If you had asked me for my immediate reaction when I learned there was a new Terminator movie coming out, I would have rolled my eyes and asked why they were even bothering. This is a franchise that had more than worn out its welcome. The first two films in the series are classics. Director James Cameron built an exciting world and mythology in The Terminator, and then exceeded audience expectation in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not an easy thing to do. When Cameron moved on to other creative endeavors, the property began to suffer.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines didn’t carry anywhere near the weight of its predecessors. The TV series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, was mostly uneven, but at times fairly entertaining. Then 2009’s Terminator Salvation, a completely forgettable mess directed by McG that was mind-numbingly boring. The franchise seemed to be sapped of all creative energy. So, when Terminator Genisys was announced, I wasn’t expecting much. They couldn’t even spell genesis right, for crying out loud! Imagine my surprise when, thirty minutes in, I turned to my partner and whispered, “I am REALLY into this!”
Here’s the thing about Terminator Genisys – which follows the latest exploits of Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the woman destined to birth the post-apocalyptic savior of humanity – this movie is a hell of a lot of fun. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier decided to use the time travel element in the Terminator universe to turn the entire mythology on its head. The movie starts in the distant future, on the eve of John Connor’s (Jason Clarke) final victory over Skynet, a military-industrial artificial intelligence program that humans unwittingly created, only to become its first target. For those familiar with Terminator lore, Genisys shows us an event we’ve heard about many times before: upon realizing Skynet’s ultimate goal, John Connor sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), one of his most trusted soldiers, back in time to protect Sarah from being killed. Just as Kyle begins his journey back in time to the year 1984, he sees something happen to John that’s never been part of the story. That’s where the fun starts.
I’ll readily admit you have to be familiar with the previous Terminator movies to really appreciate what director Alan Taylor does with the first act of Genisys. He recreates the scenes in which Kyle and the original Terminator arrive in 1984 Los Angeles with painstaking detail. CGI is used to bring back Arnold Schwarzenegger as he looked playing the T-800 in the original film, and the results are the most impressive I’ve ever seen. The Genisys special effects team created a completely digital character in a live action movie that is far more believable than the younger Jeff Bridges we saw in Tron: Legacy just five years ago. You might think that by restaging these scenes, Genisys is trading on the success of the original, but I was lulled into a false sense of security so the impact was that much greater when Taylor diverted from the original story. I was lucky in that I managed to avoid the trailers that specifically spelled out this divergence, so I could enjoy it completely unspoiled. Because of the alternate time line possibilities of time travel, when Kyle arrives to protect what I assumed was a Sarah identical to the one from the first Terminator film – a mild mannered waitress – I was thrown off balance to discover a Sarah closer in demeanor to the one we find in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She’s a battle-trained badass, thanks to a protector she’s been sent from an alternate future.
When Kyle first encounters Sarah, and she’s the one who rescues him – while delivering the signature franchise line, “Come with me if you want to live!” – it was clear the story had more twists and turns than I expected. That was the biggest problem with Terminator Salvation, it had no imagination. The writers of Genisys made a conscious decision to do something new here. They were also willing to laugh at themselves a little bit. Not all of these moments work – Sarah, Kyle, and the T-800 getting arrested and booked while scored to “Bad Boys” is a misguided choice to be sure – but it was refreshing for the filmmakers to lighten the mood of a bleak series. The biggest laughs come when Sarah’s protector, a much older looking T-800 model, practices a human trait Sarah has tried to teach him, smiling. It’s a nice call back to Terminator 2, when the young John Connor humanizes the cybernetic Schwarzenegger by teaching him popular slang terms.
Speaking of the former Governator, Schwarzenegger is in fine form here reprising his role as the T-800. He does more than simply serve to tie the Terminator universe together, as he did in Salvation. Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke impressed me with her portrayal of Sarah Connor. Obviously she’s no Linda Hamilton, that actress owned the character of Sarah Connor completely, but Clarke is intense and brooding. Jai Courtney is the only real piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. His acting in Genisys is good, but he just isn’t Kyle Reese to me. As an added bonus, J.K. Simmons (who stunned me in last year’s Whiplash) turns in a nice character performance, giving context to how people other than Sarah or John Connor are affected by the events of the original movie.
Terminator Genisys surprised me in the best possible way. It brought back some of the former glory to a franchise I thought was beyond repair. I’m not saying that means more Terminator films should be produced, but if this does turn out to be the final film in the series, it’s one I can get behind. As for why they purposely misspell “genesis”, I’ll let you discover that for yourself.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- It's easily the best movie in the franchise since T2.
- It's harmless, entertaining summer movie fun.
- It's may be the best since T2, but it doesn't have the extra emotional impact that pushes that film over into something more than just summer popcorn-flick fun.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'm a complete sucker for things like the restaging of scenes from the first Terminator. If you do it right, it gets me every time.
- Emilia Clarke's American accent is darn near flawless.
- One of the best things about Genisys is the pace of the action. Once it gets going, it rarely slows down to let you catch your breath.