Earlier this month, James Cameron claimed that Terminator Genisys, the fifth entry in a sci-fi franchise he created with 1984’s The Terminator and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, was “in my mind…the third film.” It was a bold endorsement of a film to which he had no direct involvement. But more crucially, it was a silent yet unmistakable condemnation of the series’ third and fourth chapters, 2003’s Terminator: Rise of the Machines and 2009’s Schwarzenegger-free Terminator: Salvation, neither of which had his imprint. With his comments, Cameron sought to eradicate those two installments from the series’ official canon—which rather ironic, given that director Alan Taylor’s Genisys goes out of its way to not only diminish the importance of Cameron’s works, but to outright erase them.
[To deconstruct this will require some significant spoilers. You’ve been warned]
Rebooting a long-dormant franchise often requires tricky maneuvering, whether the tack taken involves embracing prior adventures (as with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), casually ignoring that which came before (Mad Max: Fury Road), or creating alternate-reality explanations for why characters aren’t behaving as they did in the past (Star Trek). Genisys, however, goes a giant step further, using its time-traveling conceit to rewrite its foundational lore, to the point that the beloved plots upon which the entire franchise is built no longer occurred. Remember The Terminator and T2, it asks audiences during its initial passages and shout-outs? Good, now watch us burn them to the ground.
As before, John Connor (Jason Clarke) is the 2029 leader of the human rebellion against an army of Skynet machines that, having inflicted a nuclear holocaust against mankind, now rule the world. John uses Skynet’s time-travel device to send his right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect his mother Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) from a robot-assassin Terminator that Skynet has dispatched to kill her, all in an attempt to prevent John from being born. Though John is, in this variation, overtly presented as a heavenly protector-cum-father-figure—he’s introduced descending from the sky in a column of light to save young Kyle—the overarching premise is lifted directly from Cameron’s original Terminator. Until, that is, Kyle, mid-time-travel lift-off, sees John being attacked by a new breed of Terminator, and then arrives in a 1984 that’s radically different from the one he (or we, courtesy of The Terminator) expected.
Upon materializing in the past, Kyle discovers that Sarah is not a waitress who’s ignorant of the coming war, or her role as the mother of the rebellion’s leader; rather, she’s already a warrior with her own pet Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) whom she calls “Pops” and who has wrinkled skin and graying hair (Terminators’ flesh apparently ages!). This, in effect, immediately negates Cameron’s first film, since this Sarah—who’s apparently been protected from futuristic robot killers by Pops since the age of 9—is already something like the battle-scarred badass that we saw emerge in Terminator 2. Moreover, this Sarah knows that it’s her destiny to conceive John with Kyle (something Kyle doesn’t yet realize), meaning she’s aware of the actual plot of The Terminator, even though it hasn’t, and will now never, take place.
Time-travel storylines invariably get messy, and The Terminator series has long hinged on something of a chicken or the egg time-loop—namely, that John must send his father (Kyle) back in time to have sex with his mother (Sarah) so that he’ll be born, and thus can grow up and send his dad back in time to have sex with his mother, and so on. But almost immediately, Genisys makes a wholesale muddle of its chronology reconfigurations. After some initial scuffles with a pair of Terminators—one a liquid-metal T-1000, and one a T-800 that looks exactly like ’84-era Schwarzenegger—Sarah shows Kyle that she and Pops have built their own homemade time machine, and plan to travel to 1997 to halt Judgment Day. Kyle, however, convinces them to instead travel to 2017, because that’s when some newfangled Skynet program called Genisys (which connects everyone via the Cloud) goes online. Kyle says stopping that app’s launch is the key to preventing the forthcoming robo-apocalypse, Sarah agrees, and they both springboard to 2017.
In doing so, they instantaneously invalidate The Terminator (again), T2, Rise of the Machines, and, ostensibly, Salvation. That’s because the only way the adult John Connor grows up to be the leader of the anti-machine resistance—and the only way he can send Kyle Reese back in time so that he can shtup Sarah and make a baby John—is if he’s first born in 1984. If, as Genisys depicts, Kyle and Sarah leapfrog to 2017 and still haven’t had John, then the timeline goes kablooey. John can’t possibly be the rebellious teenage Edward Furlong of T2, or the frazzled twentysomething Nick Stahl of Rise of the Machines, or even the facially-scarred adult Jason Clarke of Genisys, because now he can’t even be born until 2017 at the earliest, and thus won’t grow up in the era that the films claim he does/did. Moreover, if John can no longer grow up to be the adult who sent Kyle, then all of Genisys’ tale should halt/disappear the second Kyle and Sarah, without getting busy in the sack, journey to 2017.
But OK, let’s say we set aside that this turn of events means Genisys obliterates its cinematic forefathers from existence, as well as sort of detonates the soundness of its own story. Confronted with this unexpected 1984, as well as new childhood memories he hasn’t actually experienced, Kyle deduces that things have changed because of what happened to John when he was attacked by that weird Terminator—and what happened to John, Kyle eventually learns, is that he was transformed into a new, super-body-morphing Terminator-human hybrid by Skynet. This means John is now evil, and that Skynet hasn’t been defeated in the future. In fact, it’s won, and is in full control of the time machine in 2029, as evidenced by its ability to send John, as well as other Terminators, back in time to both 1984 and 2017.
If that’s the case, then Schwarzenegger never said “Hasta la vista, baby” in T2, or opened fire on Kristanna Loken’s sexy Terminatrix while carrying a coffin on his shoulder in Rise of the Machines—because, after all, those films involved a good future-adult John sending Terminators back in time to protect his younger self from harm. Genisys now says that there is no good future adult John; he’s malevolent, and thus in no danger from Skynet, now or ever before. Complicating Genisys matters more, if adult-future John is a cyborg Skynet villain in control of the 2029 time machine, and he wants to stop Kyle and Sarah from blowing up Skynet before it can initially launch in 2017, why doesn’t he send back an army of Terminators to kill them both? While the film’s logic would dictate that Skynet could dispatch 1,000 Terminators to 2017 to eliminate the trio’s threat, it instead opts to just have John take on Sarah, Kyle, and Pops by himself.
That decision is made for the base narrative reason that it gives Sarah, Kyle, and Pops a fighting chance to triumph, as well as allows Schwarzenegger’s aging Terminator to face off against the latest advanced new-breed model. Yet in twisting itself into time-travel knots, Genisys not only does a disservice to itself—by making its story fundamentally nonsensical—but to its predecessors. To watch Genisys is to see the franchise become a figurative embodiment of the Terminators themselves: convinced of its own superior vision of the future, it tramples upon the dusty skeletons of the forefathers it’s slaughtered to achieve it.