and the aged T-800, named Pops, set out to destroy Skynet before Judgment Day. This begins to feel familiar, but when Pops and Sarah reveal they’ve built a time machine of their own, they take Reese’s advice and head to the near present, 2017, when an application named Genisys is set to go live, interfacing all computer devices around the world. Judgment Day has moved to our present and the mismatched trio find a new enemy waiting for them; one all too familiar and yet brand spanking new.
More than the previous two non-Cameron entries, Genisys embraces homage, going beyond one-liners and yuk-yuks to reinvent and retool the mythology. The arrival in 1984 plays exactly like the original film, recreating exact shots, locations, and characters. From the trash truck to the Nike sneakers, it’s a near identical recreation. But the world is different. Reese doesn’t escape when he should. The cop is liquid metal, not a man. Sarah isn’t a helpless damsel, but the relentless warrioress of T2. She also knows the timeline; she knows that Kyle Reese is the father of her child and that they’re meant to fall in love, and that he’s fated to die. Co-screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis executive produced Avatar, so he’s in Cameron’s wheelhouse. Stealing a really large page from 2009’s Star Trek reboot, that created an alternate timeline to introduce the same characters but reinvent them from the ground up, Laeta overhauls the franchise to start what is supposed to be a new trilogy. It’s not a terrible idea, but it’s still not Cameron.
Director Alan Taylor is an old TV veteran, helming the short-lived Homicide: Life on the Streets way back in the distant ‘90s. He broke through directing Thor: The Dark World and is obviously a studio go-to now. There’s no denying that he’s got Mostow and McG on the ropes. His vision is closest to the Cameron universe that made the franchise succeed. He incorporates the bright blues, lens flares, and grimness of Cameron’s world, even at a slightly lighter fare PG-13 intensity. Where he fails, and Mostow did quite gracelessly before him, is in the over reliance on CGI. Some scenes just look awful. Helicopters crashing into buildings look worse than 1998’s Godzilla and the cartoonishness of (yet another) Golden Gate Bridge scene is laughable. One almost wonders if they had the templates from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and just defaulted to slapping them on Genisys.
Cameron was a technological innovator, but, like Spielberg, he was also a deft storyteller. Terminator’s emotional storyline is what made it the universally loved genre film that it is. The romance between Sarah and Kyle, a love that crosses time and space, isn’t that far a cry from Jack and Rose in Cameron’s megablockbuster Titanic. Terminator purists may cringe at the comparison, but Cameron knows how to pluck the heartstrings and pack the tears into a blockbuster. It’s what makes him the best. When the older couple hold each other in bed as their compartment floods in Titanic, there isn’t a dry eye in the house, because he’s earned the beat and everything from the immaculate production design and sets to high-value visual effects immerses you in his world. When the same beat is pathetically replicated in Brad Peyton’s disastrous CGI cock-up San Andreas, it feels cheap and exploitive.
Genisys gets the story right, wisely re-centering the story on Sarah and Kyle, who know their fates, fight to deny them, and build a new love together. It’s not as smoothly done as Cameron, but, Terminator fans just need to accept it: no one else will ever get it right the way he did. Until then, it’s nice to see some fresh, if unoriginal, ideas brought in to revamp and rewrite the franchise’s two missteps. The rights revert to Cameron in 2019, so Paramount has two more they’re rushing out before then to complete the new trilogy. Whether or not that haste cheapens the product, remains to be seen. At least for now, Genisys got things moving in a better direction.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The combo set includes the film in 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD download. Four versions for the price of one! Featurettes include a focus on casting, shooting on location, and the VFX.
"Terminator: Genisys" is on sale November 10, 2015 and is rated PG13. Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. Directed by Alan Taylor. Written by Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke.