The Terminator is an objectively good SF movie. It’s got a simple linear plot, just enough special effects to get by, and a bunch of small time actors doing their best with Big Jim’s clunky dialogue. Judgment Day scaled everything up and got it all just right. It’s probably Cameron’s best movie; it’s definitely the best Terminator movie to date. Against terrible competition, it has to be said. The third movie just plain stinks, and the best you can say about the fourth one is that it misfired spectacularly looking for a twist. A fifth movie? How can that have seemed like a good idea after the last two failed so thoroughly? Well, it’s worse than that; it’s a fifth sixth and seventh movie, all between now and 2019. In 2019 Cameron gets back control of the franchise. I almost want him to travel back in time from then and destroy all the stuff which threatens the integrity of the original good movies, but instead of that happening, the team seem to have thought; Right. Fifth Movie in a failing franchise. What do we need here?
Yup, Jai Courtney, hot off being part of why Die Hard 5 sucked, is here to show us what it would look like if we lived in an alternative time line where Michael Biehn had his head replaced by a potato. It’s genuinely that jarring. Emilia Clarke is four inches shorter than Linda Hamilton and somehow makes it not even matter how bad a match she is; Jai Courtney never managed to get me to stop thinking “You’re not Kyle Reese and you never will be.” Partly it’s just that he’s a poor physical match for the lean, wiry Kyle Reese that Michael Biehn gave us, and partly it’s how gormless he seems; he’s a bad mental match for the feral street smarts which Biehn managed to suggest.
Also in this movie; Dr Who (don’t ask), JK Simmons as comic relief, Jason Clarke as evil John Connor, and Arnie, because Arnie is back as more than just a hologram in this one. To the extent that the movie works, it’s down to Arnie and Emilia.
Which brings me to what works; the small chunk of the movie between the unnecessary opening sequence and the back half. The besetting sin of all Terminator sequels is that the heroes have to destroy Skynet. In Judgment Day that was a nice reversal of Skynet trying to win the war by destroying John Connor before he was born; ever since then, the writers have struggled to think of new ways to pull the same reversal with variations on “we have to X Y so that Z can’t happen/must happen.” It’s like they’re forgetting what made the first movie work; find some likeable people and throw problems at them until the credits. To quote the only good line in Jurassic World, “They’re dinosaurs. Wow enough.” Unstoppable robots chasing meatsacks; give us smart likeable meatsacks and you’ve got a movie. Killer robots from the future? Wow enough.
The clever twist in this movie is to have Kyle Reese go back to 1984, just like in the first movie, and for it to be different. Sarah Connor isn’t a frightened waitress with no clue of what’s going on; she’s a trained killer who’s been planning for his arrival for years. That’s a genuinely clever idea. Neat, simple and for as long as they run with it, it works. But it works because the audience is primed; they’ve seen the first movie, and they know what ought to be happening, and that makes all the changes surprising and exciting. Thing is, if you’ve based that whole idea on knowing that the audience has seen the earlier movies, you don’t need a goddam 15 minute recap of the backstory starting off the whole thing. You should just jump straight into the action and trust the audience to keep up.
So there you go. Clever twist in place, what’s the next move? Go for a dumb twist. John Connor is now the bad guy. They threw that one away in the trailer, so I stupidly thought that there would be a man behind the man, and that there would be some piece of cleverness which would save the movie from that twist. Nope. That’s the damn twist, and you’ve still got to live through the back half of the movie. Which is pretty much just a leaden stuntstravaganza of things bashing into other things.
So, top tip. If you absolutely have to see someone from Game of Thrones play a time travelling Sarah Connor with her own pet Terminator, go watch the Sarah Connor Chronicles. And marvel that somehow there was $155 million to make Genesys, but not enough money to do a second season of a TV show which did the same job properly.