Hollywood’s latest effort to reinvigorate a cash cow ransacks James Cameron’s lean landmark actioners Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, lifting all the obvious touchstones from the franchise (yes, even Terminator Salvation) while rewriting Terminator history and fundamentally altering not only key characters, but the rules of the world.
Call it blasphemy, or opportunism. The canonical rejiggering is made possible with a screenwriting trick cribbed from another Paramount sci-fi reboot, Star Trek, which also sent beloved characters hurtling through time to justify creating alternate timelines, exploit rabid fan adulation, and craft new rulebooks for the franchise.
In Terminator: Genisys that means some things stay the same, while others spin so wildly out of orbit not even explosive set pieces or endless Terminator-on-Terminator fistfights can distract from the nonsense. Back to the Future experts who’ve dedicated hours to mapping out that franchise’s messy timelines will have a field day trying to sort out these paradoxical timelines.
We learn in a voice-over from futuristic freedom fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) that Judgment Day happened, as every good Terminator diehard knows, on August 29, 1997. That’s the day SkyNet woke up and killed 3 billion pesky humans, enslaving and extinguishing survivors in the resulting blood and chrome-filled post-apocalyptic wasteland.
John Connor (Jason Clarke), the untouchable leader of the resistance, sends Reese back to 1984 to save his mother from an android assassin assigned to kill her, thus ensuring that the future never happens. But an unforeseen event conveniently strikes precisely at the moment Reese is being transported mid-time travel—a “nexus point” that has a ripple effect on the film’s sci-fi logic, as later explained by an unlikely character spouting quantum physics mumbo jumbo we’ve never had to know before.
In that instant, Terminator: Genisys changes its past while needlessly overcomplicating the science that’s ruled the Terminator universe for 31 years.
In this new alternate timeline, Reese lands in a 1984 Los Angeles painstakingly recreated from the original film, from the alleyway swirling with blue electric energy to the bewildered homeless guy to the pair of Nike Vandals he cops in a department store. He meets the woman of his dystopian dreams, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), but she’s not the helpless young waitress in distress he was expecting.
She’s Khaleesi in a leather jacket and sensible ponytail, and it’s she who saves Reese from an Asian T-1000 made of lethal liquid metal (Korean star Byung-hun Lee) while barking, “Come with me if you want to live.” Unlike Linda Hamilton’s iconic Sarah Connor, who fell for the futuristic hunk assigned to protect her and then transformed into a badass after getting pregnant with humanity’s salvation in one of the best sequels of all time—this Sarah resists her maternal destiny.
The entire point of this $170 million exercise in studio-scale fanfic is to re-envision iconic characters and storylines in “What If?” scenarios popular enough to carve out two or three more big-budget sequels. And so, meek characters become instant heroes, heroes become villains, and robots become human… kinda.
Wish fulfillment hits its peak as Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to play multiple Terminators, first battling his younger doppelganger, an evil T-800 (played by a bodybuilder stunt double morphed into 1984-era Arnold with the help of some staggeringly realistic CG).
Mostly he spends the film as an aging, friendly neighborhood T-800 affectionately nicknamed “Pops,” who acts as Sarah Connor’s guardian and bruises his way through set piece after set piece while uttering the occasional straight-faced one-liner.
Schwarzenegger’s also at the center of one of Terminator: Genisys’s many, many unanswered questions. Instead of going back in time to save young Eddie Furlong a la T2, we’re told, “Pops” traveled back even further to save young Sarah Connor in the 1970s when SkyNet made her an orphan at the age of nine.
It’s yet another plot turn that, filmmakers and execs hope, audiences will come back to see explained in 2017—the year Terminator: Genisys 2 is already slated to open, with a third film set for 2018. The year 2017 is also when, the new rebooted timeline tells us, the postponed Judgment Day is scheduled to end the world.
It’s hard to fully blame director Alan Taylor for the film’s incomprehensible logic. (For that, look to James Cameron collaborator Laeta Kalogridis and her co-screenwriter Patrick Lussier). Taylor pulls off handsome visuals and an unending onslaught of skirmishes between Arnold’s “old, but not obsolete” T-800 and upgraded evil robo-models, staging battles evocative of indelible moments from Terminator and T2 in multiple timeframes.
He also introduces the tech-forward new T-3000, which Paramount marketing spoiled long ago: Evil John Connor, who’s corrupted by a mysteriously corporal embodiment of SkyNet (Dr. Who’s Matt Smith) and transformed into an indestructible new villain made of nanobot particles.
Like the original, Terminator: Genisys posits a world in which technology will be the end of us. Instead of nukes, SkyNet’s endgame now taps into an already overused millennial-Hollywood paranoia: the iCloud (and all those insidious smart phones, tablets, and devices that increasingly divert our attentions and dollars away from the movie theater, hint hint).
That ubiquitous tech and nanoweapons have nothing to do with each other—yet, I suppose—is of little concern in Genisys, which only exists to squeeze more blood from the cybernetic stone. For all of the logical conundrums it raises, even after an inevitable mid-credits stinger that leads into the sequel, Genisys comes down to one Big Question: Can Sarah Connor, lethal and feistily independent badass, resist her fated urge to bang Kyle Reese?