So far this year, blockbuster sequels have become massive box office hits by conforming to audience expectations, giving them exactly what they want, just on a scale even bigger than what has come before. Age of Ultron saw multiple cities get destroyed, not just New York; Pitch Perfect 2 saw another a Capella competition, this time the world championships; Jurassic World saw dinosaurs wreck havoc on thousands of paying theme park customers instead of a luckily invited few. Each of the above listed movies had narratives that played out in the way you would expect, refusing to subvert any tried and tested narrative formula lest it becomes too different from what has worked before. The thing that makes Terminator: Genisys interesting is how it rewrites its own narrative and mythology, in a way only movies in the time travel sub-genre can. It will very likely annoy audiences by the stubborn refusal to take the two original movies as sacred texts – and of course, the movie is nowhere near as good as those two, but I admired it for at least daring to subvert the narrative.
In 2029, John Connor (Jason Clarke) is still fighting the war against the machines. After being told Skynet will attack in both the past and the future, he finds that Skynet have already sent the T-800 back to 1984 to kill his mother Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), before he has a chance of destroying the time machine. He then decides to send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to help save his mother from Arnie-geddon, knowing that the timeline ensures he will fuck her to become his father, before swiftly dying. However, when he arrives butt-ass naked in 1984, the T-800 has already been dealt with- confusingly, by a reprogrammed T-800, played by Compare the Meerkat salesman and occasional actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We are fifteen minutes into the movie and it has already wiped out the events of every single movie in the franchise in a way that, although remarkable in conception, in conviction registers as the movie’s low point. Actors have been hired to remake scenes from the first ten minutes of the original Terminator, with a computer generated 1984 Arnie superimposed onto them. Instead of using the template of Back to the Future 2 and working around pre-existing footage, which this movie has the budget and technological capability of doing, it makes the poor decision to stage awkward reenactments of previous events. This is likely to ensure the dialogue within those scenes becomes family friendly, what with a less restricted rating. But this decision still leads to some bizarre choices that makes it seem less like a deliberate copy of The Terminator than a Bizarro-world version of it.
For long stretches of time the movie refuses to play it safe (on a narrative level anyway – this is a PG-13/12A blockbuster through and through), tinkering with the timelines and rendering every other movie in the franchise obsolete in a way that has to be admired for it’s ballsiness. For this reason, it is easy to see why it has been so critically shunned; it is a franchise sequel that dares to remove the two original, James Cameron-directed instalments from the shrine of pop-culture history. It obviously fails to succeed, but the fact it offers more than just replicating what has come before (even in the sequences where it literally replicates what has come before) ensures I was far less bored than in many other blockbusters I’ve seen this year. It’s not a film I would urge people to rush out to see, as by removing better films from the timeline, the movie subsequently makes them harder to go back and rewatch, knowing they will eventually devolve into this. To best enjoy the movie is to imagine it all takes place inside of the “what if?” machine invented by Professor Farnsworth on Futurama – an alternate take of events that may prove to destroy this franchise once and for all, but won’t work to the detriment of the earlier instalments if viewed this way.
Despite enjoying the movie and admiring the ballsiness, it is hard to argue that this is a quality film. It is a film that I enjoyed quite a bit – yet I suspect that is likely due to a cocktail of low expectations and for restoring the fun that was entirely absent from the humourless previous instalment, Terminator: Salvation. The movie is, in many places, utterly terrible; the entirety of the 1984 sequence could be forgiven for feeling dated, yet an awful “comedy” set piece in 2017, where our heroes get arrested to the soundtrack of “Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do?” probably wouldn’t have been funny when that song was a contemporary chart hit. This movie is far removed from James Cameron’s originals; his movies actually had intelligence, as he achieved one of the few time travel narratives that was easily understandable, yet still with a hard sci-fi edge. Director Alan Taylor has made the franchise the most fun it’s been since Cameron stopped directing by doing the opposite, dumbing the movie down in some places, whilst heightening the complexity of the narrative elsewhere.
Despite being a prolific director in the nineties, Taylor is best known for directing several episodes of TV series such as The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, two of the most cinematic small-screen efforts of all time. His last cinematic directorial effort was Thor: The Dark World, a rare big budget fantasy blockbuster that had the cheap visual style of the average Doctor Who episode. Genisys looks cinematic, yet the visual effects seem far less impressive than what Cameron achieved over two decades ago on a far tighter budget. His work on Game of Thrones is clearly the reason why he’s been hired to make films like this – yet his is a style clearly suited to smaller films or TV series with budget constraints, as his work is unimpressive when working on a grander scale. The televisual feel of the movie is carried over due to appearances from lead actress Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones fame, as well as a cameo from ex-Doctor Who Matt Smith, here credited as Matthew Smith for no clear reason.
Terminator Genisys is badly structured, poorly acted and complicates the narrative in a way that is an insult to long standing fans of the franchise. But it’s never boring- if all franchise movies actually dared to challenge the pre-existing foundations their narratives were built on instead of offering more of the same, maybe I would give this movie the lower star rating it probably deserves. As blockbuster filmmaking becomes increasingly fearless, I have to give a cautiously positive notice to a film that at least dares to do something different, even if the thing it does differently isn’t executed well. At the very least, it has terminated the franchise – hopefully nobody will press the reboot button to turn it on again.