They say the third time’s the charm, a chance to make up for the mistakes made during the first two attempts. In the case of the Terminator franchise, this is doubly untrue. After two amazing installments by James Cameron (who created the concept, via Harlan Ellison). The third was an indifferent cash grab that recycled familiar elements from those films. It was a hit, but not a home run. Instead of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, it was The Matrix Revolutions.
Now, jump ahead a decade and we have another third. This time out, Terminator Genisys wants to reset the entire series. After Rise of the Machines, and the awful McG waste of time Salvation, the new film’s narrative goes back to the beginning, back to the moment when Kyle Reese travels back in time to save Sarah Connor from the seemingly indestructible killing machine of the title. Of course, when the new version of our hero arrives, he comes across an equally new version of our heroine, and she’s got an aging robot companion as her bodyguard/bestie.
Yes, instead of finally breaking the code on the War Between Man and the Machines, instead of explaining how John Connor went from Edward Furlong to Nick Stahl to liberator of mankind (all Christian Bale rants aside), Terminator Genisys goes back and deconstructs Cameron’s original. Now, the Oscar winning owner of the two most popular films of all time (Avatar and Titanic) has offered his seal of approval to the approach, one imagines him being rather unhappy with the results. Instead of being a brilliant revision of the franchise, this standard action effort is all confused timelines and lax casting choices.
As a result, it’s quite clear that this rewrite, meant to launch another trilogy all its own, will have to rely on international box office numbers if we’re ever to see an aging Arnold Schwarzenegger “back” in the role that launched his career. Slowly dying at the domestic box office, fans of reconfigured nostalgia obviously like their returns seasoned with dinosaurs, not mechanical assassins. They also prefer Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn as Sarah and Kyle vs. the lifeless turns offered by Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke and bland hunk of the moment, Jai Courtney. Even Jason Clarke as John Connor can’t command the role that’s not really owned by anyone.
While it’s great to see the Governator back in dark glasses and his badass attitude, it’s not enough to salvage something that was doomed before it even began. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Salvation had painted the series into a corner than even Cameron himself couldn’t work his way out of. The whole heroes and villains dynamic, which the series screwed with successfully with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, has now become a warn and hackneyed contrivance. Even the attempt to bring back the original Schwarzenegger Terminator is treated as a CG set-piece, a chance for the old actor to challenge his buff younger version and duke it out. It’s all gimmick.
But the biggest problem here is recasting. Yes, the TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles gave us a different look at the famed female lead, but there was no attempt to really link the story back to where it all started. Instead, this was a new timeline, so a new actress got some granted geek love. But with Ms. Clarke and Mr. Courtney, the problems are much, much deeper. Three people put the Terminator franchise directly into the hearts of film lovers everywhere, and their last names are Schwarzenegger, Hamilton, and Biehn. When you decide that only one of them needs to come back, even with computer assistance, you’re missing two-thirds of the success.
Again, we are taken back to 1984, to that moment in the alley when a weird light freaked out a homeless man (who later lost his pants to our time traveler) and set off a chain of events which lead a normal waitress to fight for her life. Terminator 2: Judgment Day even brought Reese back for an important flashback, but it was eventually edited out of the theatrical release (it’s still available on home video). Clarke and Courtney can’t compete with those who came before, and worse, they carry none of the gravitas that arrived the first time around.
You see, we believed the stakes in The Terminator. We had never seen a being quite like the T-800 and Cameron’s control of energy and stunts was astonishing. It only got bigger and better with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. How good? Even a mediocre Edward Furlong could flummox Cameron’s vision. By the time Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines released, however, the focus was all on John, and as a result, the franchise needed to find an actor, their Jennifer Lawrence/Katniss is you will, that would allow even the most reluctant audience member to forget what came before and go along for this new ride. Instead, they traded on some current casting realities and hoped no one would notice.
The returns over the 4th of July weekend confirms that people were paying attention. While scientists will spend PhD hours trying to dissect the various parallel universe/ timelines being employed, Joe Sixpack has spoken about who’s in front of the lens. Ah-nold gets a moldy thumbs up. Clarke and Courtney need to keep their day jobs. Since the 1984 material is not all that important (it makes up less than a third of the running time), some CG make-up for Hamilton and Biehn could have been applied, with both older versions of the characters clearly capable of carrying the 2017 status of both Kyle and Sarah.
Of course, that would have required a smarter script and a more meaningful attempt to bring The Terminator‘s past into the present. Instead, in a Summer filled with returns, Terminator Genisys (which couldn’t even find a clever way of dealing with the whole OS/linked technology aspect of Skynet’s reconfiguration) will end up on the opposite end artistically of Mad Max: Fury Road and commercially from Jurassic World. While not a complete disaster (Mr. McG still holds that title), it argues that Schwarzenegger and his most famous character may not be able to keep the series’ most portentous promise. Thanks to a bunch of bad decisions, this version of Terminator — at least as we know it as a character and as a series — will probably not be baaack.