Silver Screen: Terminator: Genisys *1/2
The fifth installment of the Terminator franchise, a movie series as relentless and unkillable as its title character, actually gets off to a strong start. It begins like a conventional reboot of James Cameron’s original, with a futuristic prologue establishing time-traveling hero Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn in the original, here replaced by Jai Courtney) in the midst of a battle against an army of sentient machines that have overthrown humanity.
In a last-ditch effort to destroy the humans, digital tyrant Skynet creates a machine to go back in time and stop human insurgency leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) before he was ever born by killing his mother Sarah (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clark). Connor is aware of the scheme and hijacks the time machine to send Reese back to the same year to stop the Terminator from performing history’s most radical abortion.
The Terminator arrives back in 1984. Not only is this Terminator still played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is— through the magic of special effects— a young Schwarzenegger, the Platonic Arnold. Fans of the original will note that he arrives at the same Los Angeles location where he confronts the same band of mohawked punks, whose clothes he intends to steal.
Then the familiar scene is interrupted— by Arnold himself. And not just a computer simulation of Arnold, but the real Schwarzenegger of right now, graying and wrinkle-etched, but still a hulking specimen. Thus commences a fantastic battle between Old Arnold and Young Arnold. It’s a stellar fight sequence that looks like it might have been filmed inside Maria Shriver’s subconscious.
The gag is that Terminator: Genisys isn’t exactly a reboot. Through the series’ befuddling, circular time-travel logic, everything we know has changed. Not only is the future being reshaped, so is the past. Sarah Connor is not only aware of Skynet’s plan, she already has a Terminator of her own. That’s Old Arnold, who she nicknames Pops, a good-guy machine who stopped an attempt on her life when she was just nine and has protected her ever since.
Thus our man Reese isn’t on the mission he thought. He isn’t supposed to save Sarah Connor— he must help her with an entirely new plot to destroy Skynet before it ever takes control via the Genisys software, a kind of Google/Apple hybrid that will link all handheld computer technology.
It’s a neat premise the movie gradually squanders in its relentless pursuit of rehashing every classic moment and line from the series— which is to say, the best parts of the original and the first sequel. (The less said of Parts III and IV, the better.) A liquid-metal T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) shows up, along with inadvertent Skynet developer Miles Dyson (Courtney B. Vance). There’s a new Terminator thrown into the mix as well, based on nanotechnology that allows it to break down into tiny particles and shapeshift.
All of this to avert Judgment Day, when Skynet takes control and unleashes humanity’s nuclear arsenal on itself. Judgment Day having been averted in Terminator II, of course, only to happen again anyway in III.
This is what transforms all of the characters— Reese, Sarah, John, Skynet, Arnolds Young and Old— into tragic figures. No matter how hard they fight, how many guns they shoot and people they kill, they’re forced to double back in time again and again, only to see the same events unfold in essentially the same way. They’re doomed, not just by the series’ unfollowable, circular time-travel logic, but by the movie studio’s unquenchable thirst for sequels. None of their toils can ever lead to a success great enough to free them from the time loop that would avert the crisis. No crisis, no more movies, no more reboots, no more franchise cash-ins.
We, the audience, are doomed right along with them. We’ve heard “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live” in 1984 and 1991 and now again in 2015. We’ll hear it again. The movies can never change too much, because then they won’t be Terminator movies. They must always fold back in on themselves to become what they already were. The new versions aren’t new, just slightly tweaked variations all headed back to the same inevitable conclusion.
Now that’s a dystopia.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.