Some months back at the Daily Dot, I wrote that I think reboots are over: that fresh starts for meandering franchises like Bond and Batman had their day in the mid-to-late 2000s, and that retcons and new timelines – see Star Trek XI and X-Men: Days of Future Past are the new thing. In the same piece, I looked forward to Terminator Genisys – and in the intervening months, I kept the faith. What do I think about it, then?
Straight up, it isn’t all it might have been, but had I actually paid to see it, I don’t think I would feel shortchanged: as it goes, there’s a solid chance I’ll now pay to see it again on a proper size screen. Should you be thinking of doing the same, it strikes me the best way to rate the film is to explain how (after the postcredits scene) you can leave similarly satisfied.
1. Lower your expectations.
There’s no getting round it: Genisys isn’t a great film, and it’s the baddest – though not the worst – Terminator film. When critics say the comedy’s awkward, the timelines are a mess and too much got spoiled in the trailers, they aren’t wrong. If Salvation didn’t prove as much, this series is now the equivalent of a patient whose family (studio heads) demand it be kept alive at all cost, successive film crews paid to fracture ribs and sacrifice all dignity in order to maintain a pulse.
Even before Genisys was released, two sequels were announced, with the film meant as the first part of a new trilogy: high-ups want to maximise profits, and it shows. While Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor return, gone are the swear words and sex scenes from Terminator one. So, more importantly, is its quiet, inescapable menace. (No scene in the series has topped Michael Biehn’s retreat up those stairs, described in the Radio Times as ‘nerve-jangling’.)
As Ryan Lambie writes at Den of Geek, Alan Taylor – directing as generically here as in Thor: The Dark World – ‘lacks . . . the capacity to give his action scenes the creative spin or sense of danger a chase film requires’. Judgment Day’s transhumanism, meanwhile, is replayed so broadly it turns to farce. (Spoiler: the aged Terminator draws childish pictures of Sarah Connor. I am not joking.) Reduced to family-friendly popcorn fare, the franchise is a shell of what it was in James Cameron’s films.
Thank goodness, then, that I’ve seen uglier shells – because Genisys is enormous fun.
2. Raise them back up a bit.
If Terminator is to go on the one way it can – as popcorn fare – I’m glad this is the kind of popcorn fare it’s going to be.
Between fault lines, there’s much here to admire in earnest – not least the ambition of the premise, which ditches Rise of the Machines’ rehashing of the second film and offers a far better format change than Salvation. The machine effects are as stunning as they ever were, and the handling of Schwarzenegger’s age (willkommen back, Ahnuld) unexpectedly plausible. Other cast members are on fine form too: Matt Smith, by no means left on the cutting room floor, uses meagre screen time to great effect, but the picture belongs to Emilia Clarke, whose Linda Hamilton is uncanny down to the voice.
With a different director, a trimmed script and less hamfisted ads, one senses there’s a legitimately somewhat good film somewhere in there. Terminator Genisys is still bad – but it’s all the best kinds of bad. Although not substantially better than the stultifying Salvation, it’s infinitely more enjoyable, and its remixing – some might say cannibalising – of the series’ continuity feels genuinely imaginative, even when it fails. It’s silly, but gloriously so, and there’s a lot to grin about.
3. Consider it (brilliant) fanfic.
I first saw Terminator 2 at the entirely unsuitable age of eight or nine. While it was years before I discovered Harry/Ron slash (oh yes), it was the first film to make me think like a fanficcer. I wondered what a hacked T-1000 might be like; what would happen if John and Sarah jumped forward in time; how I’d deal with a Terminator on my trail. In its pursuit of a new direction for the series, Genisys addresses questions like these – and some of its answers, although not great cinema, are, well, cool.
Who didn’t get chills from that first trailer when Sarah Connor yelled ‘Come with me if you want to live’ at Kyle Reese? What fan hasn’t at least thought up stories featuring Kyle and a T-1000? In the first half-hour, moments from the first and second instalments play out differently, culminating in two fangasmic rematches. Whatever the rest of the film contains, we get to watch Kyle’s overcoat with Sarah Connor’s Judgment Day leathers. It’s a fanfic I’d read the hell out of, taking highlights from previous entries and weaving a new narrative from them. It doesn’t always work, and the story suffers as it enters wholly new territory, but heavens, it’s the best kind of fanwank.
(If there’s a complaint here, the T-1000 is the main victim of the child-friendly rating – razor sharp liquid metal just doesn’t work without blood – and at one point acts inexplicably, mimicking Kyle in front of Sarah instead of simply killing them both. Lee Byung-hun’s tap water performance, nothing on Robert Patrick’s, doesn’t help. Still, that death by acid compensates just fine.)
4. Shut up and eat your popcorn.
Stop asking questions – about time travel, what the theme is and why Ahnuld ages so inconsistently – and everything will be okay. Well, more or less.
No, this isn’t a follow-up as good as the first or second films – but once you’ve learned to live with that, it does what it sets out to fairly well, miles more original than the third film and more watchable than the fourth. (Appealingly, it also lets us decide for ourselves just how canonical those are.) Whatever new series it starts, assuming the sequels don’t evaporate, it won’t be as good as what came before – but if this is anything to go by, it will be fun, and I’m at least as curious as I need to be about what happens next. If nothing else, Genisys achieves what two previous films have failed to do: it takes Terminator somewhere new.
5. Go and (re)watch The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Even if you loathe every minute of this latest film, its ambitions – to move Sarah to the present, explore time travel in more depth, examine in depth the AI behind SkyNet – are worthy ones. We’ve seen them before in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which got two seasons on Fox before being axed in 2009, and remains the best follow-up to Judgment Day, with the kind of detail and depth television allows. (Unlike film four, helped in large part by Lena Headey in the title role, it also succeeds sans Schwarzenegger.) If Terminator has a high brow future anywhere, perhaps TV is where it should end up.