‘Terminator: Genisys' Director Alan Taylor Knows His Movie Makes No Damn Sense
When I rang him to pick his brain about the new reboot in hopes of making sense of the wannabe blockbuster’s willy-nilly logic, confusing time travel conceits, and overcomplicated plotting, he was already bracing for endured endless queries from super fans who know their T-800s from their T-1000s.
“I remember seeing both films, thinking T2 was really cool, and everybody going, ‘Oh my God, how’d they build the liquid metal guy?’” Taylor said.
Polite and open—even in the face of dogged criticism like the pans his Terminator re-quel has been collecting—he revealed that he didn’t come to truly appreciate James Cameron’s landmark sci-fier The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day until he got the call to direct Genisys.
After landing the job, he intently re-watched every frame, making a reference book of screen grabs to guide the scenes meticulously recreated from The Terminator that unfold early in Genisys.
Recreating The Terminator’s 1984-set scenes down to the electric blue bolts of time travel lightning and Kyle Reese’s Nike Vandals “was the fun, easy part. It was literally just looking at the original framing going, ‘Okay, let’s move the light two inches that way, raise the camera one inch.’ That was just pure out-and-out homage.”
The hard part, as Paramount execs and wunderkind producer David Ellison are discovering over a dismal Fourth of July weekend, is making Terminator Genisys make any kind of sense. Officially, the film contains no fewer than seven different timelines as its characters jump back and forward and sideways in time trying to save the world and stop Judgment Day.
On set, he revealed, he kept a master diagram of the film’s multiple timelines but discovered that different department heads had their own diagrams sketched out—with incorrect details. I ask Taylor to identify each of these seven timelines once and for all. Here’s his explanation (BEWARE, SPOILERS):
“We start in 2029 during the Future War, then go back to… “
“1984, jumping into…”
“2017. So that’s three.”
“But when we start the movie we’re actually pre-Judgment Day, because we’re watching a happy beautiful world that was lost. And then Judgment Day happens. Then we cut ahead to…”
“Post-Judgment Day. So that’s actually two more time frames, just within the prologue. Which brings us up to five.”
“Then when we time travel with Kyle he’s remembering an alternate timeline, which was his 13th birthday in the happy time-verse, which would be 2012 seen in two different ways.“
“And the seventh is when we flash back to the 1970s when Sarah is saved by the Guardian [Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, a.k.a. “Pops”]. That’s my favorite, because that’s my 11-year-old daughter playing the young Sarah Connor.”
And there you have it.
Scripted by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, Genisys effectively Star Trek-boots the O.G. Terminator canon while pretending that neither Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines nor Terminator: Salvation exist. Now we’re dealing with a cuddly, aging Terminator, an evil John Connor, a Sarah Connor raised from the age of 9 to blow away bad bots, and a personified Skynet who looks like Doctor Who and is hellbent on taking over humanity with smartphones.
Kyle Reese goes through a time portal only to develop impossible “memories” from an alternate timeline—and that’s one of the many eyebrow-raising liberties in the script that Taylor insists is actually science-fictionally sound.
“Arnold has one of the most unpronounceable, impenetrable expositional lines in the movie when he says, ‘It’s possible to remember two time frames when you enter the quantum field during a nexus moment,’ and nobody has any idea what he’s talking about,” said Taylor. “But yes, it makes sense. We don’t expect anybody to get it—then Kyle turns to Sarah and says, ‘Can you make him stop talking like that?’ It’s a way to say, you don’t really have to get this. If you want to nerd out, it’s all there, I think it’s coherent. But hopefully we can move on.”
Taylor, if not also the screenwriters, producers, and stars of the film, knows Genisys raises a lot of unanswered questions that audiences will either fill in, ignore, or have huge problems with. They’re mostly hoping moviegoers just shrug and keep digging into that popcorn.
“My favorite part is using humor to sort of skate over it,” Taylor said, optimistically. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You may not get this, but who cares? Keep going!’ There’s a scene where J.K. Simmons [who plays a detective] comes in and says, ‘What you’re doing seems really complicated.’ And [Sarah Connor] says, ‘We’re here to save the world!’ And he says, ‘I can work with that.’ Basically, that’s what we’re telling the audience: Go with it, we’re saving the world.”
Unfortunately for Taylor, I’m not such an easy sell. I ask about Genisys’s many unanswered questions, plot threads that are forgotten or never resolved in a movie continuing one of the most famous and worshipped geek properties of all time.
Taylor starts answering without skipping a beat. “Yes, the looming questions are, ‘Who sends Pops back? Where did Skynet get it together to attack John Connor? How did that happen?’ And there are answers to these things that are not provided in this movie, instantly,” he said.
Paramount and the film’s producers have already dated sequels for 2017 and 2018, putting the cart before the T-3000. Genisys concludes with its heroes staggering off into the sunset thinking they’ve defeated Skynet, but like many Genisys viewers, they have no idea they’re just pawns in someone’s long game.
For his part, Taylor plays it safe when sequel talk surfaces. “The idea is that there will be a chance to play them out, but as we’ve all been saying you never know if there will be a follow up,” he says. “It depends on what the audience makes of this one.”
A veteran helmer hired after directing a solid TV run (Mad Men, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones) and a Marvel sequel (Thor: The Dark World), Taylor has survived a crash course in fan culture on his last three projects.
“On Game of Thrones I remember shooting in Croatia and by lunchtime we’d see photos of what we’d shot online and think, ‘My god—people really care,’” he recalled. “It was, for the most part, curiosity and enthusiasm we were hearing.”
When he made his blockbuster feature debut with Thor 2, Marvel’s comic book and movie fans proved “incredibly active—but they were mostly happy Marvel fans rooting for it to be good.”
Taylor wasn’t quite ready to entertain a Terminator fandom that’s already learned to be wary and protective of “their” property, thanks to those who tried and failed before him. “There’s a very devoted fan base that really loved T1 and T2 and felt burned by T3 and T4, so when we said, ‘We’re going to do it again!’ the reaction was, ‘WHOA WHOA WHOA—what do you think you’re doing?’” he admitted.
“I was struck by the fact that a lot of the fan scrutiny was wary—that’s the polite word for it,” he laughed. “This was the first time I felt like they were actively defending their love of these movies from the interloper. It hasn’t been resolved yet, but it was a huge boon to have Cameron come out publicly and say good things about it because the people who love T1 and T2 obviously revere him and know Cameron can’t be bought off or manipulated.”
So don’t worry if you saw Terminator Genisys and didn’t fully understand who was doing what, when, why, or how. All will be revealed, one day, maybe. Maybe not. At least we kinda know what our new post-millennial Skynet’s after: your privacy.
“Skynet is Genisys,” one character keeps repeating in the film so that he, his younger self, and the audience don’t forget. “I think what we’re saying is this is the new friendly ergonomic face of Skynet,” says Taylor. It’s going to sidle up to you and once you’ve embraced it, Judgment Day is going to happen.”
Speaking of Judgment Day, Paramount unveiled Hollywood’s perhaps most relevant blockbuster movie tie-in with Terminator Genisys: an in-movie game you play on your iPhone during the film. What does Taylor think of such a potentially distracting new technology encouraging viewers to engage with their devices at the movies?
“I’d just heard about it,” he laughed. “There are all kinds of things evolving in filmmaking I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. A friend of mine just showed me an immersive 360 movie where you move from environment to environment and can look in any direction you want while you’re experiencing it. Which is cool—but it kills directing, as far as I’m concerned.”