Do you like greatest hits albums? I know this is perhaps a bizarre question to ask at the start of a movie review, but bear with me. The thing about greatest hits albums is that they are familiar. The manufacturer or producer chains together songs, and you end up with an album. Nothing new, just the same old tracks, sometimes in a different order.
TERMINATOR GENISYS is the fifth instalment in this troubled franchise, and it feels a lot like a greatest hits album. It is, sadly, the “best of” the TERMINATOR series – with scenes often reshot, benefitting from improvements in special effects and an increased budget, but lacking the soul of James Cameron’s original duology.
GENISYS starts promisingly, with scenes of the future war. On the eve of the Resistance victory, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). This much will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the original films. But as Reese makes the jump, he sees a glimpse of John Connor (Jason Clarke) being attacked by a new, different type of Skynet construct. On arriving in 1984, Reese finds that Sarah Connor is not the helpless heroine he expected. Worse yet, Skynet is waiting for him: having sent a T-1000 back to track him.
What basically follows is a re-tread of many scenes from TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2. There are deviations, but for the most part these are predictable. Situations and scenes mirror the original series: often flipped so that they are spoken or acted by different characters. Sarah Connor says the famous “Come with me if you want to live” line. Terminators fall into molten lava (or liquid metal), but instead of dying are reinvigorated. There are some surprises along the way (the biggest of which is actually spoiled by the TV trailer…) but not enough originality to give this film a life of its own.
It really wouldn’t be a TERMINATOR film without Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he returns to play the titular robot killer. TERMINATOR SALVATION tried to do it without him and it didn’t work. So, the script puts a lot on Arnie’s shoulders. Once again, Arnie is the protector of the Connor bloodline and is now affectionately known as “Pops”. You see, for reasons that are not really explored in the film, Sarah Connor has been protected since a young age by another Terminator. He has been waiting for the arrival of Skynet in 1984… This got my sequel senses tingling and GENISYS is clearly pitched towards starting a whole new series of TERMINATOR films. Pops represents probably the most interesting aspect of the film. Sarah Connor explains that the Terminator’s living tissue ages like real skin; and so that explains why Arnie is so much older by the time we see him in 1984. This is an interesting concept, albeit an obvious conceit that I could overlook. The scenes during which Arnie discusses (in typical monosyllabic utterances) being “obsolete”, and in which we see the effects of aging on the cyborg, are an intriguing breather from the action.
The relationship between Pops and Connor is an almost direct reflection of that between Edward Furlong and the Terminator in TERMINATOR 2. That was convincing, and in many ways the development of a troubled, abandoned teenaged mind (Furlong’s Connor was desperate for a father figure; he felt deserted and lost). The relationship between Emilia Clarke’s Connor and Pops feels too predictable and because it is never really explained why Arnie comes back in Sarah’s youth, it’s hard to really accept it as genuine.
Emilia Clarke does a good job as Sarah Connor, but again it feels as though she is going through the motions of “being” Linda Hamilton. Let’s face it, Hamilton’s performance in T1 and T2 is incomparable. She plays the weak, helpless heroine in T1, and transforms the same character into a badass killing machine by T2. Clarke looks a lot like Hamilton, but she plays a paler reflection of the role.
Jai Courtney does the same with Reese. His role is less heroic than the original Reese in T1, and this robs Reese of some of his purpose. The love affair in the original film was subtle, convincing and very tender: with a genuine gut-punch when you realise that Reese is actually Connor’s father. GENISYS deals with this directly, and in doing so I felt it undermined the importance of the sacrifice that Reese made. This is probably more a failing of the script than Courtney’s performance, to be fair.
Perhaps most disappointing though is the actual decision to go the route of TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES, in revealing how Skynet manufactures Judgment Day. Pre-release, there were TV shorts of James Cameron endorsing GENISYS as the “sequel” to his two films. I was really encouraged by this; Cameron is probably my favourite film director of all time, and I was heartened to see his support for GENISYS. To be honest, I didn’t feel that T3 was so bad – there were some good ideas in there – but the worst of the bunch was the suggestion that Skynet was a computer virus. This is exactly where we arrive with GENISYS. The idea is not quite the same – Skynet is actually an operating system, known as Genisys – but it’s close enough. The reality is that GENISYS fits into an alternative timeline; easily explainable as existing in the same continuity as the four earlier TERMINATOR films.
Overall, while TERMINATOR GENISYS will entertain you for a couple of hours, it does not reach the heady heights of the original franchise. Good, but far from great, and if you’re a hardcore TERMINATOR fan then the movie will probably be a disappointment. The central idea of a Terminator sent back as guardian has already been done in T2, and in a fresher sense in TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. SM Sterling also wrote a series of TERMINATOR books which toy with similar ideas.