I have this cool idea for a reboot: in the near future, director James Cameron develops time displacement technology and goes back to 1991. There, after Terminator 2’s massive success, he wrests away the rights for the franchise and prevents the world from ever being subjected to the two miserable sequels that followed. It’d be like stopping John Connor, but everybody would thank you for it.
The latest film in the franchise, Terminator Genisys, has something similar on its mind. It’s a movie that completely ignores everything after Cameron left the series, framing itself as a love letter to his two films while also using them as a jumping off point for a new cast and completely retooled mythology. It’s also the second film this summer that’s most notable not for its own accomplishments, but for the ways in which it evokes the hits of decades past. It honestly has me wondering: are the best parts of our modern blockbusters the ones we’ve already seen?
Terminator Genisys opens during the future war between man and machine, but it’s not the one depicted in the Christian Bale slogfest Terminator Salvation. This is the grim world depicted in Cameron’s two films, full of roving endoskeletons and airborne hunter-killer drones. It’s essentially a beat-for-beat (and sometimes line-for-line) recreation of the backstory Kyle Reese gave Sarah Connor in the 1984 original when explaining where he came from, only this time Reese is played by Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard), and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) is John Connor. There’s just one problem: right before Kyle is sent back to 1984 to take his preordained place as Sarah’s protector, John is attacked by a mysterious disciple of Skynet, played by former Doctor Who star Matt Smith.
The movie then sets up shop in 1984, pulling a Back to the Future 2 by recreating entire sequences from Cameron’s original — with a twist. Young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator arrives at Griffith Park Observatory, but somebody’s waiting. As soon as Reese lands in 1984, he’s attacked by a liquid metal T-1000 and discovers Sarah Connor doesn’t need his help at all. He’s in a new timeline, it turns out, one in which Sarah has had her own personal Terminator (Schwarzenegger, thankfully allowed to show his age for once) protecting her since she was nine. And in this new timeline, Judgement Day doesn’t happen until 2017 — they think.
Director Alan Taylor painstakingly crafts the 1984 sequences, even recreating specific shots from the original, and the likeness is uncanny. James Cameron described his movie’s gritty, low-budget aesthetic as "tech noir" at the time, and there’s something immediately dangerous and visceral in the look and static camerawork. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s a big-screen reminder of just how generic so many modern blockbusters are, and sure enough that brief breath of fresh air is sucked out of the room the moment Genisys begins deviating from the original film, adopting the same jokey, PG-13 tone that seems to pervade every major blockbuster these days.
We saw a similar sort of creative callback just last month in Jurassic World. In that film’s best moments, it evoked a Spielbergian air of adventure and wonder, using a few carefully placed callbacks to build a sense of reverence for the original film. In that case, the mix certainly seems to have worked — the movie grossed over $1 billion worldwide in its first two weeks — but it’s hard to parse whether people are loving Jurassic World for the movie it is, or for the movie it’s riffing on. A similar problem befalls Terminator Genisys, which steadily gets more generic and lumbering the further it strays from those 1984 sequences. When the best parts of a movie are the ones that recreate a film made 31 years ago, what does that say about the state of modern blockbuster culture?
That’s not to put all the blame on director Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) or writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier. All are doing interesting work within the framework of the genre. Taylor’s direction is polished and assured, and his action scenes pull together practical effects and model work with great success (the future war sequences in particular are fantastic). Computer-generated characters — including the T-1000, ironically enough — end up being somewhat of a stumbling block, but it’s the same stumbling block that everything not named Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems to run into. Kalogridis and Lussier’s idea of diving back into the original movie is genuinely inspired, and they upgrade the Terminator conceit with some timely real-world concerns. They also do the welcome work of creating a version of Sarah Connor that isn’t just a carbon copy of the film and TV iterations we’ve seen before — even if Emilia Clarke never finds that same commanding presence she demonstrates so often in Game of Thrones.
But despite their collective efforts, the film eventually devolves into people running around a building trying to blow something up with the entire world supposedly at stake. For all the movie’s talk of changing destiny and unwritten fates, it’s nearly impossible to escape the feeling that all Terminator movies must end up exactly like this: the same stakes, the same villain, the same climactic sequences with characters making the same sacrifices.
Then again, that’s the inevitability we feel about all sequels now, isn’t it? The big studio tentpole films have essentially become one giant Marvel movie template with nearly identical strengths and weaknesses (and in the case of Taylor, who also helmed Thor: The Dark World, even the same directors). Whether we’ve realized it or not, that inevitability has become so ingrained that stepping outside its narrow confines has become a cause for outright jubilation, whether it’s Jurassic World’s Spielberg-ish aspirations or J.J. Abrams’ decision to go back to practical effects for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We’ve entered an era in which modern blockbusters are actively reminding us that they’re inferior to their predecessors, and in cases like the new Terminator and Jurassic World they’re actually banking on it.
It’s a point that comes crashing home at the end of Genisys. The project has been touted as the starting point for a new trilogy, and it makes those aspirations clear by adopting the most modern movie trope of them all: the post-credits teaser tag. Those inspiring flashes in the first half — those reminders of what populist entertainment used to be capable of — are washed away in the final few seconds of film, all for another turn of the franchise movie wheel.
They’ll be back. Again and again and again.
Terminator Genisys opens July 1st.