In a line from a parody of the “Terminator Genisys” trailer, Sarah Connor says in a voiceover: “John keeps sending Terminators. He’s lost his mind.” And judging by the official trailers for the movie, it did indeed seem like that would be the plot. As it turns out, though, “Terminator Genisys” is a rare movie that is better than the trailer (the official ones and the fake one, although the fake one is pretty great).
Like the 2009 “Star Trek” movie, “Genisys” is both a sequel and a relaunch. In both cases, it’s possible because of time travel. In some ways, “Genisys” exemplifies why James Cameron felt the saga said what it needed to say after two movies — and to a lesser extent, the third Cameron story, the Orlando theme-park ride “T2: Battle Across Time” (to which “Genisys” owes a bit of a debt, in that it chronicles a battle across time). But it ultimately breaks free of its influences and makes a case that there’s room for more blockbuster fun, if not radical new ideas.
“Genisys” starts off as sort of a prequel to the 1984 original by showing us the 2029 scene around the Los Angeles time-displacement device. This scene had been described in many comics and novels, but it appears on screen for the first time here. John (Jason Clarke) says someone must go back to protect his mom, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, ironically no relation), from the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in repurposed 1984 movie scenes mixed with some new footage and CGI work). Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers, as John knows he will.
But the action quickly diverges, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” version of “The Terminator.” The first point of divergence comes when a good-guy Terminator (modern-day Schwarzenegger) steps in to fight the bad-guy unit. A second point comes when one of the cops pursuing Kyle turns out to be a T-1000. And leaving no doubt that this is a different world, Sarah rescues Kyle, a reverse of the original movie.
“Genisys” borrows a lot of ideas from all those “Terminator” comics and novels through the years, in addition to offering up the ubiquitous “Come with me if you want to live” and “I’ll be back.” It even borrows from a “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” director’s cut scene by using the visual gag of the Arnold Terminator trying to smile. While writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier and director Alan Taylor are newcomers to the franchise, they either know this material well or it’s simply a case that the story beats of this saga tend to naturally be revisited.
But it’s not all old hat: The real joy of “Genisys” is seeing familiar characters in new ways. Don’t get me wrong, Emilia Clarke isn’t necessary better than Linda Hamilton or Lena Heady, and Jai Courtney isn’t necessarily better than Michael Biehn. But we had never previously seen Sarah, age 20, as a badass freedom fighter, and we hadn’t seen Kyle as the leading man since that first film. While Courtney looks nothing like Biehn, Emilia Clarke does bear a resemblance to Hamilton. Jason Clarke doesn’t look much like any of the previous John Connors (aside from the facial scar), but the franchise had given up on a definitive look for the character about a half-dozen actors ago.
Set in San Francisco rather than the traditional Los Angeles, “Genisys” is a slick-looking film. It effortlessly uses classic visuals that were eye-popping decades ago, such as the liquid metal of the T-1000 recombining, made famous by “T2.” Appropriately, “Genisys” doesn’t precisely reuse the aforementioned classic scenes from “The Terminator”; it’s more like it computer-scans elements of them (such as Arnold’s body) into a new scene in order to match the look of “Genisys.” It also uses new actors; for example, in the “Give me your clothes” scene, there’s an actor who looks similar to Bill Paxton, rather than the actual Paxton performance. (I suppose the new looks for the characters can be explained by “different timeline.”) While there were some sequences I would’ve liked to see in 3D, I’ve found 3D to be a bit dark, and the blues, greens and beiges pop nicely in the 2D print.
Peppered amid fairly intelligent portrayals of time travel (except for one potential plot hole near the end of the film; see the spoiler section below) is Sarah’s rather silly assertion that she can’t love anyone because the people she loves always die (go cry a river with Tris from the “Divergent” series or Peter Parker). But I like how this stuff flows smoothly betwixt and between the action set pieces, which are up to snuff with the high standards of the series even if they are a bit familiar: A highway chase featuring a bus, heroes hanging precariously from a ledge, that sort of thing.
Thematically, “Genisys” is a little thin. The title refers to a Cyberdyne program in 2017 that will allow people’s laptops, phones, etc., to sync up. For one thing, the tech-savvy among us already have this, and for another, people aren’t scared of technology anymore. People take the idea of a robot Armageddon less seriously now than they did in 1984 – and even then it was mostly just a fun trope.
SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this post will break down “Terminator Genisys” in detail, in the format of the “Terminator flashback” posts I’ve been doing this year.
John Connor: Jason Clarke is the eighth actor to play the role. He’s the first one to play an evil version of John, although the aborted “Salvation” storyline might have found Christian Bale playing a darker version John if that saga had continued. Clarke plays the 2029 General Connor as well as a “John Connor” who time-travels back to a pre-Judgment Day 2017, but who turns out to be a robot-human hybrid. Skynet essentially rebuilds John’s body after killing him in 2029.
Sarah Connor: Emilia Clarke is the third actress to play the role. She is the same age as Linda Hamilton’s character in the first film (19 or 20), but this is a different timeline – one where Sarah was visited by a guardian Terminator at age 9 in 1973 and subsequently was taught how to be a fighter. Willa Taylor plays the young Sarah in a flashback, making her the fourth actress in the role.
Kyle Reese: Jai Courtney is the third movie actor to play the role, following Michael Biehn in the original and a deleted scene in “T2” and Anton Yelchin in “Terminator Salvation.” Bryant Prince plays young Kyle, making him the fourth movie actor in the role. Two more actors played Kyle in “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” too. Kyle was born in 2004, after the 1997 Judgment Day in one timeline but before the 2017 J-Day in a happier timeline. Kyle has various birthdates in various incarnations of the saga, some before J-Day, some after. In the original timeline, he was born in 2009, making him the same age as Sarah when they meet; here, he is five years older than Sarah. Kyle’s parents (unnamed) appear in “Genisys”; they also appear in S.M. Stirling’s book trilogy.
Danny Dyson: He continues his father Miles Dyson’s work on the timeline where Kyle has a non-apocalyptic childhood and J-Day did not occur in 1997. It’s the character’s second film appearance, following “T2,” where he was a kid. As with his dad, he does not know the dangers of his work in “Genisys.” In the comics and novels, Danny is usually a good guy fighting with the Resistance.
“Guardian” T-800, model 101: Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger as usual, this unit — nicknamed “Pops” — ages, so I think it should have technically been labeled a T-850 to be consistent with “Terminator 3.” However, this is a different timeline, so it’s not necessarily an error. Sarah says the living tissue of Terminators show aging, as with real humans. On the inside, though, he works like new. He tells Kyle he’s “old, not obsolete.”
T-800s: The same character from “The Terminator” makes an encore appearance. But this time, the good T-800 is waiting for him. Since Kyle is attacked by a T-800 as a kid in the 2010s, Kyle’s apocalyptic timeline differs from what we saw back in the first movie, when T-800 Infiltrators were a fairly new model in 2029. But in other timelines, like the Dark Horse 1984 saga, Infiltrators were introduced as early as 2009.
T-1000s: Byung-hun Lee is the embodiment of the liquid-metal Terminator in most scenes. Like Robert Patrick’s “T2” character, he favors a cop uniform. Then at the end of the movie, in a surprise twist, a good Arnold version of a T-1000 is introduced.
Skynet: Not precisely a Terminator, of course, we see the embodiment of Skynet (a.k.a. Genisys) in the form of holographic pixels. Matt Smith and a few other actors play Skynet at different “ages.”
CONTINUITY AND CONTRADICTIONS
“Genisys” starts in 2029 and goes back to 1984, but then diverges from the original film’s timeline. In that sense, “Genisys” is similar to “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which was an alternate branch-off from “T2.” At first blush, this seems to be a continuation from “Salvation,” but it can’t be since John mentions the 1997 J-Day date (rather than 2004) in a voiceover. (See more about the different timelines in “Genisys” in the “Timelines and Time Travel” section below.)
Los Angeles has traditionally been the home base of the saga, but after the opening scenes chronicling the fall of Skynet’s Colorado HQ and the time travelers emerging in L.A., “Genisys” is set in San Francisco (which was also the setting of the “One Shot” comic and the home of Skynet Central in “Salvation”). It’s there that Sarah and the Guardian T-800 compile an underground stash of weapons. In most “Terminator” stories, Sarah keeps a stash at the Salceda compound in the Southern California desert. In the S.M. Stirling trilogy, she even stashes weapons all over the Western Hemisphere.
Older Kyle meets Younger Kyle in this movie. Similarly, two John Connors meet in the Blackford trilogy and Derek sees a younger version of himself in “TSCC.”
The Guardian T-800 and the John Connor/Terminator hybrid get destroyed in a fight inside a time bubble. This also happens to a villain and hero character in Russell Blackford’s “The New John Connor Chronicles Book One.” In “Genisys,” they’re killed because they aren’t covered in living tissue; in the book, it’s because the time vault doesn’t yet work properly.
In the timeline where Kyle has a happy childhood, Cyberdyne begets Skynet, which begets Judgment Day – the way it goes in all “Terminator” stories. Specifically, the program called Genisys is the Trojan horse for computer sentience. J-Day happens in 2017 here, which is a bit later than it usually happens, although not the latest (in the Blackford novels, one of the J-Days happens in 2021). Sarah and Kyle prevent the 2017 J-Day. But then, in a mid-closing-credits scene, Skynet gets created anyway, setting up a sequel and reasserting that certain things just can’t be stopped in the “Terminator” universe.
The John/Terminator hybrid is sort of like the nanobot-centered Specialists and T-XA unit from the Blackford trilogy. The word “nanobots” isn’t used in the film, but visually, it appears John is made up of nanobots. More traditional cyborgs (humans kept alive with machine parts) have been featured throughout the saga, from Dudley in the Dark Horse Comics 1984 saga to Marcus Wright in “Salvation.”
TIME TRAVEL AND TIMELINES
“Genisys’ ” 2029 time-displacement equipment scenes seem to continue from the “T3″/”T4” timeline, but we’re told in a John Connor voiceover that Judgment Day occurred in August 1997, same as what Kyle told Sarah in the first movie. As such, it appears that “Genisys” does not continue from “Salvation.” It can’t be on the “T1” timeline either, though, thanks to the earlier appearances of T-800s. We see the Arnold T-800 go back, but there’s nothing about a T-1000 or a T-X. All of the sequels and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” avoided the 1997 J-Day, thus branching into new timelines. After Kyle goes back, “Genisys” is on a different timeline as well.
The first point of divergence comes when a personified Skynet attacks John even as Kyle is in the time bubble. This is what allows Kyle to have both his own memories, plus the memories of a Kyle on a different timeline, where J-Day didn’t occur until 2017. The concept of one character holding different sets of memories simultaneously had been portrayed briefly as a form of déjà vu in the comics “Endgame” and “RoboCop vs. The Terminator,” and Skynet holds different sets of knowledge in those and other stories. But this is the first time it applies to a human character.
It’s strongly implied that the TDE (time-displacement equipment) that Kyle uses is the same one the T-800 used. The comic “All My Future’s Past” indicated that there were two separate TDEs “about a klick apart,” thus accounting for the different emergence points in L.A. But it’s not necessarily a plot hole, as plenty of stories have suggested that the TDEs aren’t always tied to a fixed point in space; sometimes time travelers emerge at different places, either by mistake or by programming of the TDE.
Using a TDE constructed in the bowels of the Bay Area by Sarah and the Guardian T-800, who are just awaiting the computer chip from the bad T-800, Sarah and Kyle travel forward in time from 1984 to 2017 to stop J-Day on this timeline. Sarah briefly argues that they should go to 1997 until Kyle correctly convinces her that this is a new timeline. (The Guardian T-800, who can’t time-travel due to his metal arm being exposed, simply exists in real time for 33 years and meets up with them again.) Previously, the most famous example of forward time travel was in “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” Incidentally, in both cases the time travelers emerge amid a busy freeway.
At some point before the 1984 events of “Genisys,” an evil T-1000 and the Guardian T-800 are sent back from the future to 1973. The Guardian’s only mission is to defeat the T-1000 (which kills Sarah’s parents) and protect and train Sarah. He doesn’t possess files on who sent him back; this is to avoid an information trail for Skynet to follow.
And there’s one last implied instance of time travel in “Genisys.” At the end of the movie, Sarah and Kyle are trapped in an airtight room that had protected them from a massive explosion. They will eventually run out of air and die, except that an Arnold T-1000 (with the same memories as the Guardian T-800 — he says he’s been “upgraded”) breaks in and rescues them. This raises the questions of “Who sent this good T-1000 back to 2017?” And “How would this person know Sarah and Kyle needed rescuing?” Is this a plot hole or am I reading this scene wrong?
ADDENDUM: My friend Jeremy pointed out that this scene is not an instance of time travel. He writes: “Toward the end, it was mentioned that the liquid metal just needed an advanced computer chip or something to keep function and keep shape. Once Arnold fell in, his computer was able to activate it and heal him/generate an arm and he crawled out. Just like when the Asian T-1000 healed the original T-800.”
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