Review by C.J. Bunce
Few sci-fi films are as revered as James Cameron’s Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day. Judgment Day is regarded by many as one of the greatest sequels to any movie ever made. Both films made American Film Institute lists and are the kind of movies we can watch hundreds of times and still keep enjoying them. Two sequels followed, no longer under the direction of Cameron, Terminator III: Rise of the Machines, a worthy but lesser sequel reviewed at borg.com here, and the far, far lesser Terminator: Salvation. So coming into the fourth sequel this weekend with the opening of director Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys, expectations by many were low. So against that backdrop, and countless bashings by both national film critics and time travel aficionados, how really is this sequel?
Somehow Terminator Genisys manages to be not only good, but great, and not only that, it manages to equal the punch and excitement of both Terminator and Terminator II.
That’s right, if you love the universe of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sometimes villain, sometimes hero Terminator T-800, you’re going to love this film, which is not only loyal to James Cameron’s originals, it flat-out amps up the sci-fi and takes every element that made the earlier films great and expands them into new, exciting places. This includes time travel, big action, story twists, casting, acting, and all the cybernetic tech you could hope for. Adhering to a carefully laid out plan covering two parallel timelines (that we know of), we revisit the first Terminator trip to 1984 and learn about two other time jumps that illustrate Kyle Reese’s important line from the first movie: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” In fact in Reese’s first conversation with Sarah he made the same point, calling her future “one possible future.” These seeds planted in the original allow this new story to take off.
Terminator Genisys stars the fifth actor to play John Connor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zero Dark Thirty, Farscape, and the coming release Everest’s Jason Clarke (if you include the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). In this installment Connor is at that key point in the future revealed in the original film where he sends his fellow Resistance fighter (and father) Kyle Reese back after a T-800 Terminator via a spherical time travel portal. That portal is built by Skynet decades into our future, long after the Judgment Day previewed in T2. Until now moviegoers never had a glimpse of what happened to John Connor next. Now we know that in at least one timeline, and likely even more, Skynet finds a way to intervene via a more advanced model of Terminator. The future is not set, so Skynet adds another line of attack into the fray. And maybe more.
The changes mean that Sarah learns of her destiny as the mother of the future of Earth much sooner than we knew before. Sarah Connor, no longer the naïve waitress of the original timeline, is played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, a performance that lives up to Linda Hamilton’s original badass warrior of T2. It’s her chemistry with both Kyle Reese and Arnold’s latest T-800 incarnation that surpasses the similar relationship between teenaged John Connor and his T-800 in T2. (Will Emilia Clarke pump-up into Linda Hamilton’s condition for a sequel?) Jai Courtney plays Reese, the battle-weary action hero of the original film, played then by the awesome sci-fi/genre actor Michael Biehn (Aliens, The Abyss, Tombstone, Planet Terror). Courtney more than makes up for his role as John McClane’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard, holding his own opposite the determined Sarah, Arnold’s singular focused T-800, and John’s new incarnation. Where the audience followed Sarah’s point of view in Terminator, John’s point of view in T2, John’s would-be wife Kate (played by Claire Danes) in Terminator III, and Marcus Wright’s cyborg (Sam Worthington) in Terminator: Salvation, in Terminator Genisys we return to the core story and follow Reese’s journey.
Plenty of reasons should call you to the theater for this movie, and be back for return visits.
He’s ba-a-ack: First, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, back like the 1980s and 1990s when he became the billion dollar star we know him for. Thanks in part to scriptwriters Laeto Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, Arnold’s work here is better than his work in both Terminator and T2. More than the one-liners of the past versions of his T-800, Arnold’s character has depth and even emotion, at least as much emotion as you could hope for in a borg.
Casting: Tapping Amelia Clarke and Jai Courtney for Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese was spot on. The chemistry between them that we didn’t have much time for in Terminator finally gets a chance to develop. Jason Clarke follows that line of awkward and put-upon heroes and creates a leader someone like Reese might really follow to his death.
Humor: The dialogue sticks to the severity of the stakes at hand in a film about stopping Armageddon, yet it’s full of funny circumstances and dialogue, especially a mug shot sequence when the three heroes are briefly caught by the San Francisco Police Department. Much of the credit for the humor goes to J.K. Simmons’ performance as a detective who first encounters Sarah and Reese in 1984.
Tech and Effects: Adding to Arnold’s T-800, Robert Patrick’s chrome T-1000, and Terminator III’s Terminatrix, Byung-hun Lee’s T-1000 is a worthy new addition, but the so-called T-5000 goes even further to show what it can mean to be a cyborg.
Timely: The “Genisys” in the film might as well be Google, but a title like Terminator: Google probably would not have given off the right vibe. Concerns about the title early on are answered: What is Genisys is key to the plot.
Surprises: Spoiler Alert–We knew that Doctor Who’s Matt Smith had a role in this movie but who knew it would be like this? Doctor Who fans could easily see this one as a bridge between the series. Sound crazy? The scriptwriters have said the following about Matt Smith’s character, which makes that idea sound not so absurd: “He’s not from this timeline. He’s from an alternate universe, in the multiverse, another of the many universes that exist. That Skynet is not from that timeline. This Skynet has been to this universe, and this universe, and this universe. That’s why he says, ‘I came a very long way to stop you.’ He’s not from here. So he’s watched it. He’s watched it happen a bunch of different times, and each time he’s seen it there is a different result but the same result.” Sounds like a Timelord to me.
Key questions remain unanswered: Who sent the T-800 to 1973 to protect nine-year-old Sarah? And who sent all the chrome-morphing T-1000s back into the past (at least one was sent to 1973, one to 1984, and another to 2017, as played by G.I. Joe and RED 2’s incomparable action star Byung-hun Lee and The Returned’s Sandrine Holt, and how about the Terminatrix in Terminator III)? It’s the answer to these questions that the filmmakers intentionally hold back from us, to allow for new stories to be made if the franchise can remain successful.
You can listen to the critics and other self-absorbed whiners looking to make a name for themselves online, or see Terminator Genisys and learn how awesome this flick is for yourself. It’s what summer blockbusters are supposed to be.
Terminator Genisys is in theaters now. Catch it in 3D if you can.