The spotted and sullied past of the Terminator doesn’t improve much with the newest entry in the series, Terminator Genisys. We’re introduced to the bleak and decimated future war against the machines, kicked off by a nuclear holocaust occurring in 1997. Kyle Reese is established, and quickly introduced to John Connor, in exposition taken heavily from Michael Biehn’s monologues from the original film. At the twilight of the machines’ destruction, Reese follows a T-800 in pursuit of Sarah Connor back to 1984.

We’re all on board so far, right? There isn’t much that has changed in Genisys from the title card and lore of the 1984 film so far. But where do we go from here? From the spoiler-heavy trailers, we see Reese arrive in a 1984 that is different from the original film. Sarah’s been adopted by a different T-800, the Guardian, and is already being prepared for Judgment Day. Reese is confused, and apparently now has dual memories of both his timeline, growing up after the war “in the ruins,” and also recollects growing up in a green world, on the family farm, having an intact family as well as all of the modern trappings.

The cause of this split? Kyle sees John Connor attacked by a Terminator at the precise moment he is sent through the time-displacement equipment. He then apparently goes to this alternate timeline where Sarah and her Guardian T-800 have been working together for around 10 years, following an assassination attempt on her life by a T-1000.

After dispatching a T-1000 (is it the same one pursuing her since the 70s? Did it target Kyle Reese simply because it knew Sarah would intercept him upon his arrival?) and arguing briefly about jumping forward to a few dates in the future to “stop Judgment Day,” the scooby-terminator gang settles on 2017 instead of the original date of 29 August 1997 based on Reese’s new dual memories of a social network amalgamating app called “Genisys,” which is the newest iteration of Skynet, modernized from the missile defense network of the earlier films. They jump forward and arrive in 2017. Here’s where the first major glaring issue arises, at least for me.

The Future Is Definitely Not Set

Wrestling with the ideas of “fate,” Sarah is none too thrilled about being the Mother of Destiny. There are some quick glances between her and Kyle, showing that they each find the other attractive. Kyle seems capable, and confident, and Sarah appreciates this, and Kyle is still presumably in love with her, as he volunteered to come across time for her. But because of the weight of what they must do pressing down on her conscience, she is resistant to the idea of pursuing a sexual relationship with him, as she expresses multiple times that her life is not in her control, and she must follow her destiny and give birth to the prophesied leader of the resistance. John Connor must be born. Except, now, they won’t consummate their relationship in 1984, and John will be 12 years old if he’s born in 2017, and everybody still leaves from their initial time of 2029.

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Does this matter? We’re reintroduced to John, now working at a modern Cyberdyne, days before the launch of Genisys. He’s the same age as he was when we first meet him in the film, weary and tired from the war. This John has come back from the same, presumably original, future as Kyle, sometime after the attack that Kyle witnessed upon his departure.

John has been corrupted by an even more advanced machine, a physical (and seemingly localized) unit of Skynet. John is now a T-3000, and his original biology has been taken over, consumed, and recreated by nanomachines. In a story element borrowed from other entries in the extended Terminator universe, John has come back to 2017 to ensure that Genisys launches and Skynet is able to develop and infect world computer systems.

In this timeline, Skynet can’t still be reverse-engineered from the T-800 chip found at the end of the original film, as that Terminator is eliminated by Sarah and her guardian. So now we have the origins of both John Connor and Skynet changed entirely – there is no more intertwined bootstraps paradox of both time-travelers being the origins of the ones who send them back. Instead, Skynet sends John Connor back to ensure it’s successful launch, albeit at a later date. Are we now officially dealing with branching timelines, as the first film was definitely a closed loop? Will Skynet always be dependent on there being a John Connor from the future sent back to ensure it launches in 2017? Where will this John come from, since Kyle and Sarah haven’t been together yet?

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We reach the climax of the film, featuring the Guardian Terminator vs. T-3000 fight in a crowded factory room at Cyberdyne. Not only are they launching Genisys, but also constructing time-displacement equipment and prototyping T-1000s, which at this point are inert, not currently being exposed to a CPU. Our heroes rig the facility to blow, and escape to a safe room, having destroyed Genisys before it can go live, the time-dispacement equipment, and Skynet itself. There’s a brief jaunt to establish Kyle’s memories of the family farm and the 2017 world, and then we ride off into the sunset, awaiting box office results to see if the next two back-to-back entries and companion TV series will go into production.

Bootstraps

In the 1984 film, both John Connor and Skynet were the result of their own meddling in the past. Skynet, upon losing the war, sends the Terminator back as a last-ditch effort to secure the future. It wants to eliminate its enemy before he can lead the resistance to victory. However, when the Terminator is defeated, Cyberdyne Systems recovers its chip, and begins work on AI based on the advanced technology. Similarly, Kyle ends up fathering John during his few days spent in 1984. If there was no John Connor, Skynet wouldn’t have a reason to send a Terminator back, and thusly wouldn’t plant the seeds of it’s own creation in the past. Likewise, if there wasn’t a Terminator sent back, John Connor wouldn’t have to send his father back either, and this would erase him from existence. It is a tidy, closed-loop, bootstrap-paradox storyline. T2 changes this game up, having Sarah, John, and that T-800 successfully destroy Cyberdyne and eliminate all traces of Terminators from existence, successfully preventing Skynet from coming into existence. John doesn’t immediately fade away, Back to the Future style, and this becomes the series first instance of branching timelines. John will continue to exist in this timeline, but in his 2029 he will not send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, as there will be no Skynet and no Terminators to fight.

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John himself addresses this problem in the film, uttering a line about being exiles in time. It’s unclear if this film follows the branching timelines from T2, where past changes only affect upcoming futures, and there is no destiny. In that case, if John is successful in launching Genisys, then Skynet will continue unopposed in a future where the bombs didn’t fall in 1997. Its whole goal seems to be ensuring its existence in some timeline, even in one that isn’t the future from T2.

One Possible Future

What future is this? It’s obviously not the future from Rise of the Machines, as Judgment Day initially occurs in 1997, rather than 2003. It’s not the future from T2, as they essentially eliminated Skynet (unless one follows the subsequent Terminator 3 canon). Is this only the future from the original film, as we finally get to see Kyle before the events of the 1984 Terminator? Did Skynet always corrupt John upon Reese’s departure? Or is this something new that happens because of the advent of the Guardian Terminator? Is this, then, the future of Guardian’s timeline? If so, does Skynet only corrupt and send John to 2017 because of the lack of Terminator technology in this timeline with which to base itself? Does Skynet somehow have knowledge of how things will play out in the first two films, and the T-1000 sent to the 1970s after Sarah as a child is sort of a hail-mary-hail-mary because this future’s Skynet knows the original T-800 will fail and eventually be destroyed? The continuity issues abound, and unless this movie performs well enough, we probably won’t see any resolution for these questions and this new “sideboot” timeline.

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Nitpicks

  • This film, when compared to T2, seemed to place the action and special effects ahead of character development. In T2, we have a Sarah who has gone batty with the knowledge that she has of the future, and the responsibility she has to shape it. We have a learning Terminator, becoming more human, likely more sentient, by the end, developing a real attachment to John. We have Miles Dyson, finally called to task for the end result of his work, in which he has been barreling forward without a second thought. We also have revolutionary visual effects, ahead of their time, massive, on-camera stunts of real helicopters flying around and under bridges, tankers tipped on their sides, car chases, motorcycle jumps, etc. But all of these are in service of either the characters or the plot. On the flip side, Genisys is laden with visual effects, chaotic future battles with HKs being shot down, things blowing up everywhere, helicopters whipping around skyscrapers, liquid metal Terminators, nanomachine Terminators . . . But all of these effects are the focus of the scenes, and not supporting the progress of the story. The exception to this is the Guardian Terminator, who seems to be the end result of what would have happened had the T-800 from T2 not been destroyed. He cares for Sarah, and it is apparent. The other characters lack definition. Kyle is merely a cipher for the audience, and other than a brief mention of this film’s Sarah not being comfortable with her destiny to meet, fall in love with, and produce a baby with Kyle, Sarah herself undergoes no growth or development. The characters themselves instead serve as transitions between action sequences.
  • This YouTube video talks a bit more about how this affects modern filmmaking. In it, the author explains how visual effects used to create one element of a scene, but now entire scenes are created with only the actors and a few elements often being on camera. I don’t agree with all of his opinions, but in brief he manages to reasonably explain some of the changes occurring in movies now.
  • At the end of the film, the T-800 is resurrected (“upgraded”) into a T-1000 after it (and its chip) fall into the inactive liquid metal. Other than an easily missed, passing bit of dialog about the nature of the liquid metal, this is quickly glossed over without proper explanation.
  • When Skynet is destroyed at the beginning of the film, all of the drones crash at the exact same moment, allowing Connor’s raiding party unopposed access to the time-displacement equipment. This is the same climax to The Avengers, when Iron Man sends the nuke to the mothership and all of the aliens suddenly drop dead at the same moment. This kind of victory has always seemed hollow and cheap to me, and it was sad to see it come into play here. If an army of T-800s need an active connection to a central hub of Skynet, how could the ones from the first films operate in the past where Skynet didn’t yet exist?
  • Why would Skynet choose to be centralized, either in a system core or Matt Smith’s body? If someone managed to destroy that central location, would all be lost? Wouldn’t a hive mind or more widely distributed software make more sense and be less risky? Isn’t that the point of “backing things up to the cloud?”

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Arnold’s scenes truly carried this film. There are a number of great character moments that rest entirely on his shoulders. The rest of the film is an aggressively mediocre retread of the franchise, dragged down by effects that take precedent over story, unclear or missing internal logic, and bizarre narrative choices. I’d like to see another entry in this series that’s worthy of the first two films, but this one, at the end of the day, disappoints. I think the future of the the franchise is riding entirely on this film, which despite its efforts, doesn’t manage to raise it to the level it needed to be.