The latest entry into one of cinema’s most enduring franchises can be perfectly summed up in one sentence from it’s central heroine Sarah Connor “There’s a new mission - if the past can change, so can the future”. Whilst this may fly in the face of philosophical mantra and anyone who has ever told you that trying to change the past is a futile exercise it does at least help to explain how the writers have gone about resetting a narrative that had previously been set in stone. Faced with arresting a deep decline that began with the release of Terminator 3:Rise of the Machines, it is upto Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor to see if the Terminator franchise can be returned to something more resembling the successes of the first two instalments rather than the spectacular failures of the third and fourth.
He is helped by the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to perhaps his most iconic role and the introduction of his GoT’s alumni Olivia Clarke as the afore-mentioned Connor both of whom are supported by Jai Courtney as the time-travelling Kyle Reece, once again sent back in time to protect the future he originates from.
Despite the somewhat ridiculous furore that greeted the seemingly mis-spelt title, the Genisys of Terminator: Genisys is quickly explained to be the ‘trojan horse’ that will be used by Skynet - for those new to the Terminator story, the ‘self-aware’ computer system that attempts to wipe out humanity - to infiltrate the earth’s technology systems and gain control. With what is a slightly complex plot, a working knowledge of the original The Terminator is an advantage, however it won’t stop anyone new to this particular canon from getting a lot out of Genisys.
Unquestionably, it is brave for anyone to try and match upto the work that James Cameron so expertly created with the first half of the Terminator quadrilogy and despite best attempts there is never any real chance of coming close to the franchises undoubted champion in Terminator 2. Without spoiling anything Genisys is not even a scratch on the surface of Cameron’s entries but that doesn’t mean it is without merit and - undoubtedly - the first 30-45 minutes of Genisys are superb.
The films opening whips along at break-neck speed as it focuses heavily on what is a remarkable near shot-for-shot reproduction of The Terminator’s opening segment. This should not only act as a fan-boys delight but is also integral to the ‘re-setting’ of The Terminator’s already well-established time-line. The creators obviously wanted to take the franchise in an entirely new direction and their approach is to be applauded. Rather than simply change the future - or the past as the case may be - they have at least provided some context as to why and how that future has changed and all the while allowing for a truly delicious bite of nostalgia in the process. There is a fine line between homage and a down-right rip-off and Genisys straddles the line perfectly.
Whilst the inaugural stages of Genisys are up there with the best this franchise has to offer it regrettably proves to be a sprint that can’t be sustained as the middle and final acts become somewhat dull in comparison. Whichever way you look at it there just isn’t the dramatic tension that was ubiquitous in either of the first two movies and any impressive action scenes are always tainted with this negative factor.
The major problem for Genisys is that it is hamstrung by the insistence that it needs to be ‘accessible’ to a wider audience and has therefore been sanitised from the originals 18 certificate all the way down to a 12a. The theory – rightly so it must be pointed out – is that the wider the audience the film is made available to the more money it is likely to make. The big problem here is that this hugely strips away most of the menace and tension from the Terminators themselves. These are now killing machines that very rarely kill and in the process have lost much of what made the original Terminator such an intimidating and, at times, frightening character. This is a clear case of money and potential financial gain spoiling the films atmospherics and mythology and Genisys suffers greatly from this as a result.
Perhaps with this in mind Genisys actively moves away from it’s titular metal protagonists and instead shifts it’s focus onto the roles of Sarah and Kyle which is a brave approach that just about pays off – due in large part to the excellent performances of both Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney. Clarke in particular is a stand-out as she debuts in the action genre with the perfect blend of sensitivity, guts and emotion that will go some way to breaking the type-cast threat of her Game of Thrones matriarch Daenerys. Alongside her, Jae Courtney is also notable in his role as Kyle and manages to tread water in a central role that could quite easily have drowned him. Kyle had become the forgotten man of the franchise and there is a clear intention here to restore him back to the integral character that he was from the outset and in doing so make this a film that doesn’t belong to the machines themselves but is primarily the story of Kyle and Sarah - the Adam and Eve (almost literally in one time-travelling scene) of the entire Terminator canon. Taylor seems to understand that frenetic action – whilst entertaining on it’s own – is always enhanced when it’s accompanied by an intelligent plot and strong characterisation and here there is a clear attempt to develop the seeds of the love-story between Sarah and Kyle that was so drastically cut short in the original. The positive focus on the human element of the story means that it is the machines that suffer on the flip-side with the one major criticism being that despite the great pains taken to explain the older appearance of Schwarzenegger – expertly done it must be said – he is then vastly under-used. It’s hard to leave this film without the feeling that we just haven’t seen enough of Arnie’s T-800 and he feels more like a secondary character than the central figure that he has been in previous incarnations.
Whilst this can be justified by the obvious focus on the human leads it is a dangerous game to play when the mythology’s central figure is somewhat marginalised and is perhaps the biggest black mark against Genisys. For all those who will complain that Schwarzenegger just isn’t believable in the role any more and that age has caught up with him they would no doubt be the same people who would claim that any Terminator film without his presence just wasn’t worth making. Schwarzenegger is “old, but not obsolete” as his T-800 explains in what is clearly a veiled defence against his critics. His verbal jousting with Kyle perfectly creates a comedic, resentful dynamic that resembles the universal relationship that any father seems to hold towards his ‘daughter’s’ lover. Despite his somewhat lack of screen-time Schwarzenegger slips effortlessly back into the endo-skeleton and provides perhaps the most human incarnation of the T-800 that we have seen so far.
Minor quibbles about character utilisation apart Genisys is a decent – if not amazing – entry into the franchise and boasts some truly jaw-dropping special effects. The CGI incarnation of Schwarzenegger’s original T-800 model is astoundingly detailed and breath-taking in equal measure. Whereas numerous films have over-used CGI to the detriment of visual authenticity that is no such problem in Genisys – this is a seamless weaving of reality with make-believe and is as slick and efficient as anything Cyberdyne itself has to offer.
Other plus points worthy of note are the numerous motifs - and of course one legendary catchphrase – that make frequent appearances throughout that will no doubt keep the nostalgia-hounds happy. The major drawback to all this is that once again it leads to an inevitable comparison with the Cameron era Terminator and - like a battle with one of the cybernetic T-800s themselves – it is a fight that is only going to end one way. It would be a total disservice to claim that Genisys is a failure but it’s probably not a great surprise to say that this instalment fit’s snugly in the middle of the Terminator annals – bookended by the unsurpassable T-2 on one side and the spectacular misfires of T-3 and Salvation on the other. Despite what is an overly saccharine ending to what have always been pretty bleak story-lines this is far from the disaster it could quite easily have been. There will be plenty here to keep older fans happy and for anyone new to Terminator lore who maybe hasn’t seen either of the first two movies this will probably be a thrilling two hours of entertainment.
What Taylor has no doubt discovered throughout this process is that James Cameron’s shadow still looms large over the entire Terminator mythology and it’s a shadow many before him have tried to emerge from without any success. Whilst Taylor performs much more admirably than either of his two predecessors this is still not even close to matching the near-perfection of the first two instalments in the franchise. There is an unshakeable feeling that Cameron’s efforts in the early days have terminated the chances of anyone ever reaching those heights again. It may take the reappearance of the man himself – and almost certainly a return to the more ‘adult themed’ vision that is almost impossible at the current 12a rating - if anyone is ever to restore the Terminator brand back to the heights of it’s infancy. In perhaps the most ironic of twists, the sheer excellence of Cameron’s earlier work and vision seems to have sealed the Terminators fate and future entirely – it appears that you can’t change the past so easily after all.