Back in 1984, James Cameron gave us a sci-fi action thriller that seriously messed with our heads. A terminator from 2029 was sent back to kill Sarah Connor before giving birth to humanity’s savior, John, who sends back a fellow soldier, Kyle Reese, to stop it. But it’s only because of these events that John’s birth and judgement day even occur. Basically, the timeline becomes one crazy paradoxical time loop — if Skynet never sends a terminator to kill Sarah, John is never born (because Kyle is never sent back), thus eliminating the need to even consider sending a terminator back; at the same time without ever sending a terminator back, the technology that jump-starts judgement day would never have been found. It was a complex way to say you can’t change the past (or the future for that matter), since doing so would rupture the space-time continuum (as Doc Brown might say). That is unless you decide to add in the concept of alternate timelines, which is exactly what director Alan Taylor does in Terminator Genisys, a resetting of the classic franchise that takes a page from J.J. Abrams in how to alter the history of a franchise while staying true to the original source material.
Better than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and more accurate than Terminator Salvation, Genisys mixes the flavor of the original Terminator with the bravura high-stakes action of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads the resistance against Skynet to a resounding victory, they locate the time machine that has just sent a T-800 model terminator back to 1984 Los Angeles to kill one Sarah Conner. Shortly after, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to head back and stop the terminator from killing John’s mother, who he has nearly fallen in love with simply from John’s stories. There’s a glitch, though, as just before Kyle is shot back to the past, someone (or something) grabs John, flooding Kyle with a set of new memories that he isn’t sure are real or simply a dream. It just so happens the timeline has been altered.
When we finally jump to 1984, the arrivals of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kyle Reese are as meticulously recreated as possible in some oddly nostalgic deja vu. Though there are times when I noticed the computerized rendering going on, for the most part, the way in which the visual effects artists craft a young Arnold out of digital pixels is pretty incredible, and to get to see this version of him take on the now older version is just a fun bit of cinema. Meanwhile, as in the original, Kyle steals a pair of pants from a bum in an alley and then runs from the cops. Everything about the sequence, from grabbing an overcoat in a department store to strapping on those cool 80s Nikes, is only altered by the fact that Kyle is now also being chased by an Asian configuration of the T-1000 (Byung-Hun Lee). This is where the similarities between the original and this new version stop. Before being completely terminated by the T-1000, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) pops in to rescue Kyle with his own famous words, “Come with me if you want to live.”
Now that Taylor has established a complete alternate timeline, he can basically do whatever he wants and keep from harming the continuity of the series up to this point (which in some ways ignores the third and fourth chapters, giving Taylor the freedom to create his own mash-up version of some of the elements introduced in them). It’s already been establishes that judgment day no longer happens when Sarah believes it will, and Kyle convinces her to use the time machine her and her guardian have somehow acquired (Did they build it? Did it somehow come from the future? It’s never clearly explained) to travel to 2017, where Taylor taps into the current state of everyone being plugged into their devices 24/7 by turning Skynet into an operating system known as Genisys, which will link every computerized device together into one communal operation (Apple, anyone?). Before the team can take down Cyberdyne (the creator of Genisys), they must contend with a brand new form of machine that was sent back to guarantee Genisys’s survival (and in a cool turn of events, its creation).
Clarke plays Sarah as a bridge between Linda Hamilton’s portrayals of the character. She’s not quite the same badass she was in T2, having avoided being hardened by her first encounter with the terminator, but she’s very capable and ready for war having been raised by her “Pops”, a T-800 programmed to protect her. On another level, Clarke gives Sarah a softer side; she knows she’s supposed to fall in love with Kyle, however doing so would mean Kyle’s death. Struggling with the information of a life she isn’t really going to live makes her incredibly vulnerable. It is a bit odd, though, to have John and Kyle constantly referring to a picture of Hamilton (a picture that could very well be the original image used in The Terminator) and then see Clarke inhabiting Sarah’s skin. With all the technology at their disposal, Taylor could have had Clarke recreate that photo, which would have paid homage to the original but kept the entire thing from feeling so awkward.
Courtney on the other hand doesn’t quite find his place as Kyle Reese. He does a decent job as the time-traveling soldier, but he doesn’t ever seem to find the pocket of sensitivity and weariness that Michael Biehn was able to use to show how distraught and fatigued war had made him. Because of this, his connection with Clarke (the female one) isn’t quite as authentic as the chemistry between Biehn and Hamilton, which kept me from caring about whether or not the two would ever hook up as they’re destined to do. So now we’re left with the core relationship failing to ignite the sparks needed to generate true passion and give us the one thing we need to care about.
Taylor makes up for this lack of connectivity (sort of) with action sequences and moments of comedic levity that remain on par with the rest of the series. The restructuring of the timeline flows naturally alongside the original in order to reinvent the lore and fuel a new fire behind the ignition of judgement day. The only major question left to answer — why cast J.K. Simmons and then waste him in a thankless role that really has no purpose whatsoever? Unless he’s going to play a much bigger part in the inevitable sequels, this will end up being one of the most egregious casting choices of the year.
Really. He’s too good for that.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Minions, The Gallows and Self/Less. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.