My family just arrived home from Terminator Genisys, a mediocre movie by Terminator standards, and likely the last time we’ll see Arnold Schwarzenegger in this role.
Despite excellent action sequences and competent visual effects, I couldn’t help but make a mental list of all the unspoken rules of Terminator movies that Terminator Genisys breaks. After McG virtually discarded crucial parts of Terminator canon in Terminator: Salvation, series fans like myself had hoped the return of Arnold would encourage a faithful and focused reboot with an auteur Director in the Cameron vein. That just didn’t work out. Instead of Abrams or Snyder or Singer, Alan Taylor got the folding chair, hot off Thor: The Dark World. Unfortunately, Taylor and a kitchen full of producers and writers missed the heart and soul of the Terminator universe.
If Terminator continues as a franchise, and that is a real if, there are some rules that must be adhered to. Terminator Genisys broke a lot of them. In the interest of avoiding a future tragic episode in the Terminator franchise, I present my list of Rules for Terminator Universe. (Spoiler alert)
Access to time travel is very restricted. It is an unspoken rule that we all accepted from the very beginning of the first James Cameron Terminator movie. Obviously, if time travel were easy, or readily accessible, the machines would be sending back Terminators by the thousands, like, every five minutes, and things would be very different. You can’t just go in the shed out back and build a time machine. We accept that traveling through time is not easy — the machine is hard to build, and time travelers are a very rare thing. Genisys breaks this rule liberally with three time machines in different time periods. This leads us to the next rule.
No time-hopping like Back to the Future. Breaking rule one frequently results in rule two also getting smashed. If the writers of a Terminator TV show or movie don’t respect rule one, rule two becomes a problem. Just like they did in Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, the makers of Terminator Genisys allowed the ability to time travel to become easy. Soon, our characters are jumping around from time to time at the drop of the hat. There are characters in 1973, 1984, 1997, 2014, 2017, and 2029. It’s all garbage and it ruins the story.
Allowing time-hopping in a Terminator franchise also accepts the cynics’ point of view on time travel movies in general. There are plenty of fanboys who will watch the Enterprise fly at warp speed for two hours with nary a complaint, but in a time travel movie, that same guy will let loose a wisecrack about “Why’s everybody rushing around? You have a TIME MACHINE!” as if a time machine is somehow more preposterous than a light-speed spacecraft. According to Einstein, they’re both impossible. By making sure time travel is difficult and rare, the story rings true and invalidates the cynics’ arguments.
Terminator movies take place in the real world. If the movie happens in present day, it should not take place in military bases or top secret laboratories or mountain military compounds (with a possible exception for the climax, of course.) Sarah Connor was stalked in her home, at the nightclub, in a jalopy on the highway. John Connor escaped a Terminator that stalked him in the LA suburbs. Cameron stoked a sense of wonder in the viewer by contrasting humdrum lives and settings with Terminator technology. A Terminator movie loses some of its punch when the whole thing happens in some super-high-tech environment.
Any Terminator movie should be, at its core, a chase movie. James Cameron’s movies were chase movies, and Jonathan Mostow’s T3 was as well. Unstoppable cyborgs from the future chasing humans. There’s room for lots of other things in a Terminator movie, but it must be a chase movie first.
We need to see the “war with the machines.” We have been promised a war with the machines, and we have seen glimpses of it, but we have never seen it, in full. Terminator and T2 “prevented” Judgment Day, Terminator 3 ended on the first day of the war with the machines, Terminator Salvation was a mess and doesn’t deserve mention, and Terminator Genisys begins on the day humans win the war with the machines. We have never actually seen the war. There is a bleak, gritty Terminator movie yet to be made.
Stop personifying Skynet. It’s cringeworthy to see Skynet get a face. It’s dumb, and it’s an overdone science fiction trope. Skynet is an AI, but it has no desire to show itself to us in the visage of a nine-year old boy, or Helena Bonham Carter. Skynet does not need a face.
Stop redefining Skynet. Skynet began as Skynet, the artificially intelligent villain, a computer network. In T2, the definition of Skynet remained similarly vague and Cyberdyne was the real target. Miles Dyson’s work had to be destroyed. In T3, Skynet was artificially intelligent malware. Perplexingly, Miles Dyson’s son makes an appearance in Terminator Genisys as the designer of an artificially intelligent cloud app called Genisys — Skynet by a new name. Just stop it. Figure out what it is, in canon, and settle it.
John Connor is not the villain. If you want to make John Connor the villain, you’re fired. Get out.
Skynet and cyborg technology should not dramatically evolve over the course of the movie. The movie should not start with an Arnold-model T101 and end with a cyborg that can magically take over a human’s consciousness and likeness through the miracle of nanotechnology.
References to Terminator: Salvation and The Sarah Connor Chronicles are banished without exception, and anything from T3 should be included only as necessary to serve the story. Terminator and T2 are the only fully-relevant movies in the canon at this point. A segment of Genisys in which Sarah and Kyle time travel to 1997 and materialize on the highway is copped straight from the disastrous Sarah Connor Chronicles nighttime soap opera.
I’d love to tell you more about Arnold’s great performance — how his presence lightens what is otherwise a somewhat dull movie, even if his one-liners and awkward smiles are occasionally overdone — or how Emilia Clarke makes a sexy Sarah Connor even if her accent peeks through at times, but I was too distracted by the flagrant flouting of Terminator rules to notice.
Have you seen Terminator Genisys? Please leave a comment.