How can Terminator: Genisys succeed?

It's got a daft name, and the last Terminator film wasn't exactly a resounding success. So how can Terminator: Genisys win us round?

I’ve been a huge fan of the Terminator franchise ever since I watched the first film at a shockingly young age. It’s fair to say that, being the wee boy I was on my first few viewings, I struggled to understand everything I was seeing, but something about the film connected with me enough to keep me coming back again and again. As I grew up, I started to recognise the film’s strengths: the compelling storytelling, amazing action (robots! lasers!), and likeable characters, to name just a few.

By the time Terminator 2: Judgment Day rolled around, I’d watched the original film many times, and fallen deeply in love with it. The sequel blew me away, and was also my first introduction to the horrors of nuclear war (I still remember how shocked I was to realise these weapons actually existed, and had already been used!). To this day, I still think T2 is pretty much perfect – if it’s on TV, no matter which scene it’s up to, I’ll sit and watch it without ever getting bored.

Since this sequel, the Terminator franchise has continued to swell, with a TV series, countless comics, a few video games, and multiple novels continuing the story James Cameron started back in 1984. And, of course, we’ve also had two further sequels: Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines and Terminator Salvation. Without Cameron’s input, these films drifted further and further from his original work, until the characters and the titular cyborgs themselves were barely recognisable. With Terminator: Genisys edging closer and closer, fans seem divided: some are excited about the unusual direction the film seems to be heading in, while others have already committed themselves to avoiding it at all costs.

To say the film has its work cut out is like saying Sarah Connor knows her way around a pistol – with Salvation failing to re-ignite the franchise in the way many expected, this could be the last chance the series has to engage cinema audiences again for a long time (until another inevitable reboot rears its chrome head). So what can Terminator: Genisys do to make sure it succeeds where the last two sequels failed?

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Give us a more consistent tone

While I like Terminator 3 overall, there are moments which not only strayed way too far from the tone established in Cameron’s films, they flat-out slapped it in the face. While Cameron brought plenty of comedic moments (particularly between Lance Henrikson and Paul Winfield’s bickering cops in The Terminator, and with such lines as “Uncle Bob?” in the sequel), he judged these brilliantly, and though he used the cyborgs’ lack of social skills to raise a few chuckles, he never made them seem ridiculous. Cameron’s skill as a writer (on his best days) has always been to create interesting, engaging characters with oodles of psychological depth (try Aliens and The Abyss for more examples), so that for all the subtle gags, we still believe in their world, and genuinely want them to succeed.

T3, on the other hand, features a scene in which the T-800 joins a leather-clad stripper on stage, before proceeding to remove said claddings in front of a cheering crowd of lecherous women. He then wears a pair of camp Elton John-esque star-shaped sunglasses, before discarding them – at this point, Arnie is all but dancing a jig and mugging for the camera. Sure, I laughed at this on first viewing, but when looked at in comparison with the equivalent “clothes, boots, motorcycle” moments of the originals, it just feels a million miles away. Thankfully, the arrival of the Terminatrix (an impressive Kristanna Loken) is much more in keeping with the established style. Though I’m all for comedic moments, this was outright parody – strange when we hadn’t seen a new Terminator film in over a decade.

Terminator Salvation, meanwhile, managed to maintain a more earnest tone throughout, but failed to present the future as the absolute nightmare Cameron so effectively created. Granted, their story is set several years before the scenes we saw in the original two films, but this feels very much like a different world (more on this later). Salvation managed to distance itself from the originals’ quality with its shoddy script, some questionable performances, dull characters, and non-scary villains – in the space of four films, we go from Terminators punching holes through chests and destroying an entire police station, to simply throwing people against walls over and over again.

So, to get into fans’ good books, Terminator: Genisys needs to avoid overtly daft moments which seem to make fun of it all – some humour is fine (and definitely welcome), but the psychological depth needs to be there. The new Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese, and John Connor all need to be as likeable and interesting as their original incarnations, with a storyline which builds on the events we’ve seen before rather than simply throwing a few nods in just for good measure.

Present an oppressive future

The future war scenes in The Terminator and T2 still remain some of the best in the entire series: terrifying, bleak, oddly alien – they manage to depict a world that makes you grateful to live in this one, despite its countless flaws. Even on the first film’s shoestring budget, Cameron presented a claustrophobic world using powerful imagery: communities huddled in underground tunnels, surviving on whatever food they can scramble together (rats included). We see people sobbing, terrified, filthy, dressed in rags. This is how we imagine people living (well, existing, at least) in real-life warzones and concentration camps, and we don’t actually know if these people are grateful to be alive or just waiting for the inevitable.

The flashback sequence in The Terminator is easily the most powerful futuristic scene of the series, showing the aforementioned misery and squalor. As a Terminator infiltrates a human stronghold, Cameron brilliantly creates a real sense of panic and horror as the machine lays waste to people without a moment’s hesitation – though there is very little violence shown, we understand just how detached and deadly Skynet and its creations really are.

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As the threat of a hellish future has loomed behind much of the franchise, it’s essential that Terminator: Genisys captures the same sense of horror and oppression in its futuristic scenes (rumours abound one of these will open the film). Terminator 3 showed only glimpses of the war to come, but these were fairly bland and, though maintaining a similar visual style, lacked any of the impact of those in the earlier films.

Terminator Salvation had a real opportunity to be the most interesting, exciting, and powerful Terminator film yet … and blew it, big time. Whereas all of the previous futuristic sequences were set at night, in ruined cities and overcrowded human hideouts, director McG presented us with a Mad Max-lite world of sunny days, vast plains, and – worst of all – almost no Terminators. Cameron managed to sell the idea that the machines were everywhere, and could come for you at any time. Here, we see a single T-600 patrolling a city, a couple of Hunter-Killers, and several Terminator-bike-things.

Even at the film’s finale, set inside a Skynet stronghold, inside a factory where Terminators are made, we see… just a few. And they all leave the T-800 alone to kill Connor itself, as if it’s some kind of grudge match.

And as we established earlier, the T-800 is really just a playground ruffian, throwing Connor against walls for ten minutes, until he finally jabs a metal rod through his heart (and even that doesn’t off the guy!) If the Terminator of the first film had gotten its hands on John, it would have torn his head clean off, while the T-1000 would have speared him on his bladed arms. The 12A rating is no excuse, either – Terminator 3 shared the same classification, and the Terminatrix remained a scary, powerful threat.

Terminator: Genisys should try to be as inventive as Cameron was in his depictions of the future – don’t just fill the screen with CGI action, but also show why it’s so important that this future never comes to pass, and present us with Terminators we should be afraid of.

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Give us solid characters we really care about

A lot of people dislike Terminator 3, but I think one of the strengths of the film is the likeable characters. Granted, Nick Stahl’s John Connor is vastly different from Edward Furlong’s, but I always thought his softer, more world-weary approach was interesting, and seemed to make sense given how he’d spent years drifting, without the militaristic influence of his mother to keep his aggression high (I also think it’s much better than Christian Bale’s shouty, macho, one-dimensional performance in Salvation). Terminator 3 also benefited from Arnie’s dependable familiarity with his role, Claire Danes’ solid skills, and Kristanna Loken’s Terminatrix, the likes of which we’d never seen on-screen before.

Salvation, on the other hand, struggled in the character department. Sam Worthington’s Marcus was somewhat bland, and we knew almost nothing about him. Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese was fine, but was lumbered with Star, a mute little girl who’s just there for no real reason beyond an artificial pre-Sarah ‘girl to care for’. The supporting cast was decent, but there’s nobody really to connect with. Marcus’ character being out of the past (inverting the series’ time-travel mechanic) and his having no idea what he worked well enough … but all of this was revealed in the trailer, so by the time we saw this as part of the film, there was really nothing left.

This is in stark contrast to Cameron’s two films. The Terminator featured incredible leads in Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese: their shared desperation, fear, and blossoming (but doomed) romance helps keep the audience engaged with the film on an emotional level. The supporting cast also portrayed distinctive, memorable characters (Lt. Traxler, Det. Vukovich, Dr. Silberman) which kept the film entertaining when the main trio were off-screen. Connor’s transition from timid waitress to courageous mother-of-the-future was highly convincing, and Kyle Reese was a sympathetic, fascinating character thanks to Biehn’s performance (with his everyman qualities, he wasn’t a standard action-hero type, and it’s easy to look into his eyes and believe he’s witnessed unimaginable horrors).

T2 continued this trend, with the central relationships between Sarah, John, and the T-800 being strong throughout, showing Sarah’s gradual acceptance of a machine as a friend and surrogate father. Meanwhile, Miles Dyson – the man responsible for creating Skynet years down the line – is fleshed-out so effectively we care for him as much as the main three: he’s a good, brave family man, with no idea how his work would go on to usher in a nuclear holocaust.

Terminator: Genisys needs to give us characters we really care for, and whose emotional reactions to the unfolding actions are believable and engaging. With the talented Emilia Clarke a great choice to play a young Sarah, and Jason Clarke (no relation!) playing an older John Connor, all they need is a solid script. With the storyline rumoured to jump between previous events from the first two films and focusing on Sarah and Kyle’s romance, the plot is at least starting off with good intentions, but will this be enough? Nobody will ever top the fine work of Hamilton or Biehn, but at least they’ve gone for interesting choices (Jai Courtney notwithstanding) – if anyone can re-capture a young Sarah Connor’s compassion and strength, Emilia Clarke can. Alan Taylor is clearly a solid director – his work on Game Of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World was impressive enough – but can he come close to the same quality of Cameron’s work, or even the flawed-but-decent Terminator 3?

Terminator: Genisys definitely has mahoosive shoes to fill, but as long as those involved take the time and effort to explore the films that kicked-off the franchise, and take note of the parts that work, there’s no reason it can’t be a worthy, fresh instalment of the franchise.

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