According to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Skynet went live on August 4, 1997. What better time to begin the rundown of David M. Vining’s reviews and rankings of the Terminator franchise films?
Ah, another franchise reviewed. Also ranked. May the Listicle gods grant me bounty for this list.
This is a case study in a studio led franchise that’s designed to simply earn money. From a surprise beginning with a tiny-budget of a first film through giant behemoths of productions, the different production companies (that almost all went bankrupt shortly afterwards for some reason) were pursuing box office numbers. They got lucky with the first couple of sequels, driven by James Cameron’s sheer talent for entry number 2 and a better than it deserves to be script for number 3, but it’s fumbled all over the place ever since.
After a good idea gone bad, it’s been nothing but retreads since, none able to stand on their own two feet as entertainments, and all failures as continuations of stories that really should have never been continued in the first place.
So here is #6 in my ranking of the Terminator franchise.
This movie is crazy, but not the kind of crazy from a talented artist doing the unexpected. No, it’s the kind of crazy of the untalented having no idea what to do with a property that’s not their own, has a well-established formula that they can’t escape, and is trying desperately to make up for someone else’s failure in the previous entry. I kind of feel bad for Alan Taylor, the director. He was a well-established television director who decided to try and make it in the movies, so he ended up striking out into the film business by making the worst Terminator movie after having made the worst movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: The Dark World.
Interestingly enough, in an effort to try and regain the footing of the franchise, Taylor and his writers, Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, made what is essentially a direct sequel to the first film of the series. You could know nothing of the story from Terminator 2 on and not get lost regarding the opening of the film. It shows, in quick order, the final days of the fight against the machines in the future from Kyle Reese’s perspective. Reese is played by Jai Courtney and the filmmakers decided to fix the charisma blackhole that was Sam Worthington in Salvation by, um, hiring another weirdly uncharismatic action man. He was underwhelming as Jack McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard, and he’s underwhelming here with flat line readings and an extremely limited range. He’s at John Connor’s side, played by Jason Clarke, very good in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and serviceable here, and they make the final push to the time displacement device where John will send Kyle back in time to 1984 to save John’s mother Sarah from the Terminator just sent back.
When Kyle does go back, the movie is a weird mix of recreation of the original film’s opening (plus a whole lot more exposition) with a bunch of new, crazy twists. Another pair of Terminators got sent back to the 70s one saved young Sarah and has served as her guardian ever since. They know that 1984 will see another Terminator show up, so they arrive, the guardian and Sarah destroy the original Terminator, and then a T-1000 attacks Kyle Reese when he shows up. Sarah arrives to help protect him, but this T-1000 never gets any kind of explanation. I know that there were plans to turn this into the first film of a proposed sequel, so I think it’s safe to assume that the T-1000 would have been explained in a later movie. However, because that movie was never made, we just have action beats without any explanation. This is a testament to treating a film as a complete story no matter what your plans are for the future beyond it. If things don’t work out, you just have unexplained nonsense running around, distracting from the story at hand.
Then the movie gets really dumb. Sarah and her guardian have been building a time displacement device on their own, and they plan on going to 1996 to prevent Judgment Day. Why not 1994 like in Terminator 2? Why wait for the last moment? I don’t know. But Kyle, when he was coming back in time, had visions of a childhood he never had that tells him to go back to 2017 instead to defeat something called Genisys. So, he convinces these two, who’ve had a plan to go to 1996 for at least ten years, to, at the last second, go twenty years further ahead in time. The two humans go, leaving the guardian behind to go the long way and repair the damage to his flesh from his fight with the T-1000. Of course, the machine ends up late to the precise moment the two come out and they are immediately taken in by cops.
Do you know how long all of this takes? About an hour. Half of the movie is dedicated to just getting to the second half, justifying a recreation of the first movie with little to no explanation for half of the changes, and characters explaining all of this to each other. It’s boring. The antagonist from the first half gets killed and completely forgotten when they go to 2017, and the movie essentially resets with a new conflict, or, more accurately, it actually gains a central conflict, but it only has about 50 minutes of screen time to do it all and thin, uninteresting characters who need to quickly fall in love through it all to manage it.
Of course there’s the big twist that the studio spoiled in the trailers because they realized that the movie was terrible and they weren’t going to be able to rely on word of mouth to draw people in so they decided to just spoil everything to do what they could to attract audiences. It seems to have worked, by the way, since Genisys was the second highest grossing film of the franchise. Anyway, John travels back in time to 2014, having been turned into a Terminator by Skynet, and builds Genisys as the precursor to Skynet.
There are a few problems with the execution of this idea. I have nothing against the idea itself, but the filmmakers made no effort to give it any impact. The fact that John Conner has been played by about a thousand different actors in the official franchise doesn’t help us automatically have any emotional connection to him as a person. In fact, in the last movie he was so thoroughly unlikeable that Christian Bale was one of the largest problems with it. Making it weirder is that the film is abandoning Terminator 2 and 3 when John Conner was an actual character and at least somewhat likeable. So, the movie only has its opening and Kyle’s connection to John there as a base for the kind of switch up they’re trying, but it was too brief, too shallow, and too long before for the shock to have any real impact. The fact that he doesn’t appear again until so late in the picture, the reunion where we are meant to think he’s a good guy is too brief and emotionally shallow, and then the reveal of his true nature happens too quickly. We barely have time to settle into the idea of John being there at all before he turns bad. It’s whiplash.
Then the plot finally kicks in with about forty minutes left in the film. The trio of good guys have to make it to Genisys and blow it up with John on their tails. They end up getting arrested right as things seem to be building up, get out of jail quickly because why not, and then make it to Genisys where the final action beats play out. At least in Salvation, the action scenes were interesting to watch in the midst of all the awful storytelling, but we don’t even get that here. It’s perfunctory at best, with flat framing and an overreliance on computer generated imagery that creates a far too clean feel to the action.
This seems to have been rushed into production based on a cobbling of scripts with hopes of future films to provide clarification rather than spending time on this film itself to create a cohesive experience that could satisfy audiences. That it made the second most returns at the box office, but that still wasn’t enough to justify a direct sequel is an entertaining irony. The producers had to relinquish their ownership of the property, allowing it to return to James Cameron’s ownership. Nothing he produces could end up this incompetent, could it?
Originally published here.