The Terminator franchise has made one of the more interesting journeys in cinema history. It started with The Terminator in 1984, which was a decent action movie with a simple, though well executed, sci-fi plot. The sequel, Terminator 2, probably should never have happened, and yet somehow defied all the odds to not only be a great movie, but also managed the exceedingly rare trick of being a better movie than its predecessor. That movie originally ran in 1991, and by all rights should have signaled the end of the franchise. The story was done, the point was made and we were left with a certain degree of optimism about a future that may or may not have been ours to control.
Jump forward to 2003 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines decided to trample all over that and tell us that, “no, you have no control. The future is set and can’t be stopped, only delayed”. It certainly didn’t help that the only returning major cast member was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not that Arnold is a bad guy to have to give your film legitimacy, but it loses its connection to the previous films when you can’t get anyone else back. Even bringing in young talented actors like Nick Stahl and Claire Danes (several years before her breakout role in Homeland) couldn’t save the poorly written cash grab. And that should have been the end of the franchise, but like a stubborn phoenix with a mental disorder it returned yet again.
Unlike Terminator 3, which was basically thrown out into the world to die a terrible death, Terminator Salvation had all the signs of being a healthy new start for the series. It had top name actors like Christian Bale (fresh from the blockbuster The Dark Knight), Helena Carter (who was tearing up screens in the Harry Potter franchise) and Sam Worthington (who would play the lead role in Avatar later the same year), and there was already talk of the movie starting a new trilogy with Christian Bale at the head. Unfortunately what we got was an uninspired, though perfectly competent, generic sci-fi movie. Most of the key features that made the original two Terminators such great movies were stripped out in favor of running gun battles, explosions and a movie about killer robots that took itself far too seriously. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn’t particularly good, either. And, yet again, the series should have taken its cue and ended.
Which brings us to now, 2015, and the fifth entry into the series (not counting the television series starring Lena Heady and Summer Glau) is in theaters. Of course this was probably inevitable since the second biggest buzzword in Hollywood right now (right behind “superhero”) is “reboot”, and like many other formerly great franchises the Terminator franchise was tapped to be resurrected (again). What is interesting here is that the time travel aspect to the franchise puts it in a fairly unique position where it can still link into the original series, while also doing a true reboot. In the hands of the right director and cast the series could well be revived. Fortunately, that appears to be what has happened.
The first half of Terminator: Genisys might as well be a love letter to Terminator and Terminator 2 with references and recreations of the original sequences being done with a tender care. Fans of the early Terminator movies will notice lots of small details that were included as nods to the original. One story from the development of the movie is that the production design team was so invested in creating an authentic feel to these sequences that they even managed to convince Nike to reopen production on a brand of shoe that hasn’t been made in three decades. This was just so they could say they had authentic models of the shoes worn by Michael Biehn in the original Terminator instead of jury-rigged recreations (as is common in movies of this nature). It takes serious dedication to make so much of a stink that even Nike eventually gave in, especially when you consider that the shoes were only featured on screen for a few seconds. Even if you are not a fan of the series the attention to detail is apparent throughout the film, and it is a better movie because of it.
The second half mixes things up by throwing us a massive plot curve-ball, which would have been utterly fantastic if the marketing team hadn’t spoiled the twist months before the movie even came out. It might not be exactly on the level of “Luke, I am your father” as far as plot twists go, but it certainly isn’t far off. It wasn’t just the one trailer, either, that revealed the twist (like what happened with How To Train Your Dragon 2‘s big plot revelation/twist), but a continued marketing campaign that clearly indicated what the twist was. It is easy to understand that the marketing department was in a tough spot here, but I do feel that the movie experience would have been significantly better if the surprise hadn’t been ruined. Even the director was a bit miffed that his big twist was spoiled, but understood the motives behind the decision. The Terminator franchise was severely damaged by Terminator 3, and then again by the underwhelming performance of Salvation, and the trailer had to convince people that this was not just a retread of the same old formula and that, yes, there was a good reason to come see this movie. The problem is that I don’t think it worked. The Terminator fans were going to see it anyway, as were bored teenagers looking for some action movies to help fill their summer vacation with (and get them out of their parents’ hair), and most everyone else had already decided on whether they thought the idea of another Terminator movie was appealing or not. I do think the movie would have been much better served if that first group of movie-goers had come back to their friends and co-workers and been gushing about a great plot twist that they didn’t see coming. Obviously, we will never know for sure.
A plot twist, even a good one, is hardly enough to sell a movie on, though. So it is good that the rest of the movie does hold up. The first half, as mentioned above, is great nostalgia fun mixed with solid action and decent acting. The second half kicks things up a bit and features some excellent special effects that nicely compliment the continued action. Humor gets mixed in rather well with the action and exposition (especially once J.K. Simmons joins the cast), and the movie never falls too far into taking itself too seriously (though it does get close as we near the end). Things aren’t precisely perfect, and there are some missteps here and there, but nothing overly noteworthy.
All of this is bolstered by a solid cast of actors who do a good job in updating their respective roles. Of particular note is Emilia Clarke taking over for Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor (she actually does look quite a bit like a young Hamilton, though not enough that you’d mistake the two), and doing a fine job of it, too. She doesn’t bulk up the way Hamilton did for Terminator 2, but she does carry herself with the same confidence and authority that we have come to expect from the role. There is a bit of an unfortunate dissonance there since Emilia Clarke is, so far, only known in one role (Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones), and it is hard to separate that roll from the actress, but that is an issue that will probably go away with time as she takes on more jobs.
Jai Courtney is a bigger change from his predecessor, Michael Biehn, though, and it is noticeable. Biehn’s take on the Kyle Reese character was more of a hardboiled, no nonsense soldier who never knew any degree of happiness. Courtney lightens the role a bit by making Reese a bit more confused by his new surroundings, and having to banter more with Connor. I think that this update does work pretty well since this is a lighter movie than the original Terminator was, so it gets a bit of a pass. It should be interesting to see how the romance will develop between the two characters, as well.
Jason Clarke is both benefited by and hurt by the fact that he is inheriting his role from not one, not two but three previous actors (in fairness, one was a kid) who have each left a stamp on the character. Most notably he is stepping in for Christian Bale, whose John Connor in Salvation is the closest to what we have here. There were apparently talks with Bale to get him to reprise the role (which would have been awesome), but nothing came of them for whatever reason. Keeping in mind that Bale’s shoes are hard to fill, Clarke did a more than admirable job in taking over the role. John is, in many ways, one of the most human characters in the movie, and he does have to carry a good share of the movie in dual capacities. He could have easily gone over-the-top and been completely unlikable as a character, but Clarke walks the line quite well. He fit the role better than I was expecting.
That leaves us, of course, with the Terminator himself (billed as “Guardian” in this movie, interestingly): Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is not often I get to say something like this, but Arnold really is in his element in the Terminator movies, and you can’t help but get the sense that he is enjoying himself immensely. The character of the Terminator is perfect for his skills as an actor and bodybuilder, and he takes it much more seriously than you might initially expect. For instance, in the first Terminator he practiced with guns so rigorously and studiously that he actually got to the point where he could reload the guns without looking, and was even praised for his accurate portrayal of gun usage in films. For this movie he bulked up so that he had the same physique that he had for the original two movies, which at his age is no small feat. Say what you want about the man, but he doesn’t do things in half measures and it shows on the screen.
Prior to this movie coming out it was already announced that two sequels were greenlit for release before 2019, which is when Paramount loses the rights to the franchise. With that in mind I would have strongly suspected that this movie would end on a cliffhanger, or at least with a clear setup for its sequel. Surprisingly, that is not the case. Aside from a few dangling plot threads this movie actually wraps up the majority of its story, and if no other Terminator movies were ever made we would have a satisfying conclusion to the saga. What we will get with the two sequels, presuming they do continue to move forward (the box office take has thus far surpassed the production costs, but by a slimmer margin than most summer blockbusters), should be interesting to see. With their projected releases being about a year apart in 2017 and 2018 I expect that we’ll see something of duology (ala Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3 or Back to the Future 2 & 3), but that is still up in the air. For the first time in a long, long time, though, I (like Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese) feel a certain amount of optimism for what the Terminator franchise has in store for us.