After an aborted attempt to kickstart a new trilogy in the Terminator franchise (Terminator Salvation, a film that I definitely watched but can barely remember a thing about), this fifth installment – Arnie does repeatedly tell us that he’ll be back, after all – sees Alan Taylor taking the man vs machines story back to its point of origin, kinda sorta, operating at first as a twist on the classic 1984 film The Terminator and, to a lesser extent, James Cameron’s exhilarating follow-up Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
As already revealed by the Genisys trailer that means we get to see three ‘versions’ of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 cyborg killing machine as the story flicks between 1984 and 2017: one that resembles the star as he looked in 1984 (via much technical jiggery-pokery), one that resembles The Governator circa 1991 (via even more technical jiggery-pokery) and finally one played by the modern day Arnie, a man contending with a little flab but nevertheless jokingly wink-winking that he is ‘old, but not obsolete’. Screenwriters Laeta Kalorgridis and Patrick Lussier remind viewers that the T-800 is partly made of human tissue, which explains the fact that the exterior has aged while the red-eyed robot inside is working OK, and like the other Terminator sequels Genisys attempts to humanise the T-800 (so when the older cyborg has a problem with the circuitry in his hand, for example, it looks like the early stages of Parkinson’s disease).
Stepping into the Nike trainers once worn by Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese in 1984 is Jai Courtney, while Emilia Clarke plays Sarah Connor, the woman who will eventually give birth to John Connor, the future leader of the resistance (played here by Jason Clarke). As per the first film John sends Reese back in time to 1984 to protect Sarah from the Terminator, and the first thirty minutes of Genisys is entertaining as certain familiar scenes are replayed or re-worked while images and characters from James Cameron’s original reappear (little wonder that the flattered Cameron gave his thumbs up to this franchise entry when pressed recently). However there’s a twist, and this 1984 isn’t quite the same as the one we already know: first Sarah is fully up-to-speed on the rise of Skynet due to take place in the future, secondly she also has her own Terminator for protection (which she has disgracefully named ‘Pops’) and, lastly, there’s a Judgment Day-esque shapeshifting T-1000 in pursuit (Lee Byung-hun, successfully channeling Robert Patrick’s iconic performance).
Terminator Genisys has been panned by critics, but I enjoyed this opening act, and found the little nods to the first two films worked far better than, say, the recent Jurassic Park homages in Jurassic World. In fact after 30 minutes or so I’d completely forgotten about Salvation and 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, and had started to think that there was life in this old dog yet, even though crucially this mash-up of Cameron’s films isn’t actually as good as the equivalent parts of Cameron’s films. However after this trip down memory lane Genisys comes unstuck, partly through the writers’ insistence on further complicating an already-complicated time-travel premise as characters travel forth in time to 2017 (‘blah blah blah nexus points blah blah blah’), partly through the insistence on working Cult Of Schwarzenegger-style humour into the film (the repetitive cheesy grin joke isn’t funny the first time and is unbearable by the end) and partly because the new baddie here doesn’t quite have the same impact as one or two of those that have gone before (I won’t say anything else even though the trailer has inexplicably and shamefully revealed the identity of this antagonist).
When the action moves forward to 2017 it’s a mixed bag. As you’d expect there are wild stunts and chases and set pieces, but too much looks familiar (and not just from the Terminator films, either): as before there are various incidents involving helicopters, trucks and motorbikes, and even though the sight of a bus flying through the air on the Golden Gate Bridge is quite a spectacle, regular blockbuster viewers will be thinking ‘oh come on, not the Golden Gate Bridge again‘. The power of the robot-v-robot scraps are felt, understandably with more shots of stuntmen than ever before, but are these pounding, wall-smashing battles any better than or the equal of those previously seen in Judgment Day (or even Rise Of The Machines for that matter)? And as we move forward to a final showdown it’s hard to muster enthusiasm as another clock ticks down to zero and Arnie’s T-800 is required to save the day through self-sacrifice once again.
When you add some really poor writing, plot holes, bland performances by the three newcomers (Clarke displays little of the toughness that Linda Hamilton brought to the same role) and a quite pointless waste of the talented J.K. Simmons it’s little wonder the reviews have been so scathing. However at least there’s an attempt to bring the story into the modern age, with the use of linked technology (computers, phones, TVs etc.) presented as Skynet’s modus operandi this time round, while some of the fan-pleasing re-staging worked for me (and of course it’s an impressive technical achievement). It’s just a shame that Taylor can’t build on the promise of that first act, or that Courtney and Clarke share little chemistry, or that these films have become marred by a general pandering to Schwarzenegger’s dubious comic talents and the box-ticking of stock catchphrases. It isn’t a turkey, but I have to agree with the consensus that this film simply wasn’t necessary, and the obvious highlights here (Brad Fiedel’s theme tune, the T-1000, the original concept and much of the production design) were created with finesse a long time ago.
Directed by: Alan Taylor.
Written by: Laeta Kalorgridis, Patrick Lussier.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Matt Smith, Lee Byung-hun.
Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau.
Editing: Roger Barton.
Music: Lorne Balfe, Brad Fiedel, Various.
Running Time: 126 minutes.