Review: TERMINATOR GENISYS

Oh, you’re making a comment about the disconnect of modern connectivity. That’s adorable.

You know that old t-shirt you have? The one you used to love to wear to sleepovers when you were twelve? It probably has rainbows and unicorns or guns and skulls embossed on the front, coupled with just the right amount of anarchist colors. Terminator Genisys is like putting that t-shirt on when you’re thirty-five: there are still parts of it you like, and the nostalgia takes hold when the fabric crosses your torso, but when work comes on Monday, you immediately discard the garment and forget about it for another twenty years. It’s the quintessential definition of a popcorn film: fun, lacking substance, and everything is bound to blow up.

As with Terminator Salvation, Genisys opens in a future run by Skynet, by machines, and because this franchise so loves narration we are treated to some: this time by Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), as he explains how he met John Connor (Jason Clarke) and where we are in Terminator lore. On the eve of the last great battle, when humans plan to take back the Earth, John informs his soldiers of Skynet’s last, great weapon: time travel. Reese volunteers to go back in time to protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator sent back to kill her before she can conceive John. We’ve heard all this before, sure, but Genisys really gets started when Reese encounters a T100…in 1984. Soon, he’s saved by Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and “Pops” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) – a T-800 that saved her life when she was a little girl. The timeline that we’ve come to know as fixed is forever altered, and Reese and Sarah must figure out how to eliminate Skynet in this past/present/future before the human race is set for extinction.

Director Alan Taylor takes an earnest approach to the film; it is clear he’s rooted in the nostalgia of the first two installments. Easter eggs are placed throughout, and each character is treated like he or she is the star or the main protagonist. It’s a true ensemble piece, which is an interesting approach that almost works. I imagine most viewers will lament the absence of overreaching special FX; however, Taylor chooses to concentrate on smaller sets and introspective close-ups that demand you take notice of the human elements to the story. I applaud his ability to utilize current technologies as a tool and not a crutch (I’m looking at you, Jurassic World).

I also have to applaud screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier for tackling the time travel element head on, a feature not specifically addressed in the franchise’s previous films. That being said, the script has a certain Monty Python logic that boggles the mind, as if Kalogridis and Lussier herald Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as the pinnacle of scholarly science on the subject of time and space. That’s all well and good in a popcorn film, I guess, and I doubt it will hinder an audience’s enjoyment. Any attempt to tackle social issues like the need for human interaction in this digital age becomes a running joke, however.

Frankly, Genisys is just clean fun in a way Jurassic World attempted and failed miserably (in this humble writer’s opinion). Each scene flows into the next with just enough gusto to continuously propel the plot forward without getting too bogged down in chase sequences or scientific explanation. At this point in the franchise, the filmmakers are confident enough in the audience’s ability to keep up. And that, my friends, is refreshing. Just don’t expect Christopher Nolan here; there are plot points that are just left hanging, more unanswered questions than a Senate sub-committee hearing, and a worse understanding of physics than Mission Impossible 2.

The real low point, unfortunately, is the forced pairing between Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor and Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese. These two beautiful people are basically strung together in the absence of chemistry or any real plot development of the love story. Granted, John Connor basically raised Reese to go back in time and fall in love with his mother in order to ensure his own existence, but that interesting point is merely alluded to and never fully developed on screen. These subtle nuisances are what change a film from good to great, and Genisys is anything but subtle. A sledgehammer is more subtle. Emilia Clarke channels Edward Furlong’s John Connor from T2 — precocious rule-breaker with a Terminator for a best friend — but the wide-eyed know-it-all attitude that worked for Furlong looks odd on Clarke: it just doesn’t work. Even the Sarah Connor from the original Terminator, the one who needed protection, who was thrown into this life, had a kind of fire that saved her. This is all lost on Clarke — who should be the badass Sarah – consequently, the performance needs work. I’m not a fan of the casting choice; I mean, she definitely looks the part, and anytime she’s opposite Schwarzenegger (more on him in a moment) she shines; these moments, however, are few and far between. Courtney portrays Reese in a way that would make Michael Biehn proud – that is, again, when he is opposite Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, and anytime he’s giving chase – but proving he loves Sarah Connor is another animal. See above.

With Jason Clarke, we are finally treated to a real look at John Connor – sorry Christian Bale – as the soldier we’ve been promised for thirty years. He carries the weight of Connor’s life and obligation so fully with every movement and line of dialogue. Though the trailer spoils his character’s fate, I will not do so here for any who have the opportunity to see the film blind, but I will say when we see John in later parts of the film, Jason Clarke’s ability to tonally shift the interior struggle and alterations his character undergoes is quite inspired. He elevates every scene he’s in. Much like the true star and best performer in the film: Arnold Schwarzenegger. No, you did not just have a stroke. Rachel Shepherd just crowned Schwarzenegger as the best actor in a film. Obviously the man was born to play this role, and to reprise said role again and again. Remember when I brought up nuisance? Schwarzenegger’s “Pops” has it in spades. Not since T2 or True Lies has the man been so triumphant on the screen. Sure, he’s wooden throughout most of the film… but this cat is a Terminator! He’s supposed to be wooden; and when he is not, when it matters, when we learn the truth, old Arnold still makes us feel all the feels. The Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith shows up in a cameo that, if you know who he is – which I imagine most film geeks (my people) do – than you’re completely distracted when he’s on screen. Any surprise he might carry is ruined by you following him in the background. (For those who’ve never seen Doctor Who – A. What is wrong with you? And B. That’s nobody, right? – it will not make much of a difference). J.K. Simmons is also a real treat whenever he pops in, so pay attention to those few and fleeting moments.

Genisys is best when it does not attempt to take itself too seriously. It lacks subtlety and depth, but for an afternoon flick in the summer, it works just fine. T2 this is not, but after Rise of the Machines and Salvation, it’s the summer blockbuster we deserve.

Grade: C

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