Just Stop While You're Ahead
I don't think anyone is ever going to make the argument that Terminator: Genysis was anything other than an ill-conceived idea. The TerminatorIs it a series about a future nuclear war and the survivors of the aftermath? Is it a series of chase movies set in the present day? Is it a series about time travel? That fact is that the Terminator series is all of those concepts. The mash-up of genres and ideas shouldn't work, but the films have proven adept at mixing into a heady series unlike any other. franchise really only had two good films in the run (The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and everything that came after, whether it had good ideas or not, diluted the ending of the second film. James Cameron's series ended with two movies but Hollywood couldn't let it go.
That's really the only explanation for why Genysis even exists: the rights to the franchise were about to revert back to Cameron so if the studio wanted to squeak any more money out of the series before then, they had to rush a film into production right quick. But it couldn't just be a sequel, of course, because Hollywood doesn't just make sequels anymore. No, the film had to be the start of a trilogy, the beginning of a possible cinematic universe. Every film out of the studios at this point has to come pre-packaged to sell a ton of sequels (and the ones that don't are given paper-thin budgets to work with). If a new Terminator movie was coming out, it had to setup at least two more movies in the process.
That's one of the many issues with Genysis: it only has a partial ending. While there is plenty of action, the film feels the need to layer on so many details, so many twists in its runtime that it just can't address all the story in one film. It came ready-made for two more sequels but, as we know now, those sequels were never coming. The film only did okay at the Box Office and the studio pushed the brakes on future Genysis sequels. That leaves this film in a weird place: a lot of things are setup but the film only has a minor conclusion to it. Enough is left hanging that Genysis only feels like half a movie, and an unsatisfying one at that.
But then there are many more issues that we really should discuss with the movie. The fact is, though, that this film piles on twist after twist like it was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. If for some reason you don't want spoilers for a now four-year-old movie then just know this: the action in the film is great, and there are some decent moments, but on the whole the film never really comes together properly. If that's good enough for you and you want to view this movie on your own, then have at. For everyone else, let's really get into the nitty-gritty of the film.
Here There Be Spoilers
Terminator: Genysis opens in the future war (set around the time it was expected in the first two movies -- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation don't exist in this continuity). John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jain Courtney) are plotting the final charge against SkyNet. Once they take out one last base, the machines will be defeated and humanity will be saved. Sadly, they get there a little too late and enter the final chamber of the base right as a giant machine -- the time travel machine -- activates, sending a terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). Kyle immediately volunteers to go back and John agrees. During the launch, though, Kyle sees John get attacked. And then he's not sure what happens as he's quickly dropped into 1984 to follow his mission.
John Connor getting attacked isn't the only new wrinkle, though, as a lot has changed since the last time we went through these events. Kyle isn't just chased by a couple of police once he's dropped into 1984 (as seen in the first Terminator), but by a T-1000. And then he's rescued by Sarah Connor who has apparently been training for this day since she was nine. Apparently, yet another terminator was sent even further back to kill Sarah as a child, but a T-800 (who she calls "Pops", played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) was also sent back to defend her. They don't know who sent it, but clearly there are forces on both sides of the future still fighting the war even after John seemingly ended it. Time is shifting, and the heroes are going to have to work quick (and time travel some more) if they want to have any chance of stopping the new SkyNet and its plans.
At first Genysis actually presents some interesting ideas. The future war section looks a little cheap, but it at least presents us with a version of John Connor that isn't a complete waste of space. This is the first version of Connor we've seen that believably acts like the savior of mankind, like someone that could really lead a war. The movie nails the characters in the future section, which then gives the attack on John Connor real heft. You care enough about him as a character (for once) that you don't want him to die. That's then followed by the re-jiggered version of the 1984 opening events. Seeing the T-1000 come charging after Kyle is interesting, and then the big reveal of Sarah Connor is thrilling. This whole section plays so well, and there's plenty of great action and big moments to carry the whole first act of the film.
The problem, really, is everything that comes after. If the film had just stuck to the 1984 setting and found new and different ways to re-explore that setting, I think the film could have worked pretty well. Sure, it might have felt a little derivative, and maybe the conceit would have worn thin eventually, but I think they could have easily gotten two solid acts out of the juxtaposition of what we knew from the first movie against a new treat tearing up the time line. Instead, right when everything it really getting good, with Sarah and Pops taking out the T-1000 with a well-placed acid trap, everything runs right off the rails.
Firstly, the movie decides to slow everything down so it can have a deep exploration of the dynamic between Sarah and Kyle. These are two people who don't know each other and yet, as Sarah has been told, are fated to come together and have John Connor, future leader of the Resistance. That's great and all except by the very fact that SkyNet has changed the time line so dramatically there is no chance that the John we know is going to come about. Remember, in the original movie Sarah and Kyle knew each other for two days, fell in love, conceived a kid, and then Kyle dies. That's all in two days, and Genysis easily has the two spend more than that yelling at each other (and never once conceiving of a child).
Even if the two were to eventually fall in love in the supposed next film and have a kid, the specific date and time to create the John needed is already gone. Whatever kid they have, boy or girl, will be a different one with a slightly different genetic makeup. It won't be the same kid, which means SkyNet has already won.
The love story is one thing -- it adds a twist to the internal logic of the movie that I couldn't get my brain past -- but the fact that it also drags the movie down everything it's explicitly addressed just makes it worse. Honestly, what it most reminds me of is Game of Thrones. Director Alan Taylor did a fair bit of work on that series before coming over to Terminator, and these kinds of shifts in the narrative were the norm in the land of the Dragons. We'd bounce from one scene to the next with some being slow, talky pieces while others were pumped full of action. It worked on GoT because of the diverse number of characters and the fact that each scene jump involved different parts of the story. Here, though, it's always the same characters so the dramatic shifts in tone and subject are jarring. It makes the shift from action to romance that much less subtle.
If we look back at the original movie, the love story there was far more organic. It was two people who fall together over extreme circumstances. It's entirely possible that Sarah and Kyle would never have fallen in love if there hadn't been a machine chasing them (and they both had been born in the same era, of course), but there was and they did. It works within the context of the movie and, more importantly, it happens on the side, in and around the action. It's a subtle part of the whole. Genysis has to address the love story head on, though, ruining the organic nature of it. It makes a perfect case for the fact that these two, Sarah and Kyle, never should have gotten together largely because the two actors don't have any chemistry together. If the producers were trying to sell us on the fact that love can't last without the extreme motivating agent, they succeeded.
Once the film is done addressing the lack of chemistry between the leads, it then has to throw in another twist. Sarah is dead-set on stopping SkyNet at all costs, so she plans to time travel to 1997, the date SkyNet goes Online. Kyle, though, has been having visions of an alternate life, one where Judgment Day didn't happen in 1997 but 2015. He realizes this is an alternate time line and if they're going to stop SkyNet they have to bounce forward.
Now, on the surface I'm okay with them going after SkyNet. Sure, the plot line has been done before over in Terminator 2, but it's perfectly in line with the Sarah Connor character we know -- whatever else may change about her, she's going to do everything she can to end the war before it starts. That said, jumping to the exact year of Judgment Day really doesn't make and logical sense. Cyberdyne didn't build the machines overnight, it took them a lot of time. More importantly, though, is that once a process is in place it gets harder and harder to stop it. Essentially, once the train is on the tracks it'll take a big action to stop it. Instead of jumping forward to 1997 or 2015, the heroes should have remained in the past and worked to take out all the agents of SkyNet before they could even get the machine consciousness up and running. That's a better plan with a much higher chance of success. Genysis though, is a dumb movie so they time-jump.
Now that they're in our present, they immediately get arrested (for a possible terrorist attack, since the time bubble they used looks like an explosion, and the fact that they were wandering around naked since time travel strips travelers of everything inorganic). It's here the next big twist comes in -- the DHS officer that arrives to talk to Kyle and Sarah is none other than John Connor. Not only that but he's also a new breed of terminator having been turned into a machine-nanoparticle T-3000 during the attack Kyle witnessed. He doesn't want to kill Kyle and Sarah not if he can turn them to the cause (to ensure his own birth) but his mission is primarily to ensure SkyNet (now a software-as-a-service platform called "Genysis") comes about. He's basically kicking off the war with the machines early with a decided technological advantage for the bad guys. It's at this point that, for me, the movie went one twist too far.
So the machines want to turn John Connor into their own agent. I guess that makes sense but they could have simply just implanted a chip in his head that controlled him or made a Terminator that looked exactly like him. Having a machine inject him with nanoparticles that rebuild him, cell-by-cell, into a machine is techno-future garbage. It's an overly elaborate solution in search of a problem and it doesn't really make sense for the machines to even bother. And, worse, it's not even an interesting concept -- the T-3000 is basically a T-1000 made out of nanobots instead of liquid metal. He doesn't do anything a T-1000 can't do and never seems like a fresh of interesting concept. He's there to show a new terminator and he doesn't even do it well.
But it makes even less sense once you try to figure out why it had to be John that was sent back to the past. As the leader of the Resistance, keeping him in the future to destroy all the humans makes way more sense than taking him over and immediately sending him to the past where no one knows who the heck John Connor is! If you needed a machine in the past to build a new, better future SkyNet then just send anyone. A T-1000 could have done the task cleanly without the need to create perfect-human nanobot-clones. Just program the machine with the necessary knowledge and send it on it's merry way. Heck, there was already a T-1000 in the movie that could have handled this task -- after he failed to kill Kyle he could have moved off to his secondary objective: build SkyNet 13 years early. That's a solid reason to keep all the action in 1984.
Plus, what's the point of having John go back and talk to Kyle and Sarah? All he does is tip his hand and reveal himself when it's least effective. Instead of doing that he could have remained at Genysis, worked on the project, and then when Kyle and Sarah showed up to destroy the building he could have distracted, confused them long enough for Genysis launched. Or, you know, one they were distracted and hugging him as a reunited family, he could have just instantly killed them both. Instead he does none of them and gives the humans the advantage once more.
Essentially once the first act of the film is over, the entirety of Terminator: Genysis falls apart. The story crumbles leaving us without anything solid to grasp onto. Honestly, the fact that the movie is fun at all is a testament to the three leads. Arnie, of course, can play this character in his sleep, essentially being the soul of the franchise. Pops is a natural evolution of the T-800 -- he'd acted as a protector in Terminator 2, slowly learning and coming to understand humanity. Pops is a version of the character allowed to live for forty years, bonding with his charge in a way the previous T-800s never could. His character, as silly as it seems, is probably the best part of the movie and Arnie sells it for all its worth.
Clarke and Courtney, too, put in good work as Sara and Kyle respectively. As I said, they don't have any romantic chemistry but they do have a solid rapport. Courtney actually gets a lot of fun moments to play the straight man, reacting to the crazy crap going on around him and slowly acclimating to this new version of his mission. I honestly liked him here and I've never liked him in anything he's done before (not A Good Day to Die Hard or Suicide Squad). That said, Courtney is still a poor fit for Kyle Reese simply because he's too big for the role. The Resistance is a group of humans living on the edge, surviving on rations and hope. There is no way a 250lb walking slab of beefcake would ever grow in that environment. It's just not possible.
But then that's just yet another example of how Terminator: Genysis throws logic out the window. It's a movie cobbled together from a lot of good ideas but the people behind the cameras clearly didn't understand how to construct those ideas into a solid, consistent Terminator movie. It just keeps going, piling one big idea after another until it exhausts itself (and us in the process). If it could have just stopped and explored one of its settings in detail it would have been a much more successful movie.
Going back and watching Genysis again for this (lengthy) article I did find myself having fun. I had to shut my brain off and try to ignore the illogic of all the twists, one-after-another-after-another. There's fun to be had in this movie but you really have to not care at all about how stupid it all is. It looks like a Terminator and even sounds at times like a Terminator, but Genysis is easily the dumbest entry in the franchise. I think we should all be grateful it didn't ever get its two planned sequels. We all dodged a bullet there.