If you’d acquired the multi-million dollar rights to the Terminator franchise in an auction, what would you do with them? After the sun-drenched, overblown and dusty mayhem of 2009’s Terminator Salvation, the sensible answer might be to take the series back to its roots. Return to the chase format of James Cameron’s twin classics Terminator and Terminator 2. Tone down the armies of robot motorcycles and mechanical swimming snakes. Bring back Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Such is the approach taken by director Alan (Thor: The Dark World, Game Of Thrones) Taylor and screenwriters Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis in Terminator Genisys. Six years after Salvation failed to take off, the franchise is now in the hands of the production company Skydance, which has taken a similarly reverential approach to the Terminator as it did with its Star Trek reboot in 2009 – new actors in familiar roles, a fresh twist on a popular story.
For the first 20 minutes or so, the approach seems to work for Genisys. We get to see the other side of the story Kyle Reese could only talk about in hushed tones in Cameron’s 1984 original: in a post-Judgment Day 21st century, human resistance fighters led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) are on the cusp of defeating Skynet’s army of killer machines. In a last-gasp effort to seize victory, Skynet sends a cyborg, the T-800, back in time to kill John Connor’s mother, thus eliminating John from history before he has a chance to leave his mark.
To prevent his imminent erasure, John sends back his loyal foot soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to protect Sarah from the Terminator. But Kyle arrives in the year 1984 to find that the past isn’t quite as he’d expected it: the young Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is far from the vulnerable waitress Kyle had been told about, while a threat even more deadly than the T-800 (a returning Schwarzenegger, of course) emerges from LA’s trash-strewn streets.
Thus begins an entirely new cycle of chases and set-pieces that I won’t describe in detail here, since you can see quite a few of them in Genisys’ worryingly detailed string of trailers and TV spots. I’ll merely say that, although the early set-up hints at a riff on the original Terminator, with the same characters thrown into new situations, the plot soon takes further, far more convoluted turns.
After the one hour mark, Genisys ceases to feel like a new film made in the spirit of The Terminator and T2, and more like a synthesis of the two churned out by a computer. The vehicles, weapons, catchphrases and cyborg beat-downs are all present and correct, but the soul has somehow seeped away in the process.
Taylor lacks the detail and specificity of Cameron, who even on a tiny budget found time to throw in numerous clever and blackly funny moments of foreshadowing into The Terminator. Nor does Taylor have the capacity to give his action scenes the creative spin or sense of danger a chase film requires. In fact, the retro feel of the first half an hour is soon replaced by an increasing reliance of computer effects, until the film finally disappears in a deflating fug of lightning, fire and smoke effects.
This, perhaps, is where Genisys differs most markedly from James Cameron’s movies, no matter how hard it tries to replicate its locations and Nike sneakers. The first two Terminator films were about cold metal colliding with human flesh: the skin over the T-800 endoskeleton. The thwack of bullets through bodies. Genisys, by contrast, is about pixels clashing with spreadsheets and focus groups.
Its attempts to tick all the boxes of a summer blockbuster – lots of 12A-friendly action, familiar sequences for older fans of the series and some modern moments for the younger generation – lead to an unnecessarily complex and ungainly plot that never quite make sense. That complexity also leads to a common blight in recent mainstream action films: an almost incessant stream of exposition. At every turn, characters are required to stand in for the audience, constantly asking questions or giving updates as to where they plan to go next.
As for the misguided attempts at humour, the less said the better; all I can say is, anyone offended by Schwarzenegger’s “Talk to the hand” gag in Terminator 3 should look away now.
Jai Courtney and Emilia Clarke are fine as Kyle and Sarah, but they lack the easy chemistry that Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn brought to the same roles; Courtney, in particular, lacks that air of the tragic hero Biehn brought to Kyle. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (who shot Game Of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World) shoots Courtney and Clarke in screen-filling close-up in a seeming attempt to reveal some hidden depth in these thinly-written characters, but the acres of smooth skin make parts of Genisys look less like a SF action romance and more akin to a commercial for expensive moisturiser.
Really, I suppose the only question that matters is this one: does Terminator Genisys improve on the non-Cameron sequels, Rise Of The Machines and Salvation? The short, regrettable answer: not really. Unlike Salvation, Genisys at least feels of a piece with the earlier films, but only in the sense that it stirs the most successful elements around rather than rework them into a new and satisfying whole.
The fresh situations it does introduce, meanwhile, seem like unwelcome allusions to other recent action films, including The Dark Knight, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and, most disturbing of all, Wally Pfister’s spectacularly awkward Transcendence.
With expectations lowered, Terminator Genisys may provide a respectable evening’s entertainment. Those daring to hope for a film even close to the ones Cameron made will have their optimism ruthlessly terminated.
Terminator Genisys is out on the 2nd July.
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