NB: This article contains major spoilers for Terminator Genisys.
“Obviously, I can’t talk in too much detail about the specifics of my character,” Matt Smith told us during our visit to the set of Terminator Genisys last year. “But needless to say I have close interest and links to John Connor. So yeah. What else do you want to know? I love football!”
Such was the secrecy around the project in 2014, at least until Terminator Genisys’ marketing department cut together some of the most revealing trailers of recent years (something that wasn’t, director Alan Taylor has admitted, part of his original plan). But even as John Connor’s dramatic change of allegiance was unveiled early in Genisys‘ promotion, the precise nature of Matt Smith’s character in the grand scheme of things remained a closely guarded secret.
Images were shown of the actor in the improvised garb of a resistance fighter in post-Judgment Day Los Angeles. But there had to be something more to his story. Didn’t there?
There certainly is, as it turns out.
The mysterious Alex
Terminator Genisys, just like the 1984 original its plot seeks to deconstruct, begins in the future, where human resistance fighters are locked in a bitter war with Skynet – an artificial intelligence with an army of killer machines.
As was widely teased last year, Matt Smith (or Matthew Smith, as he’s billed in the credits) plays one of the freedom fighters running alongside their leader, the battle-scarred John Connor (Jason Clarke). Alex is on the front line as Connor and his forces make the final attack on Skynet, taking out its defences and capturing its colossal time machine.
As fans of The Terminator will already know, Skynet has managed to send a Terminator, a T-800, back in time as a last-ditch attempt to snatch a victory by changing the past. In response, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) strips off his clothes and heads back to 1984 to stop the T-800, and the rest is history. But wait! Just as Kyle’s whisked away into the mists of time, he has a split second to see John Connor attacked by one of his own number – and sure enough, it’s Matt Smith’s Alex. The duplicitous bastard was a machine all along.
Much later in the film, we learn that Alex is in fact a new and deadlier kind of Terminator that we haven’t seen before. Called the T-5000, it’s nothing less than a physical embodiment of Skynet itself. If the T-800s and T-1000s are loyal foot soldiers in the war on humans, the T-5000 is their king. More scarily still, the T-5000 is a nano-robot capable of infecting its victims and essentially turning them into human-machine hybrids.
Such is the fate that befalls John Connor just after he sends Kyle back in time. Now an evil, self-repairing nano-cyborg calling himself the T-3000, Connor goes back in time to the year 2017, where he plans to intercept Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and Kyle Reese and try to convince them to end the war and enter a pact with the machines. Naturally, Sarah and Kyle refuse…
The launch of Genisys
Kyle and Sarah’s objective in 2017 is to destroy Genisys, a cross-platform operating system which tech company Cyberdyne plans to launch within hours. As the clock ticks down to that launch, and Kyle, Sarah and their helpful T-800 (a returning Arnold Schwarzenegger) storm Cyberdyne’s building to smash Genisys. The nearer to launch Genisys gets, the more its AI gains strength, until it’s finally revealed that Genisys is – wait for it – none other than Skynet, or Matt Smith once again. Although Skynet hasn’t yet built its physical nano-body in 2017, it repeatedly emerges as a Smith-shaped hologram to taunt Kyle and Sarah.
All told, Smith’s role in Terminator Genisys is a relatively brief five minutes or so; when he turns up as the nascent Genisys towards the end of the movie, it’s a digitally-processed version of the actor, which means his physical presence in the film amounts to little more than a shot or two.
But dramatically, the T-5000 casts a long shadow, setting in motion the divergent timeline that takes the story’s events away from the T-800-versus-Kyle Reese chase of The Terminator and pushes Judgment Day back from 1997 to 2017.
Among Genisys’ numerous time-bending ideas, the T-5000 certainly isn’t the worst. In fact, there’s something quite interesting about Skynet, an artificially-intelligence with potentially god-like power, creating a physical embodiment of that serves as a kind of techno Antichrist. And yet, like so many of the things set out in Terminator Genisys, like the T-3000’s nano-bot powers, the motivations of the T-5000 are largely lost among the explosions and shoot-outs.
As the film’s awkwardly-spelled title implies, Genisys is the manmade platform which ultimately gives birth to the deadly Skynet. And since Matt Smith is essentially Skynet, this makes him the antagonist that has sat at the centre of the franchise since the very beginning – we just haven’t had the chance to clap eyes on him before.
That the former Doctor is now the embodiment of humanity’s most ruthless enemy could be described as stunt casting, but Smith’s unpredictable, fleet-footed performance in Doctor Who could mean the T-5000 will be fleshed out in surprising ways in Terminator Genisys’ sequels. Will we learn why Skynet has a murderous hatred for humans? Is there some way to permanently deter Skynet from rising up to snuff us out, rather than merely postponing its inception?
Assuming, of course, that those sequels actually happen. Critical notices for Genisys have been borderline hostile so far – at the time of writing, it’s at 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and our verdict wasn’t exactly glowing – which could have an impact on its box-office. On the other hand, franchises like Transformers have long enjoyed success without the benefit of good reviews, and Genisys could still pull a decent profit through audience curiosity alone, especially if it’s a success in Asia.
Production company Skydance clearly has big plans for the Terminator franchise if Genisys is a hit – Smith and Schwarzenegger are both locked in for two sequels, while Smith’s mention of “the different formats it’s going to take” could hint that he’ll be part of the long-mooted Terminator spin-off series, if it finally happens.
Matt Smith could, therefore, play a major part in the Terminator franchise’s future, but what happens next will largely be defined by Terminator Genisys’ performance over the next few days. “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,” has long been the Terminator motto.
Right now, Terminator Genisys‘ fate lies in the hands of its audience.