Terminator Genisys suffers from a fussed-over, convoluted and self-referential screenplay that manages the feat of being both incredibly complicated and strangely simple-minded. Thirty years on from James Cameron’s sleek original The Terminator (1984), the new movie is desperate to prove its relevance. “Old but not obsolete” is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new catchline, repeated with increasing desperation at various stages throughout the movie.
The film is directed by Alan Taylor, who is responsible for some of the best episodes of Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and several other revered TV dramas, but it is too reliant on special effects and time-travelling legerdemain for him to be able to put much personal imprint on affairs.
Emilia Clarke (the “Mother of Dragons” from Game Of Thrones) has taken over Linda Hamilton’s old role as the kick-ass heroine Sarah Connor. Gone is the striking blonde hair and regal dress she wears in Game Of Thrones. Now, she is in t-shirts and leather. Her basic mission is to stop the end of the world. She gives a very spirited, if one-dimensional, performance in a role that involves her wielding machine guns, dangling from bridges and blowing up plenty of cyborgs. Amid the ongoing carnage, there are complicated family issues to address regarding her lover and son. Terminator Genisys has a strange Oedipal sub-plot but the filmmakers don’t delve too deeply into it, as if embarrassed by what they might uncover.
We are never quite sure which characters are human and which are robots. The lines between them have become blurred. “Are you…you?” one character plaintively asks someone, uncertain whether it is a flesh and blood person in front of her or a sinister simulacrum, made of metal and wires. This uncertainty inevitably blunts the drama. It doesn’t help, either, that whenever the Terminators are shot or blown up, they simply reconstitute themselves. As with so many time travel movies, nothing very much appears to be at stake. Yes, humanity may be threatened with destruction but we know that the heroes can always play a new version of Groundhog Day and flip back a few decades to avert any looming Armageddon.
The movie starts in 2029. The Skynet machines have taken over and humans are clinging on to life as part of an underground resistance. Their leader is the scarred and heroic veteran, John Connor (Jason Clarke), Sarah’s “future” son. Back in 1997, on Judgment Day, the machines turned against the humans and three billion people were killed. John Connor has a bold plan to destroy Skynet at its roots but learns that a T-800 Terminator has been sent back to 1984 to assassinate Sarah. He therefore recruits his young protegé Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to head to the 80s to save her.
The 1984 LA-set section is one of the more enjoyable parts of the film. We encounter punks who look as if they’re on leave from some old John Hughes movie. The 80s cops are very confused by the cyborgs in their midst while the local drunks resent naked time-travellers stealing their clothes. We see Arnie facing off against…Arnie. One Terminator is trying to kill Sarah Connor while the other is doing its best to save her.
It turns out that the “good” T-800 is Sarah Connor’s guardian and father figure. Thirty years on, the cyborg first portrayed with such menace by Schwarzenegger in Cameron’s original has turned into a figure of high camp. It is dispiriting to see the once formidable action star reduced to playing the equivalent of the Tin-Man in The Wizard Of Oz or of a kindly grandfather in a Disney movie. Schwarzenegger mugs it up shamelessly as the greying cyborg who is trying to learn how to behave like a human. Sarah Connor wants to teach him how to smile but he hasn’t mastered the art. Every so often, a rictus-like grin will appear on his face. In recent years, since his movie comeback following his stint as Governor of California, Schwarzenegger has appeared primarily in independently made exploitation pics. Terminator Genisys marks his return to big budget Hollywood blockbusters but, on this showing, the 67-year-old is a diminished force.
The other actors here aren’t well served either. Matt Smith from Dr Who is seen briefly as the embodiment of Skynet. He looks suitably villainous but there is no sense of what is driving Skynet. J.K. Simmons, the brilliant character actor from Whiplash, has a thankless cameo as a drunken but perceptive detective who at least tries to understand the threat that the time-travellers are describing. Jai Courtney is strange casting as the young hero if only because he is best known for playing the sneering, ruthless Eric Coulter in the Divergent films.
At least, as spectacle, the film just about passes muster. There are plenty of startling scenes in which Terminators are scorched, blown up and pulled apart by magnetic forces and yet manage to re-assemble themselves and keep on coming. We see car crashes, helicopter crashes, buses hurtling over the Golden Gate Bridge and Terminators knocking lumps out of each other. Byung-hun Lee is good value as a sleek Asian cyborg with blades instead of hands. The switches in time frames (from 2029 to 1984 to 2017) enable the filmmakers to throw in some clever changes in costume and production design.
For all Arnie’s protests, the Terminator concept is becoming creaky and arthritic at the knees. It’s a bad sign when a film series once heralded for its post-modern harshness begins to trade in cosy nostalgia. In trying to humanise the cyborgs, the filmmakers risk softening their impact. “I’ll Be Back” is the famous catchphrase used by Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator films. That is not a promise that will much excite audiences unless the series can recapture its old edge and intensity.
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