T1 + T2 = T5: “Terminator Genisys” Is Best Film in Franchise Since “Judgment Day”

Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015)

The Gubernator is back, and the good news is that he’s as watchable as ever. With his stock-in-trade mix of muscular swagger and tongue-in-cheek delivery, Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been a powerful (if often silly) screen presence, and his return to the Terminator series after a 12-year hiatus is a welcome one. Granted, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – his last outing – was a fairly dismal affair, but since the makers of Terminator Genisys have chosen to ignore all but the first two films, we can, as well. So sit back, relax, suspend your disbelief and be transported back to the magical era of man-versus-machine doomsday scenarios of 1984 (The Terminator) and 1991 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day).

The film opens with a hazy memory of a lost, green world, before Skynet – the sinister artificial intelligence at the heart of the series – launches its nuclear bombs. Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard), as Kyle Reese, is our narrator, and he takes us briskly from the machine-powered apocalypse through to the rise of the human resistance led, as always, by John Connor, here played by Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). In the year 2029, we follow Connor’s battalions as they miraculously defeat Skynet, only to discover that the computer has sent a “terminator” (a cyborg covered in living tissue) back in time to kill Sarah Connor, John’s mother. So far, so familiar. We know this tale (and if you don’t, then, quite frankly, why are you watching this movie?). Reese, of course, is tasked with going back to 1984 to chase the terminator, where he can save Sarah, sleep with her to father John, and then die.

Except that that is not how it plays out. Instead, though the 1984 to which the terminator and Reese travel looks, initially, like a perfect recreation of the first film, things quickly change. Just as the cyborg – a young Schwarzenegger look-a-like – is about to assault a group of delinquents, we hear a familiar Austrian-accented voice from behind him, and the real deal – Schwarzenegger, himself – appears, straight out of the second film, since he’s clearly fighting for humanity. True, he looks significantly older than the last time we saw him, but the film will, eventually, explain this.

So, too, is Reese’s arrival back in time tweaked. Just as he is grabbing clothes (time travel is a naked affair) from a homeless man, a cop shows up, only, that’s right, it’s not a cop. It’s the T-1000 from the second film, liquid metal reforming every time he’s shot. Just as things look dire for our hero, Sarah Connor – played by Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones“) – shows up, and this time she gets to utter Reese’s line from the first film: “Come with me if you want to live.” Soon, Sarah, Reese and the good terminator – or “Pops,” as Sarah calls him – are on the run together, hunting the T-1000 (as it hunts them) as they plan a new jump in time (forward, for once). It turns out that all of the various plot threads of the first two movies have become so confused through conflicting time loops that a brand new future past has been created for Skynet’s online birth, in the year 2017. One has to admire how the clever screenwriters get to indulge our collective nostalgia for the original movies while simultaneously bringing the movie back up to our current era …

Once we’re back to the present, the movie turns into a solid sci-fi action thriller, though some of the fun of the earlier scenes is lost. The actors are all more than competent, including, much to my surprise, Jai Courtney, who heretofore has shown little talent beyond a sneer. Emilia Clarke makes a terrific Sarah, tough and wary, and Jason Clarke (no relation) brings his usual combination of danger and charm. But really, this is Arnold’s movie. The filmmakers have a lot of fun with his age (yes, cyborgs do age), as with his new role as Sarah’s protector, and he really is the best part of the show.

The problem with The Terminator series – as with most sequels – has always been that, no matter how much emotional energy we invest in the story outcomes, by the time the next film rolls around, those outcomes have been discarded in favor of new crises, which never end until the franchise dies. The ending of Terminator Genisys provides just such a perfect resolution, followed (of course) by a mid-credit reveal of a new plot point that sets up yet another sequel. Sigh. No matter. It’s no masterpiece. But it is good entertainment.

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