Thirty-one years ago the cinema going public were treated to a terrifying apocalyptic vision of the future born from the fevered nightmare of director James Cameron. The “metal man” of his dream was given form by the latest special effects of the day and flesh by bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the result created new nightmares for a generation, not just of a relentless killing machine but also of a coming day which would see the rise of the machines and the fall of mankind: Judgment Day.
Giving glimpses of this post-apocalyptic battlefield Cameron teased imaginations and made us want to see more of the war torn future earth, and Terminator Genisys begins in this future. Modern special effects creating scenes far beyond what was possible at the time of the original Terminator, the battle against Skynet is fully realised and it is glorious. Despite a variety of machine models the resistance have almost succeeded in finally defeating Skynet, but the machines have one last weapon.
Though the fifth film in the Terminator franchise it follows an almost direct path from the 1984 original, thus side-stepping any difficulties managing the events in other sequels. Seen from the other side of the timeline, knowing the machines have sent the T-800 back in time to kill his mother Sarah before she can give birth to him, resistance leader John Connor sends another lone soldier back, Kyle Reese (A Good Day to Die Hard’s Jai Courtney). So far, so familiar.
Reese’s arrival in the past mimics that of Cameron’s original movie until he is attacked, not by the Schwarzenegger T-800 classic, but a liquid metal T-1000 (sadly not played by Robert Patrick). Having never seen such an advanced machine, Reece is fighting for his life when a truck ploughs into the machine, saving him; the cab door kicks open and a young Sarah Connor shouts the immortal words “Come with me if you want to live!”
The timeline has changed and Sarah is no longer an unsuspecting victim, the machines having already tried to kill her when she was a child, but again a protector was sent to save her who has watched over her ever since, a now older T-800 Terminator reminiscent of the father figure from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
As they inevitably set out to stop the launch of Skynet, mediated by an operating system called Genisys which will bring about Judgement Day, the momentum which was disguising the cracks dissipates. A poor replacement for Michael Biehn’s battle worn solider, Courtney lacks the compelling manic nature of Biehn, a generic action star without any distinction other than an anachronistic diet of protein shakes.
Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke is stronger, a different Sarah Connor to any seen before, neither the scared waitress nor the warrior preparing for Judgment Day, she has been training since she was a child but having never fought the machines she is not the darkened, damaged character of T2. Clarke plays it well but the script gives her insufficient to work with, the attempts at banter and romantic friction between her and Courtney lacking any real chemistry.
With three decades passed since he first played the part, Schwarzenegger remains great. Essentially the model from T2 which bonded with a young John Connor and the contemporary audience, this is a continuation of that character with the same deadpan humor. With the narrative constructed around his aging through the different time periods, the makeup is superb and an aging Terminator makes sense and works well within the story.
Other players include Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Jason Clarke, neither charismatic enough to play a hero nor intimidating enough to be a convincing villain, the reliable J K Simmons as a police detective who has previous knowledge of the machines and Matthew Smith who is good for all of the two minutes he is actually on screen, yet the film feels undermined by the audience maximising 12A rating. A lower certificate than South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, it wants to be a family friendly crowdpleaser, and with no particularly strong violence and a lack of essential menace it is more timid than Riddick’s unashamed return to the big screen in 2013.
In another time, Kyle Reese said “It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead!” Yet while that relentless pursuit is represented by numerous car and helicopter chases, the lines are echoed only after trying to bargain and have a chat with mom and dad.
In T2, Robert Patrick’s T-1000 created a genuine sense of fear that these machines would keep coming, and tied with the stunning performance of Linda Hamilton. With no underlying fear of an apocalyptic future as Connor and Reese team up with “Pops,” being the truly awful nickname given to Schwarzenegger’s Guardian Terminator, there is no comment on the morality of humanity, save for one comment from Smith that humans only pay lip service to peace.
Directed by Thor: The Dark World’s Alan Taylor from Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script, the dialogue in the overly reverential early scenes is like revision notes of the previous films yet Harlan Ellison receives no credit, nor does Arthur C Clarke’s Dial F for Frankenstein, precursor to the concept of Skynet’s awakening. It is common knowledge that time paradoxes run on the power of technobabble, and wisely all exposition has been given to “Pops;” aware of the danger of dialogue coming out stilted the film actually plays to that by giving it to the one character it’s forgivable with.
With a soundtrack more pristine neon Tron Legacy than hard industrial steel, Genisys is essentially a remixed greatest hits package, a twisted echo of the first which has been hugely damaged by an advertising campaign which reveals every single major plot point and offers little hope for the future.
Similar to Terminator Salvation failing to attract the box office returns required to continue Christian Bale’s John Connor, there is likely to be little appetite to continue with the franchise in this format. Though a stronger movie than Salvation, sadly the most faithful continuation of the Terminator brand in tone and quality remains the excellent television spinoff The Sarah Connor Chronicles, cancelled after two seasons. As his metal friend once said to a young John Connor in another life which now never was, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”
Terminator Genisys is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX