I finally caught up with Terminator: Genisys this weekend and it’s fair to say that I viewed it with the same sense of disappointment and rising disinterest that the rest of you probably experienced—and not just because Netflix seemed to be working on dial-up speeds (oh, the irony!) at the time.
I expect I have the same history with the Terminator franchise as almost anyone else: the first two are classics (I personally view T2 as the Perfect Blockbuster Movie); the third one is mostly bearable, but also occasionally painful; the fourth one is simply dull. I only say this to emphasise that I had no major stake in Terminator: Genisys. I hoped to be entertained, while recognising that the franchise was several decades past its prime.
Even before the credits rolled I was developing a perplexing sense that the filmmakers had achieved something remarkable: they had actually come very, very close to reinvigorating the franchise, but had instead ended up giving us a super-sized serving of disappointment because of some basic errors of judgement (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE??? DO YOU?!) that could have easily been avoided.
Let’s go through some of those mistakes.
And, since this post has ended up being way longer that it truly has any right to be, let’s also have some jump links so that you can pick and choose and/or come back later:
Exposition is a killer (cue ironic, extended three-page explanation of what exposition is).
Needless to say, if there’s one thing you don’t want in the sort of sci-fi action thriller that the Terminator films are supposed to be, it’s people standing around in rooms and talking to each other. And if there’s one thing that Terminator: Genisys has, it’s lots of scenes of people standing around in rooms and talking to each other.
Let’s take just one example: the moments leading up to Kyle and Sarah travelling forward in time. We have a scene of Kyle and Sarah talking while they get undressed (yes, this film actually manages to make a scene of two sexy people getting undressed seem boring). We then have a scene of Kyle and Sarah debating whether to go to 1997 or 2017. We also have a scene with Pops! (I’m going to keep adding the exclamation point because it’s ridiculous and makes me laugh) explaining why he has to stay behind so that he can age enough to look like actual Arnold Schwarzenegger. You see, even that sentence took forever…
All of this may only have taken a few minutes, but it felt like twenty. Not only is this boring, but it also gives us plenty of time to think about how nonsensical the plot is (“hey – why don’t we give ourselves less than two days to stop Skynet instead of two whole decades!”).
Let’s look back and compare with the first Terminator film. Sure Kyle has a scene where he has to explain to Sarah where he’s come from, but that’s done in the middle of a frikkin’ high-speed car chase while they’re trying not to get killed by Evil Arnie. Think about how relentless that first film is. Think about how efficiently all the time travel mechanics are explained. Think about how many dozens of times you had to watch it before you caught yourself picking out the plot holes.
Lesson: when exposition really has to happen, try and wrap it inside something much more exciting. Under no circumstances should you let your audience get bored.
Telling, not showing
This is related to exposition, but has more to do with character development. One of the worst examples of this in cinematic history happens in Star Wars Episode II. George Lucas goes to great pains to get Anakin and Padme to tell us all about how much in love they are. Unfortunately he doesn’t show us a single reason why they should feel that way.The result is quite probably the greatest crime against cinema romance ever committed to celluloid (yes, I know it was shot digitally but you can have my cliches when you take them from my cold, dead, writer hands!).
This sort of thing happens multiple times in Terminator: Genisys. For example, the movie has a pretty fresh take on Sarah Connor to play with—the idea of her being trapped by her destiny (admittedly this is largely borrowed from T2)—but wastes it by doing little more than have Sarah complain occasionally instead of showing us moments where visibly struggles against her role in the future. (Coincidentally I watched Minority Report the night before, which is a bit on the nose concerning predestination and choice, but still does a lot more with it).
As a particularly bad example I’d select one of the film’s earliest scenes: the moment that we first see Kyle and John Connor talking. Now, supposedly these two are seasoned soldiers who play critical roles in saving humanity. We assume they’ve bonded on the battlefield, saved each other’s lives countless times, earned their mutual trust through pain and sacrifice.
So the first time we see them together is the two of them talking in an empty corridor.
This is meant to show us that they’re great friends, but all the scriptwriters are really doing is telling us: “Hey, look at what great friends these guys are! Are you on board with that? They’re talking about beer, dudes. Is this all we need to do on this one? Yeah? Awesome…”
Sure. Leader of the resistance, saviour of all humanity, on the eve of a major assault against the enemy and he’s got time to chat in a corridor? Nope. Nope nope nope.
(Yes, I know the writers hedge their bets by showing us young Kyle being rescued by somehow-already-much-older John Connor, but all this gives us is literally the first minute of their lifelong(ish) relationship. There’s no meat on them bones yet.)
So let’s have a counter example: the relationship between Sarah and John in T2, almost the entirety of which is beautifully illustrated within a single scene as they’re driving away from the T-1000. Sarah reaches out to John. John thinks his mother is about to hug him, only to realise that she’s just checking him for wounds. To her he’s the Leader Of The Resistance and must be protected. But all he wants is his mother.
Lesson: dialogue isn’t showing; it’s telling. Actions are showing. Use your character’s behaviour, actions, and reactions to give us meaningful insights into who they are.
Terminator: Genisys is chock full of fan service: those moments that repeat, rework or otherwise harken back to the first two films (and that only fans are supposed to notice).
There are too many instances to pick out just one, and in isolation there’s nothing especially bad about any of them.
In the right hands, fan service can be a lot of fun—especially when it plays on the prior knowledge of those moments. Let’s look, once again, at T2 for a good example: the moment when Arnie’s terminator invites Sarah to: “Come with me if you want to live.” It works because it’s a new take on an iconic line. It adds both irony and drama. We know Arnie is there to rescue Sarah but she’s going to assume the exact opposite because he spent the entire the last movie relentlessly trying to kill her. It also works whether or not you’ve seen the first film. Fans get to feel a little bit smart. Non-fans lose nothing from not getting the reference.
In the wrong hands, fan service can be laboured and obvious. In the wrong film it does nothing more than draw attention to how much better the other films were than the one you’re watching now.
Terminator: Genisys makes a bold play: it places its entire stock on using two iconic movies as the supposed launchpad for an Exciting New Franchise. Unfortunately it misfires. It opens a door for cynical reviewers to say the franchise has long ago run out of ideas, and for cynical fans to accuse Genisys of trashing the memory of the original movies in order to establish its own continuity. It’s likely that one or two references would have pulled through, but the references continue well into the third act and leave the impression that the film lacks the confidence to assert its own identity on the franchise.
It’s a shame because within the limits of the Terminator universe (exactly how many times can we send killing machines back in time in order to fail at murdering the Connor family?) Genisys did manage to find a new way of using time travel and multiverse theory to shake things up a bit. There was an interesting story to be told from this foundation.
Unfortunately, Terminator: Genisys didn’t tell that story.
Lesson: a little fan service can be a treat. Too much and you’re as likely to turn those same fans against you.
While we’re on the subject of fan service we can’t ignore casting. All the problems I’ve highlighted up to here could have—and should have—been fixed at the script stage. No one should have spent a penny on this movie until the script was solid. However, bad casting can undermine a film almost as surely as a bad script (I’m hesitant to point at the Star Wars prequels since they were poor in almost every respect, but we can look to Gods Of Egypt for a tangential example of how casting can help to stuff up a film).
Terminator has unusually strong form in recasting roles that have been established by other actors. If we include the TV series, we’ve already had at least two Sarah Connors, three Kyle Reeses (pieces … yup, went there ….) and four John Connors. Recasting really shouldn’t be a problem for us at this stage.
The key thing here is that the recasted characters have typically been presented at different times in their lives, or in different circumstances (including being on TV, instead of in a movie). They are essentially different people than the ones we’re already familiar with, so we have less problem with them being literally different people.
However, in Genisys we’re given a Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese who are intended to be mirrors of the characters we already know from the first film. Sure, Sarah Connor has already lived a very different life, but there’s no way we’re going to be looking at a circa 1984 Sarah Connor in a Terminator film without seeing Linda Hamilton.
Anyway, for my money, no one is especially bad in this film. They’re just not quite right.
Jai Courtney would have probably been excellent as a terminator. I’m not being facetious: look at what it did for Arnie. His best role to date (that I’ve seen) was as the bad guy in Jack Reacher, so we know he can be chilling without having much to work with. Here he’s condemned to leave us pining for Michael Biehn (who I unreservedly love, but is never going to win any acting awards if we’re honest).
Jason Clarke, on the other hand, is an excellent actor. Personally, I just can’t see him as either grizzled warrior John Connor or an unstoppable killing machine. Why didn’t they cast him as Kyle Reese? Use him to give us the tortured, human face to the war instead of the relatively impassive Courtney.
While we’re here, why not have Matt Smith as John Connor instead of wasting him in a tiny role that’s only there to set up the sequel? Given that he’s already pulled off Doctor Who, I reckon we could buy Smith as the saviour of humanity; having him later revealed as a terminator would be a superb way of subverting his well-established genre credentials.
Meanwhile, Emilia Clarke does well enough, but I can’t help feeling she’s fighting against a script and director that seem determined to force her into the ‘embittered, hard-as-nails, secretly vulnerable, female warrior’ trope. Consequently, there’s not enough here to separate her from Daenerys Targaryen and the film might have worked better with someone like Emily Blunt who can bring some of their own character to the role.
Or, maybe just a better script.
Lesson: don’t ask me, I’m not a casting agent.
There are two final fails that I want to tack on here. Arguably they’re lesser fails that (inarguably) are more to do with the marketing of the film, but they still fall into that already overstuffed Coulda Been Avoided basket.
The first is this whole “Gen-eye-sys” thing.
In the context of the film the name actually makes perfect sense: it’s a wanky, must-have app-platform-whizmo-thingie that everyone simply must have. Of course it’s going to have a dumb-as-nails name.
The problem comes partly from using it as the film’s name. It’s a clumsy pun which only really makes sense after you’ve seen the film. The bigger problem comes from how it was revealed: simply as the film’s title, fait accompli, without any context whatsoever. If you come from an overwhelmingly Christian country and you make like you don’t know how to spell genesis then people are going to think you’re an idiot. And once people start thinking you’re an idiot—especially where the internet is involved—it’s very, very hard to claw your way back from that.
Second problem is frikkin’ spoiling the fact that John Connor ends up as a terminator! In the trailer!! And on the poster!!! It’s the big frikkin’ twist! It’d be like having a poster for The Sixth Sense that says ‘Look at Bruce Willis: he’s playing a dead guy!’.
I don’t have a huge problem with John Connor being a terminator. It’s a little bit of a dick move, for sure, but again it makes perfect sense in the context of the film: Skynet is trying to turn humanity’s greatest asset into a weapon (I’m less sure why they’d do all that only to send him back to 1997 to act as an IT consultant, but whatevs).
It’s like giving Terminator fans the double finger. First we’re going to ruin this mythological hero who underpins the whole franchise. Then we’re going to take away the potential fun of it being a huge twist.
At this point the only question remaining is this: why have I just written almost 2,500 words on Terminator: Genisys (and did you even make it this far)?
I didn’t hate the film. I didn’t love it, or even like it much. It was a collection of interesting ideas that were undermined by some basic mistakes. The truth is that I find these near-misses often more fascinating than the ones you can tell are going to be a disaster right from the outset.They get so close and then let it blow up in their faces. I guess it’s a good dramatic principle if nothing else. Imagine The Great Escape if their entire plan was based around a jelly fight. You’d realise straight away it’s going to be a dismal failure, and most of the dramatic tension would be lost. Instead we have a classic, unforgettable movie where they so very nearly get away with it.
If it wasn’t for that. One. Stupid. Mistake.
So, please use the comments to share your thoughts about Terminator: Ineptitude. Which bits did you like? If any? Which parts made you want to drive a T-1000’s finger into your brainspace? Is there a future for this once-great franchise, or do we need to consign this one to the dustbin of history?