Note: This review contains spoilers because it is an in-depth plot analysis. Admit to yourself, you already thought it was spoiled for you by the trailer and you are reading this so I can convince you you are in fact NOT wasting your time in seeing it. You probably don't care enough to care about spoilers.
What once was a single nightmare from a childhood spent coming of age with the internet has technologically advanced toward infinite possibilities for infinitely more new nightmares to be written. After two pointless money grabs that nearly killed the Terminator franchise, Terminator Genisys is a reboot more than a retcon. The new multiverse seems to be rewriting past events but is actually more futures resulting from the past more than more pasts resulting from the future. The series has returned to its thematic core of new problems created by new technological solutions to glorify humanity’s flexibility and randomness which overcome all challenges.
It used to seem like artificial intelligence could never outmatch the programmers simulating it, but today we have seen a computer contestant on Jeopardy, and nanotech surgery is not impossible in the foreseeable future. We’re meanwhile losing our privacy to automated data tracking online, which already induces paranoia-fueled nightmares that a malevolent government, let alone a sentient artificial consciousness, could take our freedom and civil rights away. It’s enough to turn the most diehard technophile a luddite if only until the next iPhone iteration is released… I write from a new Macbook that is totally free of involvement with the launch of Skynet.
No, Skynet’s being launched by a Conficker-like worm in my mom’s new barely smart phone which runs on Windows Mobile. The Skynet in Terminator Genisys is no longer coming just from Data Dyne, but from all over our world in all telecommunications systems in civilian life. The villain is not just a single rogue killbot, but millions of tiny bots operating as a hive mind to impersonate the humans we love most in our daily domestic lives. THE SKYNET CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!
Windows Mobile was my first point of confusion in a plot that mostly fixed the Terminator franchise for me. I somehow expected to be in John Connor’s childhood in the 90s after the huge plot point of Matt Smith’s Skynet ganking John Conner at the moment Kyle Reese is sent back in time. So I thought, “WINDOWS MOBILE? LoLz! We’re in the 90s, this kid can’t be running windows mobile! Didn’t the writers do their research??” But I’m the dumb one, because I thought I was looking at John when I was actually looking at Kyle Reese as a child in the 2000s, now in this film’s equivalent role to John Conner in T2: Judgment Day but adrift in temporal anomalies without any knowledgeable guardian to protect him.
That Kyle Reese is now in John Connor’s place but as a less capable and more vulnerable hero continues a lovely chain of instances where Genisys tacks a new timeline over the first two films in the Terminator franchise one catchphrase at a time. Come with Sarah Connor if you want to live, Sarah follows the straight line and doesn’t look back till she tells Kyle Reese to do the same. The writing was really intelligent and emotive, and the romantic subplot between Reese and Sarah was lightly mentioned without interfering with the action. I didn’t see Salvation or Rise of the Machines, but if there was much of these movies in Genisys I didn’t notice it and it was all blended seamlessly with the continuity of the first two movies. So, if you’re a Terminator fan who wanted to just forget two of the films and who didn’t have time for the television series, this is a great point to jump back in.
After some missteps with Rise of the Machines and Salvation, the creators of this new film have finally created a decent chapter of the story that brings the franchise theme into the new millennium, linking the great Terminator 2: Judgment Day to a rewritten Sarah Conner Chronicles with its repurposed resistance fighters and further complications of the original battle. The core of Terminator Genisys is a return to a strongly emotive character approach underscoring a drama about the unending cycle of new problems created while solving humanity’s problems with technology. Let computers talk to each other and malevolent content may spread just as quickly as Reddit links to cats in kimonos. The old concept of T-800s with aging flesh is played against not only liquid metal but the new T-5000s with their biocomputing approach to nanotechnology. They’re no longer merely impersonating humans but now can harnass humanity’s advantage of emotions and memories if not increased processing speed.
Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to me almost an unnecessary point to mention since you already know he’s back, but past filmmakers thought he could be omitted from Terminator Salvation to a resulting loss of audience interest in the franchise so let’s go ahead and check a tick mark for the seal of quality that is having Schwartzeneggar in a Terminator movie. As Pops, he seems to be the cyborg we came to love in Terminator 2— learning to be human to fit in and having a way of operating that predicts the moves of Skynet while supporting the objectives of the humans-- but this time he has raised Sarah instead of connecting with young John. His uncanny valley smile is almost too anime gag cheesy in a police lineup but in all other scenes lends the right amount of comic relief to make us like him and believe he is in fact old but not obsolete (according to his new catchphrase) in his battles with other cyborgs. We ultimately want to see his toughness and lack of emotion more than a sense of humor, and he has more than enough moments for that in this film. And yes, I believed in the CG recreation of his younger self as well along with the satisfaction of seeing T2’s Terminator effectively dropkick the old emotionless one from the first movie. This look back at past incarnations of his character seems a fair tribute to him as well as preparation to pass the torch of carrying the franchise on to younger performers Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, and Matt Smith.
I thought that Laeta Kalogridis’s previous films even including Shutter Island were not for me because they were so action heavy and how could they be intelligently written with such a gray color palette in the photography? But she got my attention here in cooperation with co-writer and co-producer Patrick Lussier and I now have to see everything she’s written starting with a revisit to her Bionic Woman reboot pilot. The creative authors show great understanding of both humans and technology and have returned to the winning moves with which James Cameron’s Terminator inspired me.
Terminator Genisys’s story leaves the time loops of narrative from the first two films in tact to jumpstart a new plot and then writes over them to create new timelines without fully undoing the human victory moment that the series will use as springboard to a multiverse of possible futures, stalemates and dystopias. It’s nearly impossible from beginning to end to track the order of new reality creation but at the time I was watching it, it read pretty well as a single film narrative, provided you have seen Terminator 2. In each individual scene of Genisys the characters are being true to who they’ve always been, so it isn’t until you connect the scenes in your mind that you wonder if the order we saw events in was really the order in which they were added to the timeline. You can just follow the single match goal of “blow up Cyberdyne, prevent the Conficker worm-like Skynet from launching in the release of Windows Mobile with social media integration” without analyzing the greater damage to time and space that feels epically foreboding the more I think about it.
From CraveOnline's interview with the creators:
Laeta Kalogridis: Our idea was, simply put, that there are multiple timelines. It’s a multiverse model. So there are individual, multiple universes, and within those universes there is – as John says – a momentum to time, and the amount of energy and sacrifice that has to occur in order to alter a timeline so far that Judgment Day doesn’t occur is huge.
It’s a difficult balancing act to mess time up this severely and still have any semblance of continuity, but as a fan of the first two films who missed the next two and most of the tv series, I thought it all made sense at the time and what I didn’t understand may be cleared up in the next two films. I am giving the writers the benefit of the doubt for now because they showed reverence for the nostalgia I share with them for the first two films and didn’t waste too much time on the actual machine war which is not nearly as important as the psychiatric effects of the extreme efforts required by the human leaders for its prevention.
A strong Sarah Connor is the backbone of audience interest in the Terminator franchise and the writing of her in Genisys has used her properly after abuses in the past two films. She’s still a target as in the first movie but takes care of herself and this time leads Kyle Reese in battle with support from Schwartzeneggar’s T-800 who somehow was sent back in time to raise her to defend herself when we weren’t looking. I was very confused on this point and her calling him Pops wasn’t enough to help me follow the childhoods of both Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese.
Laeta Kalogridis’s comments about Sarah Connor mentioned on Amysmartgirls: show that she understands the importance of the character to the Terminator story as being the character with the most arc over the course of these stories. Sarah's personality changed drastically in the first two movies, and here I had trouble telling whether she was still in transition or had already recovered from the PTSD she seemed to have taken on after the events of the first movie. Her appearance in Terminator Genisys bolsters the toughness of her personality but I wonder how disempowered she is by the loss of free will that results from her sense of duty to preventing the apocalypse. The contrast between her developing survivalist attitude and her initial fated victim status will hopefully be explored more deeply over the next two films as she doesn’t seem fully aware of her choices and the consequences of each exertion of free will to act against the machines.
Emilia Clarke’s performance as Sarah Connor made me think more of TV’s melodramatic Lena Headey at first than gun-crazy future wars predicting veteran Linda Hamilton, and she looks a bit like Summer Glau as Cameron to the point of being distracting, but she won me over in the action scenes after one false step of sounding too much the sexy-know-it-all and therefore weaker in an early conversation with Kyle Reese after she delights me by saving him upon his arrival. The more flirty and less of a time-sensitive soldier she is, the less the men will take her seriously as an equal, say my end of Generation X feminist instincts. I cheered or booed her accordingly, leading to countless cheers and one regrettable jeer in this story. Clarke seems a bit young here but she gave a good tough performance overall and I expect her Sarah to continue grow on me in the next part of the story. There’s a moment that I don’t want to spoil where I foresaw her character potentially getting exponentially more complicated, and where the heck was she before she met Reese in the 80s? So I’m watching eagerly for what she does next. The more shell-shocked and violent Sarah Connor is as a protective mother, the more I believe in the Terminator movies.
Kyle Reese is the only potential Achilles heel in this movie and I’m wondering what they’re going to do with him next. It was somewhat hard to buy the stability of the timeline in scenes where adult Reese and child Reese are in the same room— can he do that? Doesn’t that make reality so fragile that if Reese stubs his toe the machines win? He also is neither as crazy nor as tough as in previous incarnations, this film emphasizing that he was naively manipulated and led into the Resistance by John Connor before he is sent to Sarah who already recognizes him before they are supposed to fall in love. And he’s way too trusting when she doesn’t sufficiently answer how she already knows him. Any confusion I have about Sarah and Reese is probably going to set up future sequels, but in this film he was annoying. To Jai Courtney’s credit, he doesn’t upstage Emilia Clarke or undermine the toughness of her Sarah Connor who after all has a T-800 on her side already, completely destroying the male protector image laid out for Reese in the first movie. Courtney’s Reese seems increasingly fragile next to a new childhood self who no longer had to grow up in a post-apocalyptic battlefield and seems to only have to remember what network is connected to Skynet’s launch. But how many times has Skynet already been stopped? And how does Reese remember having parents and peacetime? He mentions that he shouldn’t have these memories and I think a butterfly effect just got crunched under those 18 ton Jason Clarke nanite-infused cyborg shoes in the Golden Gate bus scene.
My personal favorite part of Terminator Genisys is the casting of Matthew Smith as Skynet. His casting plays beautifully off our viewer awareness of his performance in “A Nightmare in Silver” in Doctor Who, wherein the 11th Doctor is corrupted by cybermites attempting to control his brain as the new Cyber Planner for the Cybermen’s hive mind called the Cyberiad. Knowing this story already makes it easy to follow the influence of nanotech into the Terminator series without lengthy explanations of how John Connor’s not only body but also his mind is changed when he is corrupted by Smith’s T-5000.
Seeing a villain played by an actor whose former reputation is heroic particularly pushes entertainment emotional buttons I like, and through Mr. Smith’s brief yet poignant appearance in this film I see his character at once on two levels: the visage of an innocent young Alex taken too soon in the robot wars conceals a more than clever evil hive mind whose residual humanity contains no ghost of compassion or crowing about superiority and power, only cold calculations of strategic dominance and unrelenting tenacity. It seems as though humanity’s best hope for repairing a shattered timeline has already been taken by the machine empire, and when you love someone so much already it underscores the tragedy of his acts in a way that couldn’t be achieved by any other actor looking past the momentary human victory toward the target of the inhumane machine agenda. We win for getting to see and hear Matt Smith in two more Terminator films.
I didn’t understand the mention from the producers in this CraveOnline Interview that this Skynet is from an alternate universe, because while watching the film I didn’t want to look beyond the single match centered around this Skynet launch to the greater temporal damage caused by the war against the machines. While watching Genisys it looked to me like there was a Skynet sleeper agent just following John around and being peaceful who was in actuality a plan Z for just this moment that the human resistance was successful. So, my mind rejected the alternate universe replacing the first stories in favor of emphasis on a last minute reset switch in event of failure which created unlimited chances for continued dominance as an outcome already foreseen by Skynet because if possible futures are easy enough to follow with exponential growth or decay algortihms for the T-800, then it’s cake for Skynet. But that last minute reset switch caused new events to branch out from each key point before the switch was hit. If the headache is too much, just go back to viewing the film as a single set piece.
I also really like Byung-hun Lee’s T-1000 cop because he was given a proper line of dialogue introducing his character to thereby avoiding the harmful “silent Asian character” stereotype in filmed media. But he moreover is another innocent young soldier who is ghosting soullessly after being cloned by the machines. His cop clone was done away with a bit too quickly, but can he really be gone forever in a world where just the slightest bit of human DNA can be cloned or rebuilt by nanobots? Every victimized youth in Terminator makes for an excellent zombie puppet cop or hive mind controller, which continues the subtle exploration of the uncanny valley between cyborg and human behavior that started to be nuanced in Judgement Day and continues to be given further depth in Genisys.
The arms race between Terminator's machines and humans always seems a bit one sided, with the machines forever growing and humanity only defeating them with the same guns and time bombs. But this state of consistent flux serves ultimately to reassert the triumph of humanity’s unpredictable strategic allocation of inferior resources via unpredictable decision making. We win because the machines haven’t managed yet to be unpredictable, but as Terminator Genisys hints, we are already losing our best advantage.