Plot over purpose: Terminator Genisys finds that time is a flat circle
On the way to completing my Science degree, most of my electives were spent on Philosophy courses, thanks to a roughly-equal combination of intellectual inquisitiveness and a desire for bludgey subjects. My favourite course was probably the one titled Philosophy of Time Travel, which looked at the philosophical and metaphysical ramifications of time travel; specifically, answering questions like “how do we define causality if the cause can, chronologically, come after the effect?”
It was a lot of fun (not to mention much less rigorous than the third year Maths courses I was completing at the same time). The mid-semester assignment task required us to write an essay investigating what kind of time travel was represented in a self-chosen fictional narrative. I picked Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is notable for the consistency of its depiction of time travel; for the most part, Rowling’s heroes return back in time to do… what they’d already done. Such presentations of time travel are rare – generally, you go back in time and you change the future (à la the fading photos and new four-wheel-drive of Back to the Future).
But there’s another prominent fictional example of this kind of time travel in the form of The Terminator. More horror film than sci-fi, James Cameron’s blockbuster breakthrough paired the implacable relentlessness of Schwarzenegger’s stony-faced villain with the inescapability of fate; Kyle Reese was always going to give his life to save Sarah Connor, and he was always going to father John Connor – the saviour of mankind. Despite Reese’s affirmation that “the future is not set”, The Terminator imagined a closed circle: where everything will be what was always meant to be.
As per its trailer, Terminator Genisys re-enacts the essentials of The Terminator – Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back to 1984 by John Connor (Jason Clarke) to save his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke) – but its version of time travel is more closely aligned with Cameron’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As in that film and the best-forgotten second sequel, the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course) is sent not as an assassin but a protector, but in Genisys “everything’s changed”. The T-800 saved Sarah’s life in 1973, and in this new timeline has been a father figure (called “Pops”) for the past decade. There is no fate but what we – or, in this case, director Alan Taylor and screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier – make it.
Genisys’s trailer was largely met with derision online, but I saw promise in its premise. Rather than another film set in either the present day or a monotonous post-apocalyptic wasteland (à la Terminator Salvation), why not a period film? We’re far enough removed from the 1980s that setting an action film there has the potential to be really interesting. Except, sadly, that isn’t what Genisys is trying to do. Shortly after Reese is zapped back from 2029 to meet up with Sarah in 1984 and a Terminator called “Pops” from 1973, they zap forward in time to October 2017 – the launch date of software called “Genisys” (a new, entirely unnecessary name for SkyNet).
If that sounds incredibly complicated, that’s because it is. If it sounds unnecessarily complicated, well, it’s that, too. Terminator Genisys is an unwieldy mess, riddled with glaring plot holes, absent any clear sense of narrative progression or character motivation. To some extent, you can forgive plot holes in this genre – they’re part and parcel of pretty well every time travel story – but the problems here go beyond questions like “Why didn’t they send two hundred Terminators into the past?”
The screenplay’s complexity simultaneously overburdens it with clunky exposition – Schwarzenegger was not built to deliver dialogue revolving around “nexus points”, “parallel timelines” and “exponential decay” – while eroding audience engagement. In particular, the film’s primary villain – whose identity I’ll leave ambiguous to avoid spoilers – has motives that are either entirely incoherent or overly obfuscated.
I can abide a labyrinthine plot. I can forgive that, having identified Genisys’s launch date through an implausible web of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, Kyle and Reese time travel to a day before its release rather than, I dunno, a month? A year? Such details can be hand-waved if the film manages to be fun, or to develop characters you care about. But this mess of a screenplay doesn’t even have the good grace to establish its characters; after Reese learns that he’s “destined” to have a child with Sarah, the subsequent conversation is a confused mess that makes sense neither narratively nor emotionally.
There’s no overarching purpose to any of this. The Terminator was an existential horror film; its first sequel expanded its scope to broader society (with a militant feminist edge, but that’s another story). But Genisys is – much like Rise of the Machines – empty speculative fiction, a patchwork pastiche of things that worked in previous films. No matter how many lines Kalogridis and Lussier paraphrase (or quote directly) from Cameron’s films, it never comes across as anything more than hollow fan-service. Even – especially – the attempts to update the canon for a modern universe fall flat, with a half-assed, tiresome “satire” of ubiquitous phone usage and SkyNet as a “new killer app”. This is pure product that, unlike Jurassic World, doesn’t even have to good grace to be aware it’s a product.
Maybe that’s unfair; there is a moment mid-film where a cop played by JK Simmons (in perhaps the most egregiously unnecessary role in a blockbuster this year) barges into Sarah Connor’s police interview room. “I know whatever you’re doing has to be really complicated,” he says, trying to decide whether to free her. She replies: “We are here to save the world.” Simmons’ character can work with that; in today’s blockbuster, maybe that’s good enough. This is a rare suggestion of self-awareness, but it’s not the only humour: Genisys’s best moments are its occasional comic relief. It’s rarely funny, but you get the sense that there could be a dumb, fun movie here if it stopped taking things so damn seriously so often.
There are things to like about the film. Specifically, Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. In many ways, she’s a bad fit for the role: she doesn’t look or carry herself much like Linda Hamilton; she has none of the softness Hamilton possessed in The Terminator nor the hardness she embodied in Judgement Day. And, yet, she has this intrinsic quality that holds your attention – an earnest ‘girliness’ combined with a dash of Daenerys’ imperious confidence – which suggests she’s a movie star in the making.
It’s a shame that the other movie star in the cast is mostly wasted; Schwarzenegger gets some good lines – and a running joke about being “old, not obsolete” that’s tireder than he looks – but you get the sense he’s going through the motions. Anyway, the real male lead is Jai Courtney. He’s one of Australia’s rising stars – going from All Saints and Packed to the Rafters to massive Hollywood franchises in the space of a few years – but the critical consensus seems to be one of derision. I think he’s a decent actor – I’ll point to his work in Spartacus and Felony to support that case – but while he has the leading man looks, he lacks the je ne sais quoi to match. Thankfully, there’s some genuine chemistry between him and Clarke (I’m referring to Emilia, not Jason, here, though there’s a certainty intensity to Kyle and John’s male-bonding now that I think about it…). Their sexual tension is on full display when Kyle and Sarah are forced to strip nude and huddle into the time machine on their trip back to the future.
“Full display” isn’t quite right, though, since it’s not like you see any actual nudity. Unlike The Terminator (which featured cameo appearances from both Arnie’s Schwarz and Linda’s Hamiltons), this is strictly PG-13 stuff; we get an eyeful of Jai Courtney topless, but nothing below the belt. It’s not like we need to see manbutt or ladyboobs, but their omission is of a piece with Genisys’s conspicuously antiseptic aesthetic. The obscuring of nudity might seem old-fashioned, but really it’s a result of the film’s insipid embrace of modern big budget movie-making techniques.
Taylor’s work closely resembles any other mid-range blockbuster of the last half-decade: lens flares, impossibly crisp CGI-augmented wide shots, bright lighting, boring, boring, boring. The action scenes are competently composed, which is to say that the special effects are convincing, and the geography is coherent, but they lack the excitement that defined Cameron’s films. Shots are chosen because they look nice, not because they contribute to our understanding of the narrative or emotional reality of the characters. Case in point: optimistic narration about “once there was one road, now there are many” is combined with a contradictory shot of two roads combining into a single track.
Not that Genisys is really interested in a future of infinite possibilities, as that narration might suggest. One of the things that always bothered me in Philosophy was the idea of determinism – and the concomitant erasure of free will. That was accentuated in my Philosophy of Time Travel course, where one of the dominant models for consistent time travel was a system where if you went backwards in time to do something, it would be impossible to do anything that hadn’t already happened.
This film subscribes to that point of view, spending its epilogue on a character returning to a younger version of themselves just to ensure the plot all fits together. It’s a clumsy scene, but consistent with a film populated with characters whose motivations are driven by the arbitrary demands of the screenplay rather than any sense of internal purpose. “No fate” is a lie. So of course, when Sarah Connor observes that now she can do “whatever she wants,” her next move is to start making out with Kyle Reese. A more interesting film would’ve skipped the macking and had her set out on her own, throwing off the chains of destiny. Instead, we get another mediocrity strip-mining our childhood. Here’s hoping that, this time, Arnie’s “I’ll be back” proves an empty promise.