With audiences growing far more wary of, and sometimes downright venomous towards remakes, studios have been searching for new ways to reinvigorate recognizable brands. The answer has been something comic book fans have been all too familiar with for some time: the retcon. Or put another way, the reimagining. You don’t have to totally start over, just ignore or delete enough stuff to basically start from a difference place. It’s a tricky thing to pull off without alienating your entire fan base. X-Men: Days of Future Past managed to use alternate timelines to build an entirely new history for its heroic mutants. But what about something like James Cameron’s Terminator; a cold metal sci-fi classic that basically forged our understanding of time travel in modern genre movies? Terminator Genisys, the fifth movie in the vaunted franchise, attempts to embrace and completely devastate everything we know and love about James Cameron’s time-bending story, and as one might expect the results are a bit scattershot.
Rest assured Terminator Genisys is a heck of lot better than the maligned Terminator Salvation, and a fair bit more like a true Cameron Terminator movie. Despite the narrative pretzel it twists into, the film has all of the recognizable nuts and bolts, literally in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, who was notably absent from ‘Salvation’ except for a lousy CGI version. This time around the hard-to-kill cyborg is considered a “guardian” rather than a terminator, sent back in time to protect the life of Sarah Connor, played now by Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke, sporting her “Mother of Dragons” attitude. So how does something like that work? The story begins as we expect. Future rebel badass John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a human resistance against Skynet and its army of killer machines. When Skynet realizes it will lose, it sends a terminator to 1984 to kill Sarah while she’s weak. So John calls upon his pal Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to go back in time to protect Sarah from harm. Oh, and let’s not forget that John also needs his buddy to sleep with his mom so he can be born in the first place. Don’t forget that little detail; it makes for some awkward sitcom shenanigans later on.
Things take a turn when Kyle arrives in 1984 only to discover that Sarah doesn’t really need his help. She’s already one tough soldier; she’s gone full-blown Linda Hamilton (minus the biceps) and has been protected by the Arnold T-800 since she was a child, nicknaming him “Pops”. How? Why? And is that wrinkled skin and graying hair on the Terminator? What? The explanations are convoluted, bog down the story, and frankly are a little ridiculous, but fortunately this film doesn’t slow down enough for you to analyze whether it makes sense. There’s always a new Terminator to fight (there are a few, including one that has been spoiled by desperate marketing), a new bus to flip, another helicopter chase through the city, and the CGI-heavy action looks great courtesy of director Alan Taylor. He keeps the pace moving faster than a T-1000 can shapeshift forms; those who simply want to watch robots fight and stuff get blown up will leave very happy. Not to say he’s quite on Cameron’s level when it comes to blending digital and real-world effects but the film looks impressive.
But there’s also no denying that the screenplay is often too eager to shock us, piling on one unnecessary twist after the next to make the story more confusing than it really needs to be. All of this serves as needless distraction because the bones of the story are straight forward. Jump to a specific place in time and blow something up. Pretty simple. While all of the key characters we expect are present and accounted for, one thing that the film can’t replicate is the unique familial dynamic established between Sarah and the T-800. ‘Genisys’ tries but Clarke and Schwarzenegger don’t have the chemistry to establish the kind of relationship that made Cameron’s movies so emotional. We gave a damn when the T-800 was willing to sacrifice his life for the Connors’ future. That “thumbs up” really meant something! But here the callbacks are too self-aware, too telegraphed; like the screenwriters had the “I’ll be back” moment thought out months in advance and couldn’t wait to drop it on us. They also couldn’t wait to hit us with some really misplaced humor. While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of levity to lighten the end-of-the-world circumstances, but most of it centers on Reese’s need to mate with Sarah, while “Pops” judges him harshly like Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents. It’s weird, and not in a good way. There are other strange comedic diversions, including an appearance by JK Simmons as a robot-obsessed cop. That said; Schwarzenegger brings a few moments of genuine tenderness, while Emilia Clarke does a decent job of filling Hamilton’s shoes. Courtney thrives at the physical stuff; tell him to fire a gun at something shiny and he can do it, but he’s not much for the deeper side of acting yet.
In what must feel like the tagline for Schwarzenegger’s latter career, the T-800 constantly asserts, “I am old, not obsolete.” At 25 years, Cameron’s Terminator is an “old” franchise no matter how many times they try to revive it. But Terminator Genisys, despite it not always making a ton of sense, is still the best and most relevant Terminator film since ‘Judgement Day‘, and that means it will never be considered obsolete.