Note: There are implied plot spoilers in this review, particularly about a twist that is revealed in the film’s trailer but which the director has said he nevertheless hoped would be more of a surprise.
Does continuity matter to you? Even a little bit?
The Terminator franchise has always existed somewhere in the mushy middle between unified stories told across multiple films (The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) and serial stories free to change actors, back stories, and plot points (James Bond, any superhero franchise).
The first film was most likely intended as a one-off, and that’s nowhere more evident than when Kyle Reese tells the disbelieving police that “nobody goes back [through a time travel portal], nobody else goes through.” This little bit of mythological world building was necessary to keep away any of the inevitable questions surrounding time travel narratives. Why only one Terminator? Why only one time? Why not eliminate Sarah’s parents or grandparents or great-grandparents or great-great grandpare . . . ? Why are the ripples of change caused by time-travel so focused on one person? Why are we sure that in killing this one person that nothing else will change besides the end of the world?
It’s not so much that the original film gave better answers than its sequels to these time travel conundrums; it’s that the first film signaled that it didn’t really care about them.
The original story’s time travel backdrop was a frame to explain a tight chase and rescue story about and raising the stakes around its outcome. Terminator 2: Judgment Day took advantage of greater special effects to essentially retell the same story, but on a bigger scale. It was popular—and judged successful, on its own terms—but by messing with an already shaky explanation of how the whole time travel thing worked, it opened the door to a host of problems that made the Terminator franchise less and less coherent with each subsequent entry.
All this culminates in Terminator Genisys, which erases at least the last two (really the last three) movies and fundamentally retells the first. There is a little bit of gobbledygook delivered by Arnold himself, whose character is now dubbed “The Guardian” and called (I am not making this up) “Pops.” He explains how multiple timelines might be possible “in theory.”
(None of that explains why Sarah would look like Linda Hamilton in a photo John gives Kyle before he goes through the time transporter and like Emilia Clarke when he gets on the other side.)
The multiple timelines explanation has a bunch of problems; for instance, it totally guts the everything-is-riding-on-this stakes of the first film. No matter what happens in this movie, presumably there will always be some timelines in which Kyle did defeat the Terminator and John did defeat the T-1000 and Skynet did go online and billions of people did die.
Genisys appears to get close to acknowledging this when Arnold’s friendly Guardian Terminator keeps insisting to Sarah that she has to mate with Kyle even though the conditions that led to their falling in love in the first movie have totally changed. Sarah is reluctant to do so because having sex with Kyle “always” results in his death. Huh? Like in the other timelines that The Guardian has told her about, or . . .
But let me stop right there, because it’s important to say that even if you don’t care one whit about continuity, Terminator Genisys is a plotless, aimless, meandering, unclear, unpleasant mess. Normally I’d offer up some rudimentary plot summary here, but I haven’t really any clue what objectives the characters (even the villain) are pursuing, how they are pursuing them, or what will happen (or not) if they fail.
The film begins in 2029 with John (Jason Clarke) giving Kyle (Jai Courtney) a message for Sarah that was pivotal in the first film but never actually gets delivered here. Right before going through time, Kyle sees someone or something attack John, and as he is flowing through time he experiences visions or memories of an alternate timeline where he grew up before Judgment Day.
As he lands in 1984, the film settles into a shot-by-shot remake of scenes from the first film. Some things are exactly the same: the dialogue the punks give to the naked Terminator next to the telescope, the shot of Kyle’s foot descending from a hiding place in a photo booth. But then we start to note some small changes from the first movie. Then there’s a big one. Pretty soon we are taking breaks from the chase scenes for expository dumps that are meant to explain everything, but end up not really explaining anything.
For reasons I am still not entirely clear about, Kyle and Sarah and Pops decide the best way to avert the now-deferred Judgment Day is to time transport to 2017, a day before Skynet goes online. One of the most deeply cynical things about Genisys is that—perhaps because it knows its own metanarrative is broken beyond all repair—it relies on time travel and computer technology to explain how people (or machines) could know things they don’t know how they know, but not know other things that the movie doesn’t want to bother explaining. J. K. Simmons shows up as a cop who appears to have memories from the events that happened in the first film, but didn’t in this film’s timeline. The antagonist in the 2017 appears to be surprised at the appearance of Pops even though, logically, there is no reason why he/it should be. Then there’s a needlessly intricate storyline about Kyle meeting his boyhood self so that he can—hey, look, there’s a big explosion and a school bus flipping vertically!
And, of course, if you make it halfway through the credits, you get the now mandatory Easter-egg teaser/spoiler that implies strongly that everything that you thought you just watched in the second half of the movie didn’t really happen. Or it did, but it didn’t really matter.
Let’s review. Five movies into the Terminator franchise we’ve established that nothing in the first four movies really happened and that the resolution of the fifth movie . . . wasn’t.
We’ve learned that the future isn’t set in stone, unless it is, and changes to the past just result in an infinite number of alternate timelines.
We’ve learned that with each passing year Hollywood cares less and less about story and character and more and more about bigger explosions and cooler special effects. (Did I mention the flipping school bus?)
We’ve learned that there are no sacred texts, no movies so beloved that they can’t be remade or rebooted or reimagined into banal insignificance.
We’ve learned that Arnold Schwarzenneger would rather play a cuddly father-figure than one of the most iconic villains of all time. (I’m trying to picture a reboot in which Saruman protects Frodo from an evil Gandalf, Hannibal protects Clarice from an evil Jack Crawford, or Maleficent protects Aurora from an evil King Stefan.)
Mostly we’ve learned, if we didn’t already know, that the only indispensable part of a movie is the setup for the next movie. Paramount has announcedTerminator 6 (which they are calling Terminator 2) is set for May 2017.
Confused? I’ll make it simple: whatever it is called, skip it. If you haven’t seen this one already, skip it as well.
Terminator Genisys managed to score the seemingly more teen friendly PG-13 rather than an R – another reminder of just how many people or cyborgs you can shoot, set on fire, crash into, blow up, or terrorize, so long as you don’t use the “F” word more than once while you are doing it. There’s some partial Arnold nudity (male buttocks), and Kyle and Sarah are shown in a carefully posed naked embrace at the end of their joint time hop. Sarah tells a story of witnessing her parents’ murder, which, if you imagine it, is pretty horrific, though one expects that by this point anyone stumbling into a Terminator film is aware that the story will involve the imminent deaths of about three billion people. I suspect some viewers will be inclined to read the film as an oblique abortion commentary given the number of times (I counted at least three and maybe four) the film references “killing” someone or something “before [they] are born,” because Skynet/Genisys is digitally rendered and projected as a child, and since the last battle technically involves a mother killing her as yet unborn son based on information about what his future life will be. Whether such a reading will endear folks to the franchise or pointlessly ruffle feathers is hard to say. Since the film as a whole seems so assiduously scrubbed of any ideological or political subtext, and since it is on the whole an incoherent mess, I was loathe to waste too much energy trying to think through the implications of any one line or plot point. If that plot theme does offend you, take solace in the likelihood that the next movie will tell you it didn’t happen anyway.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.