After watching Terminator Genisys, I wondered: why did I just do that to myself? The reviews were stinking (38% on Metacritic); two people whose film opinions I generally respect had slated it. I don’t usually hate-watch things. Call me a madman, but I prefer to watch films I expect to be good. Yet, here I was, choosing Genisys over, say, Bridge of Spies.
I told myself I wanted to see just how bad a job they’d done. But maybe I was being open-minded and hoped it could be good. Then I thought back to a passage I’d written a few years ago about the Aliens game Colonial Marines:
Maybe I wanted to love Colonial Marines so I could be contrary, so I could say “This game is terrible. Except it isn’t”, and people would totally reply “Wow, this guy’s a renegade maverick genius”
Was I doing this with Genisys? Did I want to like something most don’t, just so I could have an interesting opinion? Am I really that sad?
Much like Colonial Marines, at first Genisys wasn’t too bad. Fans may have gasped in horror at its recreation of the first film’s iconic opening, but I appreciated boldness of doing so. Given the alt-world narrative, re-imagining that scene made sense and didn’t feel (too) superfluous. The film went downhill when Sarah and –sigh — ‘Pops’ arrived, but I was still mostly on board.
Then I restarted and it all went wrong. Kyle explained that John that had been attacked. I’d no idea what he was talking about (I must’ve turned away at that important moment*). Rewinding video in Now TV is awkward because you don’t see footage while you do so. I couldn’t be bothered guessing where the time-travel scene was, so I just skipped back to the start and began the film again.
*Conventional movie grammar would have shown John being attacked, cut to Reese reacting to it, back to John again. As it is, that pivotal moment is all of a second long and fairly easy to miss
Then, like Reese, I landed in a different world. This wasn’t the same film. Details I’d accepted on first viewing bothered me. Like why did that badass Asian Terminator become so weak, unable to kill one cop who is also trying to control someone in handcuffs? Why did he blend into the mirror? Couldn’t he just have stayed in his police disguise and used it to get close to the cops, then pick them off? Or burst out from the mirror and kill them as they walked past? Why didn’t he move during the many seconds that passed while Sarah drifted the truck across the store? Why didn’t Dr Who’s Terminator attack John before Reese got in the time machine, which may have stopped Reese even travelling back in time? And if this version of Sarah is so savvy, why didn’t she warn Kyle there was a Terminator in the back of the truck?
Also, I’ve got a pair of Nike Vandals much like those in the film. I took the straps off them because they were too fidgety. Yet Kyle takes the time to perfectly align the straps on his while a deadly robot paces past. Picky, given this is a film about time-travelling robots. But the devil’s in the details.
The comedy around the Sarah/Reese/Arnie triangle was horrible. “Could you, like, not do that again, ever?” is Friends-era dialogue, and nowadays only exists in kid’s TV. Even with Genisys being aimed at a young audience, so many chunks of dialogue were unsuited to this franchise. And referring to Arnie’s character as ‘Pops’ was a horrible idea. A worse idea, however, was to make light of the trio getting their mugshots taken. Ha ha, the T-800 is doing a daft smile, ho ho, Emilia Clarke is small. And with Bob Marley’s Bad Boys playing too. Misguided and cringe-worthy.
For the most part, the larger ideas were fine. Kyle lands in an alternate universe where a T-800 is already here. Sarah gets toughened up at a young age. Skynet is an operating system. John is half-man, half-machine. Okay. The film’s failures come from the smaller points, its uneven tone, and general sloppy execution.
(Oh aye, that bit)
- Having Arnie play the role of smart science robot. While Arnie is a smart guy in real life, he’s naturally an on-screen meathead. Don’t have him talking all clever
- Arnie guns John down. As far as Sarah is concerned, her son is dead. She turns to Arnie and says, “Why did you do that?”, like a mother scolding a child for drawing on the walls
- In a tense moment, they fire a rocket into John’s mug. Then run away into…wait, no. No, they casually [walk] away and get onto a school bus. And why a school bus? Did I miss something. Just because it was there? Were there no better, faster, more exciting ways to flee?
- Having Skynet be an operating system was both more realistic and less interesting. Genisys seemed to want to comment on modern life, but could only do so in obvious and superficial ways. Yes, we know we look at our phones too much. Yes, San Francisco traffic is bad. Also, the Genisys was going to be this revolutionary software that means all our files are on all of our devices? Yeah, that’s called Dropbox
What I liked: the general re-imagining of the Terminator universe. Genisys seems inspired by the Stars reboots. JJ Abrams’ Trek also used alternate universes to ‘remake’ the originals without affecting their place in the canon. The Force Awakens technically exists in the existing Star Wars universe, but is basically an unofficial reboot. I don’t expect to get any more alt-world Terminator films anytime soon due to the collective sigh this film received. But the concept is valid, even if it was failed by the execution.
The Terminator sandbox must be fun to play in, but it’s narrow. Imagine you’re a director and you’re given a choice: you can play with one franchise: Terminator or Predator. Which do you choose? In the Predator IP, you can have the alien hunt in another part of the world (as in Predator 2), or even on another planet (as in Predators). With Terminator, however, your options are narrower. If you set your timeline before Judgement Day, you’ve got to work with the John/Sarah/Kyle/Arnie dynamic. Little Skynet-related exists outside of their field of view.
Studios regularly offer me caboodles of cash to rejuvenate their biggest franchises. I say no. Because I am an artist. But if they threw Terminator 6 my way, I’d be all over it like a cheap suit. Here’s what I’d do:
Set it after the war begins. No Sarah, Reese, or Arnie. No sending your best friend back in time to shag your mum. Events after Judgement Day are relatively thin on details (though I imagine more fleshed-out in comics). Hence, more to play with. You’ve got people fleeing and pockets of resistance. I imagine a Rogue One-type aside. A small group go to war – a B-Story to whatever John is up to. I’d have him mentioned but never seen. Robots vs humans, guns and gore.
Or, alternatively, maybe I’d remake the original, but this time with a different twist. In my version, the reveal wouldn’t be that Reese is John’s dad. No, it would be that Reese didn’t actually exist. ‘Kyle Reese’ is actually John Connor. Who travels back through time to bang his mum and become his own dad.
You’d watch that, wouldn’t you?