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Review: Terminator Genisys (It’s Complicated)

There are some movies that you don’t necessarily want to see, but you have to see. This is especially true of sequels. I saw the third Batman movie mostly out of curiosity. I saw the third Hobbit movie because not seeing it would be like quitting a race in view of the finish line. With the Terminator franchise, the reasons I keep coming back are more akin to the reasons a person stays in a bad relationship. I’ve got a feeling a lot of people my age understand exactly what I’m talking about, but I don’t think like I can really review the new movie without first explaining the history between my generation and the Terminator movies.

Most of us didn’t see the first Terminator movie in the theaters. We saw it a few years later when our families got VCRs. The first movie introduced some new (to us) sci-fi ideas, but we didn’t really appreciate them at the time. For us, it was a Schwarzenegger movie; we were watching because we wanted to see Arnold kill a bunch of people and always select “Fuck you, asshole” from the little menu that came up on the inside of his sunglasses. We liked Terminator. It was like a girl in class we wanted to feel up. But let’s be honest: there were a lot of girls in class we wanted to feel up, so it was nothing special. We also liked Commando, and it might very well be the Platonic ideal of the bad action movie, so obviously my generation’s judgment during the mid to late 80s can’t be trusted. Maybe it was hormonal.

The second Terminator movie, Judgement Day, came out in 1991. Most of us had cars at this point, and the commercials looked cool as hell, so we saw this one one the big screen. This was our first real date with the franchise, and it went well. There was a liquid metal guy. There was music by Guns N’ Roses. (For you youngsters who don’t get the significance of that, there were a few years in the late 80s and early 90s when–and I’m not fucking with you here–Guns N’ Roses was the most popular band in the world. Have I mentioned that my generation’s judgement is a little questionable?) The second movie also introduced us to Sarah Connor. Sure, Linda Hamilton was in the first movie, but she was just some chick with big 80s hair. In the second movie, she was SARAH GODDAMN CONNOR, shotgun-wielding badass (the Sarah Connor appeal was definitely hormonal). By the time we left the theater, we were pretty sure she was The One. That “she” can refer to either the Terminator series or Linda Hamilton in the second movie. It works either way.

I think what really sealed the deal was something that at the time usually got lumped in with movie’s amazing special effects: We actually got a glimpse of the world after the apocalypse, and it looked amazing (in a dark, post-apocalyptic hellscape-y kind of way). Even more than Linda Hamilton’s wife beater, those few scenes are what hooked us on the series, because they promised us that, sooner or later, we’d get to see the movie about John Connor and his rag-tag band of humans taking on the evil robot overlords in that world. The first movie had told us about the future, but in Judgement day we got to see it, and we wanted to see more.

The Terminator franchise went to a different college than us, and the long distance thing just didn’t work out. Eventually Judgement Day was just a fond memory. Then, 12 year later, guess who moves in next door? Of course we ended up going on an awkward date called Rise of the Machines. It felt like filler and didn’t really add anything to the story or move the plot along in any significant way. Still, it ended in a way that suggested that maybe the next movie would be the one we’d been waiting for, so maybe it was just a reminder to get us primed for the real sequel to Judgement Day. We just hoped we wouldn’t have to wait another decade and change.

A few years later we got The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The series took place sometime between the second and third movies. I only saw the first season, and much like Judgement Day it didn’t really seem to add anything new or advance the plot, but it was much better received than the third movie. I’ve got a feeling that the reason for that is right there in the name: Sarah Connor. The truth is that John Connor isn’t really that interesting; he’s just another Chosen One like we’ve seen in a million other movies. The Chosen One’s Mom, on the other hand, is a different kind of character, especially when she’s a total badass. Also, Summer Glau beats the shit out of people a in way that’s uniquely visually pleasing. I credit her dance background.

In 2009, the Terminator franchise told us they were ready to do this thing for real this time with Salvation. We had our misgivings–Christian Bale was using the Batman voice, there was an uncanny valley effect with the young Arnold CGI, and it just kind of felt wrong–but after six years of awkward drunken hook-ups we kind of felt we owed the franchise one more chance. It wasn’t terrible (though it did have a few issues), but it wasn’t what we’d hoped for. It didn’t lead to a big fight and ugly break-up. We just agreed it wasn’t working out and decided to go our separate ways.

When Genisys was announced we were still Facebook friends with Terminator and thought it was cool that she was moving back to town. Maybe we’d see her around (on Netflix), but it wasn’t like we were going to help her move or anything. Then came the Brokeback moment. For me, it was when I found out Emilia Clarke was playing Sarah Connor. Everything about the movie seemed like more of the same stuff I was tired of, but I had to give Khalessi as Sarah Connor a chance even though I knew it was doomed from the start.

As I sat in the theater waiting for Genisys to start, I tried to figure out where Salvation went wrong. The problem was, I couldn’t remember much about Salvation. I think I remember the plotline being more convoluted than the others, but I can barely even remember any specific scenes or even special effects to try to reconstruct what the movie was about. That means there weren’t even any special effects striking enough to jog my memory, which is a big problem with a movie that was first introduced to us by James Cameron saying “Look at these special effects!” The thing about Judgement Day is that it really did have a level of special effects we hadn’t seen before, so we were primed for a John Connor movie with amazing special effects. By the time the technology to make the kind of movie Salvation needed to be became affordable, we’d kind of reached peak special effects There was really no way the FX department could have given us the kind of mind-blowing special effects that we’d spent 20 years anticipating. It had all already been done in other movies.

GenisysDuring one of the early scenes of Genisys, I realized the other problem: John Connor. If you can’t blow us away with effects, you’ve got to do it with character and story. As I’ve already mentioned, John Connor is just a generic Chosen One. During the scene in question, Connor was reminding everyone of his Chosen status in a way that seemed a little dickish. Part of it may have been the actor playing him. While at least he doesn’t talk like Batman, he looks more like he should be playing “power-mad Bennigan’s manager” than “post-apocalyptic resistance leader.” Anyway, as John Connor reminded everyone of how special he is, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why?” Harry Potter is the Boy Who Lived and The Force is strong in Luke Skywalker, but what the hell’s so special about John Connor? A couple of times they say he’s the only one who will lead people to stand up against the robot overlords, but that seems like bullshit. Even if you expand the job description to “willing AND QUALIFIED to stand up to the robots” to eliminate the “Patriot”/prepper types who’d just shoot themselves in the foot, statistically there would have to be at least a few other people capable of leading the resistance. The only thing really special about Connor is that he’s been hanging out with Terminators and learning future history since he was a teenager, but given the number of people and cyborgs that have been sent into the past, couldn’t some of them prepare other people to lead in case Connor didn’t make it? Why didn’t they do that?

That’s when it hit me. Why is John Connor the savior of humanity? Because his mother did a lot of work preparing for him to take on the role, including at least some things (like stashing weapons and finding allies and preparing safe houses) that helped make way for the resistance movement that John would lead. How did Sarah Connor know that her son was the savior of humanity? Because people sent back in time by John Connor told her so. One of those time travellers was also his father, so trying to determine the “original” timeline that led to Kyle Reese being sent back to get it on with big-hair Linda Hamilton is a great big wad of paradoxes. But with all the time travel that happens after Reese is sent back, Connor is dedicating a lot of manpower and resources to making sure that he’s the leader of the resistance while also seemingly building his own mythology as the Chosen One. The stuff between Judgement Day and Salvation just gives us more examples of Connor screwing with the timeline to maintain his status, making him seem more like a megalomaniacal cult leader than humanity’s last hope.

Long story short, I think the Terminator Movie We Wanted was an impossible dream from the start. I don’t think Cameron realized it at the time, though, so don’t hate him for it. Hate him for having 3 Avatar sequels in the works, and for fooling several casting agents into thinking that Sam “just as uncharismatic as Luke Evans, but without the vaguely Orlando Bloom-like looks” Worthington deserved leading roles.

Over 1600 words in, I’m finally going to start the actual review of Terminator Genisys. There will be some spoilers, so if you’re still holding onto the hope that you can make this thing with the Terminator franchise last, you might want to see the movie before reading the rest.

Genisys starts off with a voiceover and scenes of a kid who turns out to be a young (much younger than the guy who plays Checkov in the new Star Trek movies) Kyle Reese being saved from a Terminator by John Connor, which I suppose is to let us know that the timeline has changed in case we missed all the trailers. Then they fast forward to the “present day” not-as-cool-as-we’ve-been-hoping-for-since-a-couple-months-before-Nirvana-released-Nevermind future, where the cult of Connor is about to go on the latest mission that will take out Skynet for good this time, really we swear. While most of the resistance takes out the main objective, J. Con and the inner circle are going after Skynet’s secret weapon. It turns out to be one of the time travel thingies, and of course they get there too late. Skynet has already sent a Terminator back to 1984 to take out Sarah Connor. John Connor has to send somebody back to stop it.

Several people volunteer, but who will Connor send? Oh, that’s right, 1984 is when the first movie happened, so he has to send back Kyle Reese. Otherwise he won’t be born. He prepares Reese to meet the Sarah from the first movie, but obviously that’s not going to happen since if it did the next scene would be the first scene of the original movie and the movie would have to end since a closed time loop has just been created. Also, we’ve seen the trailers. Anyway, right before Reese disappears into the past, he sees John get attacked and maybe killed.

Almost as soon as Reese arrives in the past, he gets chased by a T-1000 dressed as a cop. It’s not Robert Patrick (because he’s old now), but he moves like Robert Patrick and nearly all the T-1000 effects from Judgement Day get used sooner or later except the head-split. The T-1000 is obviously out of place, because T-1000 special effects weren’t possible in 1984, but just in case you were still expecting big-hair Linda, we cut to the scene where the Terminator steals the clothes from Bill Paxton and two other punks. Of course it’s not Bill Paxton, but the guy playing him does somehow manage to remind you that in the original movie he was played by Bill Paxton with blue hair. But then, another anomaly! An old (but not quite actual Arnold old) Terminator takes out the newly-arrived young Arnold Terminator before he can steal Bill Paxton’s clothes, ending the 1984 Terminator movie before it really starts.

Reese manages to get arrested, but when the T-1000 shows up and starts doing liquid metal things, the cop agrees to take off the handcuffs because Holy Fuck There’s A Liquid Metal Guy. That cop grows up to be JK Simmons, the guy with crazy stories about time-travelling robots. As is so often the case with JK Simmons characters, he is delightful (but doesn’t get nearly enough screen time). About that time, an ambulance busts in and the door opens. It’s Khaleesi! I mean Sarah Connor, who tells Reese, “Come with me if you want to live.” Because, let’s face it, she has to. No matter how many times the line’s been used, leaving it out would have made things weird.

Speaking of making things weird, it turns out that Sarah’s parents were killed by Terminators when she was 9 and she was raised by “Pops,” the old Terminator who saved Not Bill Paxton’s pants. All that shit Reese was going to tell her that was going to blow her mind? She already knows it. Also, unlike Reese, she knows that she’s going to fall in love with him, he’s going to put a baby in her, and then he’s going to die, which has to be a little awkward. Anyway, she and Pops, who is apparently some kind of Terminator scientific genius, have built their own time travel thingie and are planning to take it to 1997 so they can stop Skynet before it happens.

But wait! As he was travelling back in time, Reese had weird visions of an alternate timeline where Skynet didn’t come online until 2017. He uses secret timeline vision knowledge to convince Sarah that what he saw was the real timeline, so they decide to go to 2017 instead. I assume that’s to get around the problem with convincing younger audiences to suspend their disbelief when you tell them that the post-apocalyptic future started when “Ate My Balls” web pages were still a thing. They don’t do much to explain it in terms of the story, but I guess you can pretend that Sarah and Pops managed to slow down Skynet by 20 years or something. Since Pops got the skin on his hand burned off by acid taking out the T-1000, he can’t time travel with them and has to just wait around 20 years, because so far the make-up and post-production people have been spending a lot more time than usual making Schwarzenegger look younger than he really is.

To answer the questions a lot of you are asking right now: (1) Yes, time travel still requires getting naked; (2) No, it’s only implied nakedness. You’ll have to watch Game of Thrones if you want to see New Sarah Connor boobs.

In 2017, Skynet is pretty much Apple/Google, and is about to launch the much-anticipated super-app that will connect all your everythings and make life wonderful (and also set the stage for the takeover of the world by an army of evil robots). But holy crap! Look who else is in 2017! It’s John Connor! Turns out he didn’t die when he was attacked back in the lame future.

Well, sort of, and this is actually where my “John Connor is kind of a bad guy who’s risking the good of humanity to feed his own Messiah complex” theory actually makes the movie kind of work, though I don’t think it was intentional. John’s actually been turned into a new kind of Terminator (which pretty much does the same things the T-1000 does but with a different skin) made out of nanites or some shit. Now he’s on Skynet’s side. So he’s the bad guy.

From there on out, it’s the movie we’ve seen a few times before: the heroes run from the Big Bad Terminator and eventually blow something up. That’s kind of the problem. Despite changing the whole timeline and going back to the “badass Sarah Connor in the past” formula that’s consistently worked best, there’s really nothing new here. We’ve seen everything before, and in a few places the callbacks are as tortured and awkward as the Affleck scene in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. Except for a couple of very small accent slips, Clarke does a good job as Sarah, but she’s just good. She doesn’t really add much to the character or recapture the Linda Hamilton magic.

The one thing that separates this one from the others is that there’s no blatant set-up for another movie, so (at least until they try to drag us all back in again) there’s a sense of closure. Since Genisys is considerably less disappointing than Salvation, at least this is a better place to end our relationship with the franchise. Maybe now we can put this all behind us, try to remember the good times, and move on with our lives.

  • Terminator: Genisys


Meh, but not as quite as disappointing a “Meh” as the last two movies.


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