The day no one thought would arrive is finally here: Judgement day. Or for a better reference point, the day that Terminator Genisys, the fifth installment in the franchise’s 30 year lifespan, hit theatres.
When the movie was announced, there were plenty of mixed reactions from die-hard fans: some saw it as an opportunity to right the wrongs the franchise had accumulated over the years, while others thought it would dig itself into an even deeper hole that even Hollywood hand-waving couldn’t save. As was revealed soon after the announcement, Terminator Genisys decided to fall in line with other franchises such as X-Men and Jurassic Park; in keeping the previous content intact while fleshing out new ideas and basic concepts for a starter movie. This style of reboot, as we have seen, still takes into consideration some or all of the previous movies as canon, but alters them slightly to make room for a “reboot”—or more accurately—freshly-laid ground upon which to build an updated franchise. It’s a way to erase and start over without having to actually start from scratch.
Terminator fans have, of course, been down this road before. We know how great the first two films were, and we also know subsequently how disappointing the sequels were. Depending on your level of devotion, the quality of the sequels ranges from “on par with your average sci-fi action movie” to “the biggest disappointment in movie history.” No matter your opinion though, anyone can agree the third and fourth movies did not come close to stacking up to the original and second films. The first two movies had some substance beyond just a classification within the sci-fi genre: they had good actors playing developed characters that we actually felt something for, villains that were simple in concept (they never stop trying to kill you) but still terrifying, and the plots overall were simple enough to follow but had the excitement of time-traveling robots and reshaping the future to make it interesting.
The disappointing delivery of the third and fourth movies made everyone, including me, skeptical of this next installment. The problems with those sequels were more than anyone can name, and the critic’s reviews of Genisys did not bode well even for people like me who were still holding out the last bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, this time they could deliver us a worthy Terminator sequel that could hold its own alongside the first two.
But my expectations were blown away.
One of the strongest changes they made was immediately taking away all of the sequels. Kyle Reese says clearly at the beginning “Judgement day happened August 29, 1997,” meaning the last three sequels after the first Terminator—including the beloved Judgement Day—are all nixed. While it’s disappointing to see Judgement Day get cast aside, it was a necessary evil for the plot of Genisys to make sense and flow nicely.
After this, the movie does a great job of moving forward with the “business-as-usual” façade, but it feels new. It capitalizes on the nostalgia here, but it’s not heavy-handed or dependent on it, like some parts of Jurassic World were. The first twenty minutes or so contain a mish-mash of moments echoing the most iconic scenes from the first two films, but adding some twists to help it stand out on its own, including a fight between Arnold’s original T-800 and the heroic older T-800 waiting for him at the Griffith observatory. It’s clear they spent a significant portion of their CGI budget here, replicating Arnold’s younger face among other things, and it holds up well.
They also acknowledged quite a few of the paradoxes or questions left from the other movies. A large portion of eliminating these contradictions was due to keeping the events of the first one mostly intact and keeping the timeline closed to those events. They explain how the Terminator ages, how Terminators can go through the time displacement equipment, and even touch on general time reality by explaining the potential for other timelines, which surprise, surprise, becomes important later. Obviously the trailer revealed the twist of Sarah being aware of Terminators, so we know we are working with a whole new dynamic in that regard, but there’s a stand-out point where the movie leaves behind its roots and forges ahead with its own distinct story, which brings Sarah and Kyle jumping ahead to the future with a makeshift time machine Sarah and her Terminator guardian built to jump ahead and stop judgement day.
The plot here becomes its own, adapting the story for a modern and more technologically connected audience. They upgrade Skynet to Genisys, changing it from the military super-weapon Skynet was and turning it into a more technologically savvy, all-systems connected program. It takes the world as we know it today and uses it as a weapon against us, taking advantage of our reliance on technology and using it to destroy us.
This film also continues the important and progressive trend we have been seeing lately in films, showcasing women and their stories. Sarah Connor is a character that many people didn’t want to see harmed, and they did her justice not just by keeping an iconic female character intact, but expanding her beyond what she was before. Sarah is as strong as ever, and the turning the franchise on its head to her holding the cards and the power was a great new addition. This Sarah is a force to be reckoned with, deciding to cut the middleman of John Connor out and just take down Skynet all her own and rewrite her own destiny. And while some fans have expressed a problem with this, I think it’s a great development. Seeing Sarah as a mother added a certain depth to her character, but now we get to see a younger, more ambitious Sarah—one who is taking charge of herself and her future. The strength of this change is also heavily driven by Emilia Clarke’s performance, which is iconic within itself.
When Kyle arrives, her eyes don’t just glaze over and she doesn’t blindly submit to her duty. There is actually some heavy resistance within their relationship itself: he’s frustrated because she isn’t what he expected, and she’s annoyed that he seems to only want to see her as needing his help and protection. They add tension to the star-crossed relationship and help give the story more depth that the other sequels were lacking in my opinion. Part of the draw of the first Terminator, and even the second one in a way, was the fact that it was also a love story. There was that emotional depth that the other films couldn’t recreate, as much as they tried, between John and Kate Brewster. I was afraid this relationship would also feel forced, as we already expect them to fall in love, but they managed to take the expectations and add some complexity by changing the timeline. With this timeline alteration and the expectations of both characters being tested, it’s not clear where their relationship is heading. It’s clear that Kyle does love her, but she is the complete opposite of what he is expecting, and she loves him in a certain way, but she’s not letting anyone stand in her way to accomplish what she wants.
Changing it to Sarah’s story instead of John’s was also refreshing, we know John’s story. Although the themes of running from destiny and changing the future remained, it was nice to see it from Sarah’s perspective. They explored how her journey and knowledge is different from John’s. John is meant to be a leader, to rise up and be a hero and lead the humans to victory. Sarah has to look forward to the destruction of the world as she knows it. She must spend her time raising and preparing her son for his future, living in fear of other Terminators trying to kill him, having her whole life devoted to a future she will never see, living a life she can never truly enjoy and call her own. We see how difficult it is to move forward when you have a destiny like that, and living with the fact that everyone she has been close to has, or will in Kyle’s case, die. She doesn’t want to be responsible for Kyle’s death, nor the death of billions of people when Skynet goes live. Her Terminator protector serves as the one thing she can get close to, hitting on old themes of the Terminator as a father figure and raising the question of how loyal Terminators actually are.
They did a great job of characterizing Sarah even beyond what she was in the first two movies. The great part of the first two films is how she goes from naïve, helpless waitress to iconic, bad-ass heroine bent on destroying Skynet so she and her son can have a future not haunted by destiny. But this movie allows us to skip the clueless, damsel-in-distress stage of her character and go straight to the woman-on-a-mission Sarah Connor that everyone loved. Only now instead of her mission being to protect her offspring, it’s to stop everything from happening, to protect her future.
She has quite a few powerful lines to this effect, “The girl you came back for, I’m not her,” and “I’m not just going to birth the leader of the resistance,” are a couple standouts. At one point she even threatens Kyle at gunpoint, which is one of the best scenes in the movie. Showing how dedicated she is to the idea of stopping the future instead of being enslaved to her role, where she’s prepared to kill the father of her future child. It shows just how determined she is to change what is to come, how resistant she is to the idea of enduring her mission, where she doesn’t see a need for a son to lead a resistance when she can take care of things herself. Kyle is trying to play catch-up in Sarah’s game of future altering, so this time we feel like Kyle is the one along for the ride instead of Sarah.
It was pretty risky of the studio to reveal John Connor as a Terminator in the trailer, and I thought at first that it gave the whole twist away (which to be fair, it kind of did) but that being said, there is no hint in the trailer as to how exactly it plays out in the film. Would I have liked to be surprised? Of course. Was I still invested because I didn’t have any idea what the context was? Yes. So while this reveal would have been appreciated later, it wasn’t necessary to keep secret to still hold my attention.
So the big question is, now what? What does the franchise do or what does it look like now that the traditional leader of the human resistance, the infamous John Connor, is no longer needed? Who sent the T-800 back to protect and raise Sarah in 1973? What happened to officer O’Brien, and will he have a more significant role in the future? What happens to Kyle and Sarah now? Will they still be able to have John, or will this alternate timeline allow for a “Jane”? And of course, will the timeline be completely reset, or is judgement day inevitable?
With two sequels already lined up, I hope they can capitalize on this amazing set up. For once I can say I am looking forward to more Terminator films.
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