Critics seem to hate it while audiences mostly approve…but why?
WARNING: minor spoilers herein, but little more than you’ve seen in the final trailers.
The year is 2029, and the war against the machines is all but over. Using future knowledge provided by his mother, John Connor (Jason Clark) has led the resistance to victory…but may have already lost. Failing to stop Skynet from using time travel tech to send a T-800 model 101 terminator cyborg back to 1984, John sends his second-in-command Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to protect the future. As Reese is caught up in the temporal vortex, he watches in horror as someone attacks John and is helpless to warn anyone or stop it; is that why he’s suddenly having new memories that conflict with his own timeline? As a lone terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives in 1984 to kill John’s mother, Reese materializes elsewhere in Los Angeles running from a cop…that turns out to be a T-1000! When the woman he was sent to protect (Emilia Clarke) ends up saving him instead, Reese slowly begins to realize everything has changed…again.
Name someone who didn’t love the original Terminator. Small list, huh? How about T2? Shorter list, right? Then came Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with Kristanna Loken as “The Terminatrix.” Not a bad start, so-so ending…but no Sarah Connor? Hmm. After watching Edward Furlong’s teen John Connor, Rise of the Machines already felt like it was taking a step backward in showing John as less capable, and casting Christian Bale as the hero of the human resistance didn’t seem to help much, either. Forgetting the fact that the only reason for rebooting or continuing the Terminator franchise is to make money, what essential element was missing from these continuing films?
The plight and tragedy of Sarah Connor, of course.
Call it fan service (because it is) or in the interest of interesting storytelling, it’s clear that John Connor’s mission isn’t the one audiences care about: they prefer Mother Sarah. A destiny thrust upon her, a life of sacrifice without any reward for herself, and she gives it…with some understandable reluctance. So is it any real surprise that Terminator Genisys (or as James Cameron has reportedly said, “The real sequel to Terminator 2”) should focus on Sarah again? We’ve seen “What the hell is happening here?” Sarah Connor and chain-smoking ass-kicking extreme Sarah Connor, but we’ve never seen “I get to make my own choice, dammit!” Sarah Connor, and that’s the new dimension that Emilia Clarke brings to the role (minor spoiler): a 1984 Sarah raised by a father-figure Terminator since she was nine (end minor spoiler). And it works. This isn’t the hardened single mother raising a child alone being crushed under the weight of having to make terrible choices to save all of humanity; Emilia Clarke doesn’t need to be Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor because it’s no longer the same character.
This brings me to my second point: the love of Kyle Reese for John Connor. Sarah Connor hasn’t conceived John yet but already has knowledge of what she’s supposed to do; she’s still in rejection mode. Let’s be honest here: with a T-800 as a father figure, you do understand this Sarah Connor is 99.999% most likely still a virgin, right? Reese loves John like both a father and a brother, so when it’s revealed that (minor spoiler) John Connor was transmogrified into a nanomachine cyborg now willingly working for Skynet (end minor spoiler), Kyle Reese is the one most hurt by it. He looks for any hope he can to save his friend, but all Sarah and Ah-nold will say is that it’s too late: he is the enemy and must be destroyed. It’s interesting to see a reluctance to kill late in the film that tangles up more than a few feelings, but it’s Reese that has to keep wrestling with those decisions, not Sarah.
There’s a lot going on to keep up with in this film, much of which harkens back to the best-served elements of the original movies: destroying a corporate headquarters that doesn’t know they’re the bad guys, over-the-top helicopter chase porn, everything blowing up and flipping over and getting smashed to bits, and public buildings caught in the crossfire of time travellers in the name of saving the world (including a few wonderful scenes stolen by J.K. Simmons as “the anti-Dr. Silberman”). Alas, not everything works, but some of it could be explained as being seeds for future films. Kudos to the screenwriters for letting John Connor “win” before having their way with the story line, but the hardest sell for franchise fans boils down to this (minor spoiler): with the changes made to the timeline, it no longer seems to matter whether Sarah or John Connor survives because Skynet is moving on and committing resources elsewhere (end minor spoiler).
Jai Courtney tries really hard, but Michael Biehn’s haunted war-torn Kyle Reese is too hard of an act to follow and probably wouldn’t have made a good fit for this Sarah Connor; let’s no-name non-bronze no-prize this with “not exactly the same Reese we first met.” Much of the other critiques of this film appear rooted in nostalgia (the first films were more meaningful, better this, better that, more James Cameron-y) but lest we forget the only reason any of these high-concept films exist is to make money, and fans sure do love Ah-nold as the Terminator. The spelling of genesis in the title is still annoying and there are a few time travelling who-knows-what-when issues that every film of this type can never seem to overcome, but as Cameron also was quoted as saying, “If you liked the Terminator films, you’re going to love this movie.” What more did you want from a fan-service summer blockbuster?
(a three skull recommendation out of four)