The Future Is Not Set

“There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

Terminator director and creator, James Cameron, used this line as a foundation for his time travel movies, on a fundamental level to show that the future, even one as bleak as a post-apocalyptic Earth, can be avoided and nothing has been set in stone.

Unfortunately, subsequent directors after Cameron (and McG, I’m staring at you) never quite grasped that concept, and churned out Terminator flicks that were basically flawed clones of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, with little or no heart and soul that made the Cameron movies what they were.

Insert superior killing machine fighting future resistance leader, John Connor. Add special effects. Wait for box-office machines to come alive. Oh, wait….

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The point they missed is that Cameron himself wasn’t weighed down by the baggage of his original, and he changed things around. Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a killing machine in the original, and became a good guy in the sequel, but not many realize that the line, “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” was only introduced in the second Terminator film by Cameron.

His masterful skill was to take the core elements of the Terminator story, and turn them on their heads, and go wild with it. Which is what incoming director Alan Taylor has done, with somewhat impressive skill.

Make no mistake, the Terminator movies have sort of become self-referential, simply because so many wonderful lines have come out of them, and it will not be a Terminator movie if no one utters, “I’ll be back.” Yet, inserting too many tributes can be seen as being too slavish to the series, and Taylor does a great job in balancing the core elements of the series, and adding to it.

Who’s Your Daddy?

The movie kicks off in the future, when John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his resistance fighters are facing their last big fight against the Skynet supercomputer. In a last ditch effort to survive, Skynet sends a T-800 Terminator back into the past, to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). The audience knows all of this because this was the unseen background of the first flick. John sends his trusted soldier, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), to save his mother, knowing that Kyle will become Sarah’s mate, and John’s father.

But instead of searching for Sarah, Kyle ends up being hunted by the T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) and gets his time-traveling ass saved by none other than Sarah Connor. This is not the naïve Sarah as played by the amazing Linda Hamilton in the first film, but a younger version of the battle-hardened Sarah from Terminator 2. For reasons not yet revealed, the timeline has been altered and someone unknown sent a T-800 to save Sarah when she was 9 years old.

With knowledge of the future, the T-800, affectionately known as Pops, and played by Arnold, has prepared Sarah for Kyle’s appearance in 1984. He’s also aware of a T-1000 pursuing them, and Pops and Sarah have already made plans to deal with the superior Terminator.

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There is a great scene where Pops, who by 1984 has already been protecting Sarah for several years, comes face to face with the first T-800 that gets sent back from the future. While time travel is the series is possible, they have to be encased in human flesh and we learn here that this human tissue can regenerate over time, as well as age. The CGI work that recreated young Arnold here is amazing, and Taylor even saw it fit to distinguish between Pops and the newer T-800, by using Arnold’s voice from when he was younger.

The battle between Sarah, Kyle and Pops against the T-800 and T-1000 is a short but satisfying one but what comes after is going to upset and confuse plenty of people. While Pops seems to come from a future that already knows about Kyle and Sarah, and has change the timeline and wants to change it further by spending all these years prior to Kyle’s arrival in building another time machine, it seems a new timeline is forming.

Instead of traveling to 1997 to prevent Judgement Day, Kyle believes that Skynet is rebuilding itself in 2017. Judgement Day never happened, and the future that Pops and Kyle have emerged from will never take place. And how does Kyle know all of this? This is the confusing part that might confound non sci-fi fans, but by surviving his timeline and having traveled back, Kyle is now living with two sets of memories. One is of Judgement Day, and another is where for some reason, he met Sarah as a boy and remembers being told that Skynet becomes a software known as Genisys.

Alas, going into greater detail about the plot will spoil it for many, although the distributor itself already ruined the movie by revealing the plot twist in the trailers, that Skynet transforms John Connor from Kyle’s timeline into a human/machine hybrid.

But Taylor understands that the Terminator franchise has never been about the Terminators, or Skynet or Judgement Day. The first was about a soldier and the waitress he fell in love with, while the second movie was about the waitress turned soldier, and her son. Here, we see the relationship between Kyle and Sarah play out again. In realizing that John is now a machine, Sarah considers not being with Kyle, so that she will never give birth to John.

A large part of the plot explores the Sarah/Kyle dynamics, of what both mean to one another, and if circumstances were different, would they still be together. Taylor does not take for granted that Sarah and Kyle must be together, and shows audiences why these two lovers matter in the fight for humanity.

It is difficult to ignore Linda Hamilton’s presence shadowing Emilia Clarke, but Emilia is one feisty dragon lady who mixes the vulnerable Sarah with the ass kicking one extremely well. It is worth noting that all the good Terminator movies have had Sarah Connor present in them, so Emilia has a good foundation to begin with. Her portrayal as a young yet seasoned soldier is a great take on Sarah, and not a copycat of Hamilton’s portrayal.

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As for Jai, he has it easier with playing Kyle. Michael Biehn only played Kyle in one movie (and no, his cameo in the extended cut of T2 does not count) so Jai has very little baggage on him. While Biehn’s take was more of a slightly crazed soldier who has to deal with time travel and protecting his leader’s mother from a robotic assassin, Jai plays Kyle as a duty-bound soldier who makes the best of the twists and turns that time traveling can deal a person.

Taylor Made for Destruction

When Taylor was selected as the director for Thor: The Dark World, I parked the long-time TV director as a reliable but somewhat unremarkable filmmaker. After all, we have all heard of Marvel Comics and how the company guides its directors as a committee rather than individuals, so Taylor could simply be good as following orders. Instead, he has imbued Genisys with some great use of practical effects, and doesn’t rely on CGI wizardry for everything. The human on robot fight scenes are worth the entrance fee alone.

Is he as good as Cameron? No one can ever be, but if this was the movie following T2, the franchise would not have gone downhill the way it did. Is Taylor without fault? I wouldn’t blame him directly, but the story does have some big plot holes, and using alternate timelines as a plot device is pretty lazy. And don’t ask me how a hand held magnet can so easily disrupt an advanced killing machine.

Oh, and having Sarah travel into the future? The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show already used that plot device a few years ago.

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But Taylor is capable enough to imply that Genisys is a sequel to only the first two movies by Cameron. This movie negates and ignores the subsequent sequels and while I am happy to do that on my own, it is nice the filmmaker acknowledges it. Terminator Genisys also shows that Taylor has an eye for storytelling and visuals, and I cannot wait for the inevitable sequel.

I’ll Be Back. Again

That’s right – Terminator Genisys is primed to be the start of a new trilogy of Terminator flicks, and the best bit is, Arnold is coming back. No, this is not Arnold is coming back to play yet another T-800 machine because all machines are built alike. After efforts in trying to humanize Arnold’s T-800, but killing him at the end of the previous movies, the narrative here ensures that Pops is the one appearing in the sequel, and it’s brilliant. Many have said that Arnold was meant to play the Terminator, but in this movie, Arnold has taken his most iconic role and given it a richness and essence that has been missing before.

If you are a fan of Terminator, watch out for the cameos by Miles Dyson (though I wish they got Joe Morton back to play the role). Don’t cringe when some (thankfully, not all) of the famous lines from the movies are uttered, and be prepared for an enjoyable ride. After 20 odd years, we finally have a Terminator that doesn’t suck.


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Review overview

Story7
Direction8
Characterisation8
Geek Satisfaction8

Summary

Come with me if you want to enjoy a Terminator that is respectful to the franchise, finds a way to honour it, but is not a copycat of Terminator 2, and bravely creates its own mythos going forward.

7.8
Sherwin Loh

Sherwin Loh

Sherwin once held the Matrix of Leadership, but wisely passed it on to the rightful leader of the household.