I was the absolute right age to be smitten by Terminator 2. It’s the perfect film when you’re in your last year of high school. It’s bold, brash and silly, with groundbreaking visuals at the time. It took everything promised in The Abyss and Aliens and gave us pure, prime James Cameron goodness.
As I’ve aged, some of my childhood trifles have continued to enthrall (no, I’m not typing this while wearing Star Wars underoos, but it perhaps wouldn’t surprise you if I was). Yet my love of all things Cameron is certainly something that slipped away, thanks to what I found to be a dour and silly Titanic, and an even more egregious Avatar shining light on his annoying proclivities. Looking back on T2, I strain at times to remember what I loved so much about it.
Perhaps even worse for the legacy of the series are the half-hearted sequels that emerged in its wake. Terminator 3 was pretty bad, and I barely even remember stomaching Terminator Salvation, let alone bothering with the Chronicles TV series.
So let’s come out and say it – the skeletal heart of this franchise simply can’t sustain the skin of narrative that’s been placed on it. Throw acid at it, blast it with shotguns, peel it away to show the metal endoskeleton within – you’ve got a robot, a dash of time travel mumbo jumbo, some people fleeing danger and others running in to the face of it. Mix it all up, chuck in some laser weaponry, and you’re good to go.
Which leaves us with the grand return of Arnie to the franchise he helped build. Terminator Genisys is the most nostalgic of all the films, fittingly opening weeks after that other nostalgia fest, Jurassic World, has eaten most of its competition. This is a film about what it feels like to watch a Terminator film more than it’s a standalone piece. Yet despite all that, it works. Almost.
It’s fair to say that Schwarzenegger was more prop than actor in the very first one, but in T2 he showed a modicum of wit and charm doing his tinman shtick. Yet there’s a twinkle in his eyes this time ‘round which is especially charming, feeling like he genuinely wanted to do this rather than simply finding his way via contractual obligation. His performance is the most engaging of all, and that’s indeed a slight against the wooden takes by Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke and Jai Courtney.
The underused J.K. Simmons manages to steal his scenes, a character that I actually hoped would go somewhere save for being the soothsayer who got things right despite the overt lunacy of his claims. For much of the rest of the film, though, you’ve got tedious exposition, redundant plot lines, and hoary time-travel tropes shotgunned onto the screen hoping some of it sticks.
It’s why when it comes down to it the entire enjoyment of the film comes from Arnie awkwardly trying to smile, or him taking on a well-rendered version of his 80s self. Contrasting “Pops” to the early, bulkier version, it’s as if a bit of normalcy has crept into the role of the avenging robot. And preposterously it works out.
The story is risible and incoherent (“distributed networks,” anyone?), the newcomers failing miserably to make any sense of it at all. Yet there’s Arnie marching around, swinging at pixels and throwing out one-liners like a champ. He’s the most nostalgic thing out of the whole shebang, and if the film’s at all enjoyable it rests entirely upon his more human-scale shoulders.
So despite the end-of-credits tease that this Genisys is just the beginning, a Trek-like bit of time fuckery where we get a whole ‘nother storyline to follow, it really feels like the end of an era. I’m betting those involved will want to trot this stuff out again, but I for one think this is a capable capper to a pretty silly franchise of flicks. The guy gets the girl, Pops gets his mojo back, and they all ride off happily ever after free from the scourges of Skynet. I can dream that it’s over, but I doubt I’m so lucky to live in a timeline where that’s even possible.