A few months back, the second trailer for Skydance's Terminator: Genisys (and that is the LAST time I will type that ridiculously stupid title here) stunned viewers by revealing a seemingly major twist - the discovery that in this film, John Connor has been assimilated by Skynet and turned into a Terminator himself. It felt like a Hail Mary on the part of the marketing the department. The first trailer didn't fire up the fans as hoped, so dropping this bomb on the audience appears to have been calculated to use shock value. If you can make the fans curious or enraged, they just might buy tickets opening weekend.
Then as release neared, Terminator creator James Cameron did some press where he essentially gave the film his blessing, saying "If you liked the Terminator films, you're gonna like this movie." As he's been vocal in the past about not liking the third and fourth entries, so this endorsement carried a bit more weight.
Having seen the film, I respectfully submit that whatever Skynet did to John Connor is pretty much what Skydance had to have done to James Cameron.
I sort of dread writing a long post about this film because thanks to the time travel paradoxes, this movie is the kind of adventure where pulling on one loose thread immediately unravels a lot of other threads. When the rest of the movie is really good, it can earn a sort of contract from the audience, whereupon the viewer agrees not to look to hard at some inconsistencies, so long as the creators stay somewhat internally consistent.
Just to name one example from within the Terminator-verse: The original film and the first sequel operate on two entirely different concepts of time-travel. The first movie is a closed loop, where history is fixed and immutable. In sending a Terminator back in time to kill the mother its greatest enemy, Skynet unwittingly creates the circumstances that result in him being born.
However, the second film proceeds from the assumption that history CAN be changed. The problem with that is that if you accept that, you accept that at some point there was a history where a Terminator didn't come back in time to kill Sarah Connor, which means no Kyle Reese followed him back, which means John was never conceived.
However, Terminator 2 is a great film and while it not only stays internally consistent, this paradox is pretty well-concealed and probably can even be rationalized away with enough though. I can't say the same for the newest film.
This time around, when Kyle lands in 1984 the Sarah Connor he finds is not the carefree waitress of the first film, but a more capable warrior akin to Sarah's T2 evolution. It seems that Skynet also sent a Terminator back to Sarah's childhood, where she was saved by yet another reprogrammed T-800 model (That's the Arnold Schwarzenegger version.) He raised her and trained her for this day as a father figure, whom she eventually calls "Pops."
I'm gonna press pause for a second and point out that it's never explained who sent either Terminator to young Sarah. We see Skynet send the Terminator to 1984 just before the time machine is seized by Connor's men, but not to 1973 (or to 1994, for that matter, if we want to acknowledge the T2 timeline). Something happens after Kyle time travels that gives Skynet the upper hand, but if we assume that's what allows for another Terminator to appear back in 1973, then how do the good guys send "Pops" back in time?
Over at Film School Rejects, Scott Beggs wrote a funny article trying to rationalize all the Terminators that Skynet would have had to send through time in its final moments. It's worth seeking out, and under the humor, there's a pretty solid point about the logic underlying the conceit.
Pops is one of the better things about this film, and so it becomes particularly galling that the film glosses over his origins. It could have worked better if our POV was locked to Sarah, not Kyle, and thus, allowing for some ambiguity in how things play out to let all the time travelers end up where they do.
The second bit of temporal logic that hurt the film for me hinges on just plain common sense. In 1984, Pops and Sarah have been building their own time machine and have been waiting for the 1984 Terminator to arrive so they can use its CPU to power it. They plan to leap forward to 1997, where they can stop Judgment Day, because they know the exact date thanks to Pops's records.
Wait, so right now they have a 13-year head start on the end of the world and they want to shrink that margin to a day or so? Does that make any sense at all? There are some plot twists that result in Kyle pinpointing 2017 as the new time of Judgment Day and so after an argument, they leap there instead. Pops has to stay behind, but he uses the next 33 years to gather intel and weapons, to the point where he briefly infiltrates the construction site of the future Skynet AND manages to infiltrate their security systems.
Am I crazy or does it seem like Pops was a lot more effective at stopping Skynet simply by taking many actions over the years than Kyle and Sarah were by skipping to a point where they have a rapidly expiring countdown? There's no reason they should give up the three decade advantage they have, aside from the fact it lets the film generate more tension.
When Marty McFly stupidly fails to realize that he should give himself more than ten minutes to save Doc from getting murdered by terrorists, we can chalk it up to Marty being impulsive, immature, and not thinking all the time travel logic through. When the new Terminator has people who have been planning a major attack on a planned event for over a decade miss this obvious logic, it becomes harder to swallow.
Two of the biggest cruxes of the film are tied to incredibly flimsy logic. It's really hard for me to ignore that. Worse, if you pick at those scabs you eventually start finding other nitpicks that arise out of it. The film tries to handwave the biggest one (it has to do with whether or not John can kill his parents before they conceive him), but it feels less like an explanation and more like a "yeah, we know this doesn't work out and we're going to affirm that somehow it does."
I don't want this to turn into a laundry list of nitpicks in the film, beyond those few points. The internet had a three-week field day pulling apart Jurassic World, and this movie gives them even more to feast on. It doesn't help that aside from Arnold, there isn't much here that's great. Jai Courtney is pretty badly miscast as Kyle Reese, having none of the presence of Michael Biehn. Biehn felt like a credible war vet while Courtney feels like a star quarterback who's just having a bad season.
As for Emilia Clarke, let's just say she's no Linda Hamilton and leave it at that. She has some nice moments with Pops, though. I found myself wishing that this film was more about that relationship and focused on the time before Kyle meets her. When it comes to Arnold himself, I enjoyed him more here than I have in any of his other post-gubernatorial films, except for perhaps Escape Plan. His chemistry with Courtney doesn't come close to what he had with Edward Furlong in Terminator 2, but he plays off of Clarke well. He even sells a joke about his creepy smile that probably shouldn't work.
(As for jokes that don't work, the biggest misfire is a sequence that uses the COPS theme and attempts a couple silly sight gags. How did this ever make it out of the assembly cut?)
The way the film uses time travel to achieve a sort of soft reboot is reminiscent of how J.J. Abrams used a similar conceit in a far more elegant and meaningful way when he relaunched Star Trek. This might be the first time that the series has used time travel as more than just a conceit to launch the story. As depicted in the other films, time travel was a one-way prospect - Terminators and protectors only are able to go into the past. Time travel kicks off the story, but it doesn't become the story.
Here, our heroes have built their own time machine and they use it to leap forward to the future. Even ignoring the logic issues I brought up above, this feels like it gives the characters too much power, hence they have to use that power poorly or else the film would be over.
Ultimately, I don't know that I agree with Cameron that this is the best film since his two originals. As much as Rise of the Machines is a lesser sequel after T2, I find that it's elevated by its shockingly dark climax. That shows more guts than this latest film does, whatever other faults exist in that film. The first two films are virtually untouchable in terms of quality and they're probably all the story anyone could need from this series. That said, the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles eventually proved itself worthy to carry the name and in my mind that is the proper follow-up to James Cameron's films. Stacked side-by-side with those, this fifth feature can't help but feel like fan fiction.