Terminator: Genisys is something of a tricky beast. It’s set up mostly as a reboot of the highly acclaimed movie franchise that James Cameron pioneered in 1984, but also functions as a sequel, a prequel and a spin-off all at the same time. The movie is meant to spearhead a new trilogy that is aiming to provide some closure on the previous attempts to close off the franchise past James Cameron’s run that concluded with 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s a noble and ambitious endeavour, especially when one considers the legal, commercial and critical struggles that the Terminator franchise has faced since James Cameron parted ways with it.
It’s further unfortunate then that Terminator: Genisys sort of leans on being a new trilogy inception as a crutch, having a serious bout of Amazing Spider-Man syndrome, in that it raises a lot of questions, yet seems to procrastinate on any real answers, giving the filmmakers an easy draw for the planned sequels. It’s also inevitable that a story concept this ambitious does quickly end up collapsing under its own weight, becoming a mess of plot holes and canonical confusion that may well be resolved in the sequels, but for now, marks one of the messiest and most convoluted storylines in Terminator history.
That’s the bad. The good however is that Terminator: Genisys is certainly an improvement over 2009’s dreary and largely uninteresting Terminator: Salvation, and carries enough promise to justify its zeal when it comes to setting up for two immediate follow-ups. There’s enough callbacks to the series’ origins to tap into fans’ nostalgia, yet enough interesting new spins and curveballs (which the marketing largely spoiled, rather frustratingly) to make the movie feel like its own cool, clever new direction. Also helping is the fact that the action is quite well-done, and the more light-hearted script makes for vastly more enjoyable character moments than Terminator: Salvation in particular.
A pessimist could rightfully call Terminator: Genisys a disappointment, since it doesn’t live up to its own impossible standards, and certainly doesn’t live up to James Cameron’s original two Terminator movies. Comparing Terminator: Genisys to the original two movies when it’s supposed to function as a reboot is unfair however, not to mention a fool’s errand, since James Cameron is one of the greatest film directors of our time. Taking the movie for what it is, it’s solid fun, and given a lot of the tragedy surrounding the Terminator franchise in recent years, fans could use some good, reliable fun.
Terminator: Genisys shifts focus a bit in contrast to the prior movies, as it now centers on Kyle Reese over the Connor family. For those who didn’t see the original The Terminator, Reese, originally played by Michael Biehn in the 1984 movie, was sent to the past from the post-apocalyptic future to protect Sarah Connor, who is set to mother the leader of the resistance against the killer machines that allows humankind to survive. The twist however is that Reese happens to be the father of his future leader, as he falls in love with Sarah Connor, and ultimately sacrifices his own life to protect her in the movie’s climax.
This is where Terminator: Genisys taps into a truly wonderful idea. After the previous four movies’ events play out, Kyle Reese is once again sent back in time by John Connor, after it comes to light that a T-800 was sent back to kill his mother in the past, thus erasing John from existence, and securing victory for the machines’ A.I. leader, Skynet. Due to the altered events of the previous movies however, when Reese is sent back to 1984, he finds that the original 1984 from the first Terminator movie no longer exists, with Sarah Connor now already being a hardened warrior, and already having a T-800 at her side, as with the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, whom she affectionately dubs, “Pops.”
This immediately gives us a new Sarah and a new Reese. Jai Courtney’s Reese has now undergone something of a role reversal, taking the place of Sarah in the original movie, as the confused bystander to events. Emilia Clarke’s Sarah meanwhile is already a more assertive, headstrong young woman, though one that is so driven by survival that she’s tormented by the inability to live life beyond the coming war against the machines, pleasantly giving her some heart to go with that edginess. Again, it hits upon a wonderful idea, switching the roles of these two characters, and without compromising Reese being a hardened soldier to begin with. It’s just too bad that the script struggles to keep all of its great character ideas afloat, which isn’t the fault of the actors, particularly since both seem to fit their roles pretty well, even if they certainly differ from Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton before them.
Fortunately, when Courtney and Clarke sometimes end up lost in the confused script, Arnold Schwarzenegger proves to be something of a saving grace. Schwarzenegger doesn’t sweat the details (he is a machine here, after all), and simply focuses on delivering some great nostalgic charm to the movie. Left with his natural grey hair and aged complexion, Schwarzenegger plays something of a meta version of his own legacy in Terminator: Genisys, with Pops occasionally suffering ‘glitches’ related to the age of his exterior human tissue thirty years later, but also declaring bluntly that he is old, not obsolete. Given how much Schwarzenegger’s movie projects since coming out of retirement have all drawn attention to his age in some unflattering ways, at least Terminator: Genisys manages to put a more positive spin on Schwarzenegger returning to a role that he originated three decades ago, especially when he plays one of the movie’s most enjoyable characters overall.
The other major performers in Terminator: Genisys include former Doctor Who lead, Matt Smith, who plays a crucial character that the marketing actually didn’t spoil for once, so I won’t discuss him for want of avoiding spoilers, only to say that he really could have used more screentime. Likewise, I can’t discuss J.K. Simmons much without spoiling his pivotal character, but he largely serves as comic relief, helping Schwarzenegger to avoid coming off as simply the butt of a joke. This just leaves Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia Clarke, despite the irony of them playing mother-and-son in this movie, FYI), who plays the new John Connor, and yes, the trailers completely gave away the big twist with John’s character in Terminator: Genisys; He’s a bad guy now. I won’t go over why, but he does basically serve as the movie’s main villain.
Again, this sounds so interesting on paper, but the script doesn’t totally capitalize on the potential of turning John to the side of the machines, and making him into an all-new, virtually unstoppable Terminator himself. There’s some true moments of brilliance here and there, as John presents the noteworthy conflict of humanity possibly being in the wrong to do battle with the machines, but the script barely scratches the surface of it. Clarke does play a decent villain, being more of a charismatic menace in contrast to the largely silent threats from the former movies, but it is another performance that’s sometimes let down by the many writing issues.
Terminator: Genisys makes a valiant effort to bring together the best of classic sensibilities and the best of new ideas to the Terminator franchise, but it’s frustrating how much of it feels hamstrung by either the script or the direction. The performances are serviceable, with Schwarzenegger being the big standout, but the movie feels like it’s tapping on character potential that’s intentionally being held back in the hopes of stretching out these character arcs across three movies, not really realizing all of them in one self-contained project.
Terminator: Genisys certainly can’t be faulted for its ambition. It’s taking a whole lot on its shoulders in terms of trying to give the current Terminator canon a revised, definitive conclusion. With that ambition clearly not being fully realized until the sequels arrive however, the storyline of Terminator: Genisys comes off as feeling disappointingly half-baked, yet also simultaneously over-stuffed. It’s a strange mix that, at worst, undeniably feels like a hot mess of epic proportions.
Still, the movie does make a lot of effort to present something new and interesting. Most of it takes place in 2017, which Reese convinces Sarah to travel with him to, after a nexus in the timeline tips him off to a revised future where Judgment Day hasn’t happened at that point. The world waits on bated breath in this time, with a new, vaguely nebulous inter-connected OS called ‘Genisys’ taking the world by storm, with pre-orders in the billion range, and the OS set to go live in a matter of days. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out (and the movie spells it out early regardless), that Genisys is Skynet, and the on-the-nose countdown clock that the movie keeps bringing up is actually counting down to Judgment Day, the day that Skynet and the machines first nuke the world and begin eradicating humanity.
Once again, Terminator: Genisys taps upon a very interesting idea here. Rather than Skynet being the undefined military experiment of former movies, it’s now something that the population is inviting into the world with open arms, with humanity’s obsession with being connected to everything at all times being its downfall. This is the kind of angle that serves the idea of a Terminator reboot really well. It’s just a shame yet again that the script taps upon this idea, and then quickly forgets about it, turning things into yet another race against time to simply pull the plug on the OS before it even goes live.
Terminator: Genisys might have benefited from a less diluted focus. It feels like it’s cramming in so many story elements that are all fighting for attention, that none of them get adequate time to be fleshed out. Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of genuinely amazing creativity that just doesn’t feel like it comes together from a narrative standpoint.
Terminator: Genisys is helmed by recurring Game of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World director, Alan Taylor, who is reuniting with Emilia Clarke after directing her previously on Game of Thrones. Terminator: Genisys is only Taylor’s second major feature film credit, after directing Thor: The Dark World in 2013, with virtually his entire body of work beyond that being in television. Sadly, this really puts Taylor at a disadvantage when helming a movie as ambitious and convoluted as Terminator: Genisys.
To start, it feels like Taylor saw the script for Terminator: Genisys, realized it was a mess, and then tried to salvage the movie in production by shooting it as if it were a tongue-in-cheek popcorn flick. This means that winking nods and in-jokes tend to be realized well, and the movie is definitely put together with a solid sense of fun for the Terminator faithful who aren’t expecting the world from it. Unfortunately though, this also means that the dramatic scenes suffer, with the actors coming off as confused and detached during some strangely tone-deaf emotional moments.
Fortunately, that in turn is salvaged by Taylor at least having a good eye for action, which Terminator: Genisys doesn’t disappoint on. Taylor manages to put together some very cool visual moments during the action scenes, with Terminator: Genisys managing a reasonable degree of intensity during these scenes as well. The focus on CGI means that some of the action scenes can come off as feeling a bit cartoon-ish in contrast to prior movies, but perhaps this goes in hand with Taylor treating Terminator: Genisys like it’s a carefree popcorn flick.
It’s probable that a good chunk of Terminator fans are probably going to take offense to Taylor’s ‘Hail Mary Pass’ of direction with a script this messy, so I’d advise viewers to go in to Terminator: Genisys with revised expectations. If you can do that however, at least the movie provides solid entertainment value, if you’re not too serious about the legacy of this franchise.
The music for Terminator: Genisys is composed by Lorne Balfe, who has a composition resume consisting mostly of video games. That’s probably fitting for a movie like this however, since Terminator: Genisys feels like it’s borrowing a bit of the overblown action spectacle that modern video games like to revel in, and this leads to the soundtrack almost feeling like it would indeed fit in a sci-fi/shooter game.
That’s not to say that Balfe’s music suite is bad though. It’s heady, grindy and does a solid job of fitting with the Terminator franchise. There’s a lot of metalworks throughout the soundtrack, and some attempts to remix the music sensibilities of the older Terminator movies, which works to mixed effect, though the good tends to outweigh the bad. Balfe’s most ambitious endeavour is trying to remix the classic Terminator theme over the end credits most notably, which will no doubt be viewed as an inferior composition in contrast to the original theme, but it’s certainly respectable, along with the rest of the music.
The rest of the audio is very sharply defined, and also consists of a lot of metallic noises. The effects are very pronounced, almost having something of a comic book vibe when Schwarzenegger battles other Terminators in particular. There’s also a lot of loud, brash explosions in IMAX theatres especially, which can be almost deafening with all of their sound and fury throughout the movie’s many highly destructive action scenes.
It’s a sharp audio job all around, even if it may leave you with ringing ears by the end of it.
Terminator: Genisys compensates for some of its writing and direction stumbles by at least being a visually sound movie. The effects are generally quite good, though it’s the visual direction that serves as the highlight. As I said, some of the visual moments in Terminator: Genisys are extremely cool, and you just have to witness them to see what I mean.
As much as the movie is full of explosions and destruction, some of the CGI efforts during the hand-to-hand bouts are also quite noteworthy. As was highly publicized, the aged Arnold Schwarzenegger fights a younger duplicate of himself, using similar visual trickery as the fake Arnold that was featured in the climax of Terminator: Salvation. The T-800’s remain some of the best visual work, and some of the CGI around John Connor’s machine makeover is also pretty solid, though the scenes were he goes full-blown machine don’t look all that realistic. The brief apperance of the T-1000 (played in a glorified cameo by Byung-hun Lee, taking over for Robert Patrick when he couldn’t reprise the role), can also occasionally be dodgy, again with the partial transformations definitely looking better than the complete ones.
My screening of Terminator: Genisys was in IMAX 3D as well, though I have to say that neither end of that impressed too much. The IMAX elements are pretty poor, with the movie not feeling well-optimized to an IMAX screen, even if it does make some decent use of the more powerful IMAX speakers. As for the 3D, it’s pretty underwhelming. There are occasionally some scenes that kick debris in the audience’s face, plus some of the future scenes have ash appearing to envelope the theatre in the 3D cut, but none of it feels all that essential. If you just want to watch the movie flat in 2D, in a regular digital screening, you’re probably not missing much by opting not to pay for the premium formats.
Terminator: Genisys is certainly less visually ambitious than Terminator: Salvation was back in 2009, but this allows it to save its visual highlights for some especially solid money shots. The action sequences can sometimes be a bit CGI-heavy, but at least they’re well-done as well, being pretty fun to watch overall.
Terminator: Genisys definitely reeks of lost potential. It’s not all it could have been, and there are plenty of things it spectacularly fumbles. Is it a bad movie though? No. The movie can be deeply flawed, especially in terms of its messy, hole-filled storyline, but if you adjust your expectations, Terminator: Genisys stands as one of the best developments in the franchise this decade, for better or for worse. It may be outdone by its sequels, or they may truly fall apart in even greater ways, but regardless, at least Terminator: Genisys manages to take some steps forward, after the debacle of Terminator: Salvation.
In the end, I liked Terminator: Genisys a fair bit, even if it certainly doesn’t compare to this series’ first two highlight movies. Like I said though, it’s not fair to keep comparing every development in Terminator history to its origins, especially if we want the franchise to ultimately move past them. Even Terminator: Genisys itself rightfully points out that it’s a reboot, the original timeline has been deleted, and if we want the franchise to continue, we have to let go of wanting it to conform to what the first two movies were, and move on. Sure, Terminator: Genisys could have done a better job of making its case for audiences to move on, but it’s right when it says that finding proper closure for this saga means venturing into new territory, and leaving the broken pieces of the old canon behind.
If you don’t have a stake in the Terminator franchise, then Terminator: Genisys is certainly harder to recommend for Summer blockbuster fare than the likes of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road or Jurassic World. It’s a solid, albeit brainless action flick, but not one you necessarily need to rush out to the theatre and see, particularly with big, promising action blockbusters like Ant-Man and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation releasing in a matter of weeks. If you are a Terminator fan however, then I say that one should at least give Terminator: Genisys a chance. It’s a solid mix of nostalgia and fun, and even with its occasional writing and direction issues, it’s still an action-packed good time that delivers enough promise to get you curious about the two planned follow-ups.
Lest we forget, the real Judgment Day is still ahead of this franchise for now.
- Strong action with some neat visual beats
- Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a charming return to the T-800 role
- Tons of great, bold new ideas to revise the canon
- Tons of lost potential in the over-stuffed, needlessly convoluted script
- Direction sometimes feels tone-deaf
- 3D and IMAX cuts don't impress