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All the while I was watching Terminator Genisys, the same phrase kept coming back to me… “We have to go back in time and kill the screenwriter.”
Terminator Genisys is the latest edition of the Terminator series, a property rivaled only by the Alien series for turning two great films into an awful franchise. The last two entries, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation clocked in at 70 percent and 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively – and they’re being rather generous with the 70 percent.
The early trailers suggested promising signs about Terminator Genisys. Arnold Schwarzenegger is back playing the T-800, and the film is trying something kind of cool – rewriting what happened in The Terminator, portraying a timeline snarled from many iterations of time travel. The cast also includes talented actors like Emilia Clarke, J.K. Simmons, and Matt Smith (of Doctor Who fame).
I avoided reading reviews before I watched the movie to avoid bias, so I really didn’t know what to expect walking into the film. Does Genisys succeed in redeeming the franchise? Can a cool idea and a star-studded cast of actors save the series?
So, is Terminator Genisys worth watching?
The short answer is no. Not at all. Terminator Genisys is one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen The FP. The longer, more detailed answer is below, so read our spoiler-free review for geeks to find out all the gory details.
Good actors are only as good as their script and direction – compare Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, for a poignant example. Clearly, something similar was going on in Genisys.
Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones) looks like she’s acting at gunpoint. More importantly, she totally lacks the physical presence and strength of personality you need to play a convincing Sarah Conner. Compare her to Lena Headey (also from Game of Thrones) in the excellent Terminator television show, who consistently looked willing and able to kick your teeth down your throat should the need arise.
Generic protagonist Jai Courtney (Kyle Reese) (who you may remember from the most recent Die Hard movie) clearly has no idea where he is. In The Terminator, Kyle Reese projects a kind of a hardened vulnerability. His acting conveyed a lifetime of trauma, and a certain amount of disgust with the luxury of pre-apocalyptic life. In Genisys, Kyle Reese projects literally nothing. He looks like a pile of biceps inside a trench coat.
The love story between Reese and Sarah Connor in Genisys is one of the least convincing romances I’ve ever seen. And, to reiterate, I’ve seen The FP.
Jason Clarke does a credible turn as the adult John Conner, but even he chokes occasionally on the frankly awful dialog the writers keep shoving in his mouth.
Matt Smith is just sort of there, for no apparent reason.
Pretty much only J.K. Simmons and Arnold himself seem to be having fun. One of the few bright points in this movie is watching Arnold wander around with a mouthful of scenery, thrilled out of his mind that they’re letting him do this again.
Time travel has consistently generated most of the cool plots in the Terminator films. John Connor sending his best friend back to die to ensure his own paternity is really cool. So is the plot in Terminator 2: Judgment Day about having to murder innocent scientists who will someday create world-ending technology.
Genisys adds a new element to the time travel trope, allowing time-travelers to recover memories from their alternate selves when the timeline diverges due to a “nexus point”… or something. I’m going to be honest, I’m having trouble remembering the technobabble they forced Arnold to mumble his way through.
The point is, it’s an extraneous and insultingly magical piece of mythology dreamed up to give the characters a piece of information they could have gotten in much cooler ways. In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the writers wanted to solve the same problem in order to give their main characters hints that the future has changed. Their solution was to have a mortally wounded time traveler show up, and scrawl half-legible messages in blood in their garage before dying. I think we can all agree that that’s much cooler than so-called “nexus points”.
Then there are the Terminators themselves. Since Terminator 2, the Terminator franchise has had a complex relationship with the humanity of its machines. Both Judgment Day and the TV show hint at the possibility of sentient, emotional Terminators – but they don’t do much more than hint. That’s a very good thing, because actually giving us a sentimental Terminator would be a huge mistake, and betray the chilling characterization the films have set up. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, I’m sad to say that Genisys does exactly that.
The strength of Terminators is that they are machines. What’s it like to be an intelligence that lacks emotion, morality, and even boredom? Is such a machine a person? Could it ever be? These questions are more relevant than ever, in a world in which our ability to create intelligent machines is growing more powerful at an astonishing rate, and we’re struggling with giving more and more control to machines that we often don’t fully understand.
What happens when a Google self-driving car has to make a moral judgement with life or death stakes? Or a military robot? Can we trust software to weigh the complexity of one life versus another when it can’t reliably figure out which audio device to output to? These are interesting questions that the Terminator franchise, at its best, can answer.
Unfortunately, Genisys is far from the Terminator franchise at its best.
Generally, Genisys feels like a movie that suffered from too many revisions of its script. Concepts are introduced that are never fully explained or used for anything of consequence. Arbitrary-seeming elements abound. The plot meanders between set pieces, checking off Terminator references and summer blockbuster tropes with no particular direction or urgency.
This feels like Terminator as made by Michael Bay. Which, if you haven’t read the memo, is a bad thing.
Even among film robots, Terminators are special. Too often, when sci-fi franchises explore the idea of humanoid robots, they go to ridiculous extremes of biotechnology or nanotechnology, and make robots that literally cannot be distinguished from humans (we’re looking at you, Battlestar Galactica). This can be useful for plot purposes – and saves on special effects – but it can also make things a little too abstract to really carry that punch of ‘this isn’t a person, it’s a thing.’
The Terminator franchise, in contrast, embraces the mechanical nature of its robots. The famous Terminator endoskeleton looks like a machine. You can see rods and joints and motors working underneath. The films don’t shy away from stripping off the flesh and letting you see the moving parts. The T-800 endoskeleton doesn’t look that far off from something Bostom Dynamics might build.
And, while current robots struggle to pass for human (or, in some cases, even stand upright), there’s a clear path from here to there. We all know, on some level, that the technology will get there eventually. That’s one of the things that makes the Terminator so scary. It feels like something that we could really make in the future.
Every attempt to improve on the Terminator (including, much as I hate to admit it, the T-1000) has lost some of that magic. And, unfortunately, Genisys‘ contribution (a new kind of Terminator that resembles a swarm of magnetic moths) is no different. It’s a great piece of CGI (computer-generated imagery), but it totally fails to be plausible enough to be threatening.
Then there’s the attempt to modernize the Terminator mythology by turning Skynet into an app, presumably as a nod to the population of moviegoers old enough to be cranky about slightly new technology. Let’s be clear here: there are a number of technological developments that are scary enough to be taken seriously. Smartphones and apps are not on that list. There has always been an anti-technology angle to the Terminator films, but it’s never been this dumb before.
One of the few redeeming elements of this movie are the visual effects as they are genuinely impressive. Computer-generated Arnold is right on the cusp of the uncanny valley. Several of the sequences involving the T-1000 and the new model of Terminator are extravagant, and a joy to watch.
However, even here the quality is uneven. A number of the special effects-heavy scenes have jarringly unpolished elements in them – especially the sequences set in the future. Some of them are so glaring that I have to wonder whether the post-production process simply ran out of money before finishing some of the scenes. Which is unforgivable for a big-budget blockbuster such as this.
- Good, if uneven, special effects
- Charming performances from several actors
- Some neat ideas buried inside the plot
- Dull writing
- Unconvincing acting
- An incoherent mess of a plot
- A general failure to capitalize on the strengths of the Terminator franchise.
Terminator Genisys is a bad movie. It’s After Earth bad. It might even be Battleship bad. Unless you’re a die hard Terminator fan who just wants to watch robots punch things, don’t pay money for it.
Buy Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles instead, and spend some leisure time binge-watching the whole series at home. It covers a lot of the same ideas in a more satisfying way, and is generally a joy to watch. As for Genisys, I suggest waiting for the Rifftrax version.
MakeUseOf Rates Terminator Genisys 1 Star out of 5.