Studios seem to struggle with how to reboot a franchise. Do they attempt to pull a Star Trek where an alternate timeline keeps the previous material intact while making way for a new adventure? Do they go even more hardcore like X-Men: Days of Future Past and wipe away most of the previous movies from canon? Or do they go with the Superman Returns route and just ignore the crappy sequels? Franchise building is monumentally important to the modern day studio system, but in order to retain what audiences loved, movies are bending over backwards to service old fans while trying to open up new stories.
No reboot tries as hard as Terminator Genisys to restart a franchise. The movie is part reboot, part sequel, part prequel entirely confusing, and incredibly asinine if you consider the plot for more than a half-second. Genisys tries to charm us by playing into nostalgia, trying to turn the original movies on their head, and offering up some fresh action, but it stumbles almost every step away. Director Alan Taylor may have some new spins on old tricks, but contrary to the protestations of the T-800, a.k.a. “Guardian” (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Genisys shows this franchise is both old and obsolete.
In the year 2029, humanity, led by revered soldier John Connor (Jason Clarke), is about to triumph over the machines. They’ve shut down Skynet’s central core, and all that’s left is to disable the time travel device, which has just sent a Terminator (a digitally de-aged Schwarzenegger) back to 1984. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is given the same missions as Michael Biehn in the original movie—protect Sarah Connor. However, when he arrives, he discovers everything is different. Sarah (Emilia Clarke) is no longer a weak, fragile waitress, but a warrior who is working alongside an old Terminator model (an older-looking Schwarzenegger), whom she lovingly calls “Pops”, and who has been her protector since 1973 after a T-1000 tried to kill her as a child. Now that history has been altered, Reese has new memories, and those memories tell him that he and Sarah must go to 2017 to stop Genisys, an operating system that is secretly Skynet, which will bring the apocalypse when it goes live in less than a day.
Genisys wants to have it all. It wants to bring Schwarzenegger back, but explain why he’s old. It wants to have the tough Sarah Connor that showed up in Terminator 2. It wants the love story between Sarah and Reese that was breezed through in the first film. And it also wants to incorporate John Connor, and while the trailers have spoiled how he comes in, I won’t do that here because I think Paramount should have kept that twist intact even if the movie was tracking poorly. There will be spoilers at the end of this article that goes into more depth about how he fits into the story, and why it makes no sense.
The film plays like a greatest hits album that thinks it can remix old tracks into something new. Genisys can heap on all the references it wants to the classic 1984 movie, but the script tips its hand when the elderly Guardian guns down the young Terminator that showed up to kill Sarah Connor in 1984. Taylor’s reboot may have the façade of respect and admiration for the beloved original, but really what it wants to do it is kill those films and let the reboot take over, no matter how shoddy it may be.
If there’s a question the movie doesn’t have an answer for—like why T-1000s have been running around since 1973—it just shrugs it off. Genisys isn’t building a mystery; it’s procrastinating because the writers didn’t figure out how to explain the plot points within the span of this movie.
It’s also the pinnacle of lazy storytelling; Genisys relies on contrivance after contrivance and hopes that we’ll be too busy relishing the return of Schwarzenegger to notice. And yes, it’s fun watching him to do his thing and try to add another layer to the character, although at this point the killer cyborg has been completely defanged. It’s enjoyable to watch him fight new models, although we’ve already seen it twice before because Genisys will parasitically latch onto anything that was positively received in the previous movies without understanding any nuances whatsoever.
That’s why Reese and Sarah are so woefully miscast. Courtney continues to get cast in blockbuster franchises despite being generically handsome and devoid of personality. He’s the next generation of Sam Worthington. As for Clarke, the thinking seemed to be that because she comes off as tough on Game of Thrones, she could carry that into Genisys. The problem is that there are different kinds of toughness. Clarke can be regal, but Sarah Connor—that is, the Linda Hamilton- Sarah Connor they’re trying to evoke—is a soldier. She gets in the trenches and gets dirty. When Reese in the future looks at a photo of Sarah in the past, and it’s the same photo from the previous movies except Clarke is posing instead of Hamilton, the difference couldn’t be clearer. Clarke is too cherubic, young, and soft to play someone who has been fighting for her life since she was nine years old.
To add insult to injury, Terminator Genisys isn’t content with ripping off previous movies in the sloppiest manner possible; it also gets smug with its facile social commentary. The plot invokes a vague fear of ubiquitous tech by making Genisys a worldwide operating system, and since we’re all constantly on the Internet and looking at our phones WE’RE GOING TO DIE. Also, Cracked made this observation three years ago, and it was funny instead of preachy. The movie’s statement is also ridiculously hypocritical since Paramount created a Terminator Genisys mobile game people can play on their phones in the theater.
I won’t deny that Genisys held my interest while I was watching it because it’s trying so damn hard to reset a moribund franchise. I even walked out feeling that the movie was resoundingly not bad. There’s something morbidly fascinating about total desperation masquerading as reverence and cleverness when the movie could not be more cynical and idiotic. But the more I thought about Genisys, I couldn’t escape how thoughtless the movie was, and that if Judgment Day comes, at least it means this franchise will die with the rest of us.
I don’t know why Skynet is such a threat when it’s the dumbest thing ever. Its plans get increasingly convoluted with each passing film. If Skynet’s purpose is to win—that is kill John Connor and therefore humanity—then it has the perfect opportunity when Connor and his team go into the time distortion room, before Reese gets in the machine. It chooses to attack John Connor just as Reese is traveling back in time, and then we later learn that Skynet, which was posing as a soldier (Matt Smith), turned Connor into a Terminator by infecting him with a virus, while also managing to kill everyone else in the room somehow.
If a corporeal Skynet could kill everyone in the room, then why not do it while Connor and Reese are in the same place? There’s no good reason to turn Connor into a machine-human hybrid that thinks like John Connor but works for the machines. Robo-Connor wants Sarah and Reese to join him but is also perfectly fine if they die, and for the most advanced Terminator to date, he should not have so much trouble killing two humans even if an old-ass T-800 is in his way.
I suppose there’s a time-loop issue of Skynet sending John Connor back to create the time machine, but why does John Connor need to do that? He’s a military mind, and Skynet’s knowledge could have been imprinted onto anyone. They’re putting a valuable target further out of reach when they have the opportunity to kill Connor and the entire resistance in one fell swoop.
Plus, in addition to Skynet’s stupid fucking plan, the movie never explains why T-1000s can go back so far back in time, why they targeted Sarah Connor as a child instead of her her grandparents or anyone else down on her family tree, or why a T-800 came back to 1973 to protect her, or how it protected her from a T-1000 when it takes an entire room full of hydrochloric acid to bring down just one. They just leave it hanging and we might find out the bullshit answer in the next movie if this one is a hit at the box office.
There’s also quite possibly the most insulting post-credits tag of all time where we see a floating, glowing orb thingy and the Skynet projection looking up at it before the film cuts to black and goes back to the end credits. It’s a moment that could be a parody of other stingers where franchises tease a plot point rather than provide anything substantial, but Genisys goes with a completely arbitrary, clichéd, boring image as if we should get excited about Skynet—which can’t be killed and therefore makes this movie somehow even more pointless—hatching a new scheme.