Terminator: Genisys is essentially the Terminator mythology retold as an episode of Doctor Who. It mostly works.
Spoiler warning: I’ve avoided giving away anything that hasn’t been in the trailers but frankly that wasn’t difficult. If you’ve been lucky enough not to have seen them, don’t read this before seeing the film.
Let’s start with the obvious: no, the latest Terminator film is not as good as the original film or its first sequel. But that’s a high standard to told it to. The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day didn’t become iconic by accident. The T-800 was a character that needed to be massively strong, wooden and engaging, that gave Arnie a chance to shine. The first film had an impressive (and at the time original) conceit that it played to near perfection. The second one was revolutionary. Firstly, it was one of the first films to successfully use CGI. Indeed, it’s still a role model for how to use the technology: it’s for shots that couldn’t be done with practical effects, not for every last bloody thing. In a Sarah Connor traumatised and hardened by the events of the first film we got one of the first mainstream female action heroes.
But not being great doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It’s perfectly passable and I found it an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours. It matches up without surpassing standard multiplex fair. So as you’d expect the action overuses CGI in precisely the way T2 indicates one shouldn’t. But it’s entertaining nonetheless and a new variant of Terminator allows for some new kinds of fights.
The cast is fine. The intensity that means Emilia Clarke works as Game of Thrones’ mother of dragons also works for her as Sarah Connor. Indeed, given that pretty much every tough female character in sci-fi and fantasy, including Daenerys Targaryen, has some of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in their DNA her casting represents a circle being closed. Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke are serviceable in their roles, though the later is conspicously less scary as a villain here than he was as a hero in Zero Dark Thirty. But Arnie is on very good form. The last time we saw him in a Terminator film, his mind appeared already to have wondered from acting to politics. Yet in Genisys, he forcibly reminds us that things that made him perfect for the role back in 1984 still apply in 2015. Much has been made of the original director James Cameron choosing to endorse the film. But for me, it’s Schwarzenegger’s renewed commitment to his iconic role that does more to stamp it as an authentic Terminator film.
There has been plenty of criticism of the film for simply retreading the course of its predecessors. That does the film a disservice. True, no aspect of it is especially original but that’s a quality that’s rare in blockbusters. It’s also true that it’s saturated with the mythology from which it springs but that’s hardly unsurprising for a sequel. It provides a different take on that mythology. The Terminator was at least as much a horror and an action film as a sci-fi one. T2 moved in a more sci-fi direction with Cyberdyne and its creations playing a large part in the plot. But it was still a film that was much more about the present than the future.
By contrast, Genisys is essentially the Terminator story retold as an episode of Doctor Who. That’s partly a reflection of the softer tone. It also helps that Matt Smith turns up in a small but pivotal role. And people familiar with his tenure in the Tardis may find some aspects of the time travel induced complexity of Connor-Reese family reminiscent of the Ponds. But where the Whoness becomes really evident is in the centrality given to time travel. Indeed there’s even a scene where Arnie more or less explains that ‘time is actually more like a ball of wibbly wobbley timey whimy stuff’. In previous films, time travel was a mechanism that was necessary to get characters into the past (or in the case of the TV show, the Sarah Connor Chronicles into the future). It was something that happened mostly off-screen as a prelude to the action. In Genisys, it moves from plot device to being the plot. That comes at a price: the fleeter footed story lacks the stark simplicity of the first film and the sense of the dread that purveyed 1 and 2. Instead it becomes more about hope than fear, a very Doctor Who like shift incidentally, which gives it a very different feel. Nonetheless, I don’t really see how one can credibly claim it’s simply a botched attempt to recreate its predecessors.
Now I prefer the first two Terminator films to a typical episode of Doctor Who. But I still like Doctor Who and enjoy watching it. Similarly, I enjoyed watching Terminator: Genisys, while at no point thinking it was the kind of the seminal success its predecessors were.
Before ending, I want to throw out a potential explanation for the unnecessary harshness thrown Genisys’ way. I wonder if the backlash is more against the marketing than the film itself. From the announcement that the title would intentionally misspell the word ‘genisis’ onwards it’s been appauling. The low point was the second trailer spoiling the key plot twist, a decision that has rightly provoked squawks of outrage from many including the film’s director. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s actually a reasonable film.
Verdict: 6/10 – I have watched the first two Terminator films over and over again on DVD. I won’t be buying this one. But I’m glad I went to see it and if you have the time I’d suggest you do too.