While there are many problems with Terminator Genisys, (including the criminal under-use of Matt Smith), the most obvious one is that it never seems to make up its mind as to what exactly it’s trying to accomplish.
Is it a remake? The opening half-hour sure plays as one, complete with a recreation of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s opening scene from the first film, which sees a heavily CGIed “young” Schwarzenegger hit up some “punks” for clothes and Jai Courtney’s Reese scrambling through a department store half-naked. But after the first thirty minutes or so, there is not a whiff of the original films other than the obligatory Schwarzenegger “I’ll be back.” So then is it a reboot? It definitely has shades of one, with the alternate timeline that is introduced. But it’s also a self-contained story, and surprisingly, there is nothing that remotely sets up the possibility of a sequel (although I’m sure they can manufacture something if Genisys does well enough).
So it’s a homage then? There’s a bit of that feeling combining the shape-shifting Terminator with the Schwarzenegger original and a nice little nod to the photograph of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor from the first film. But homages assume that their audience is a fan of the original. They don’t assume their audience is so stupid that they require every tiny little thing explained in painstakingly slow detail. So, in reality, Genisys is a remade, reboot homage and as a result is a bit of a muddied mess. And the funny thing is that I could have accepted the bloated, rambling mess that is Terminator Genisys if it could have understood the single most important thing the first two films had going for them: Sarah Connor.
There is a reason that Linda Hamilton’s Connor is one of the most iconic action heroines. She was not only the heart and soul of the original films, but she was also the muscle and our proxy. She began as the damsel in distress, but eventually proved that she could survive under pressure and fashioned herself into a hardened soldier who could make the hard calls and hold her own against anyone, even an indestructible woman killing machine. If she can do it, the original films seem to say, why can’t anyone? But instead of the very human Sarah Connor that James Cameron fashioned all those years ago, Genisys gives us a Connor that is already a legend and in the process, erases everything that contributed to her mythic status.
Instead of the very human Sarah Connor that James Cameron fashioned all those years ago, ‘Genisys’ gives us a Connor that is already a legend and in the process, erases everything that contributed to her mythic status.
So let’s talk about the new Sarah Connor, Emilia Clarke. If you’re familiar with her work on Game of Thrones, you might think she would have no problem pulling off the strong-willed soldier that is Sarah Connor. But Daenerys Targaryen carries a completely different kind of strength than Sarah Connor and Clarke is no Hamilton. She might have the iron will and haughty stare down to an art, but Connor is a physical role, and Clarke lacks the presence to pull it off. Hamilton looked like a woman who’d seen some shit. She also looked like she could take anything that life could possibly throw at her. She moved like a trained soldier. She ran like an athlete. She was hard-edged and you were a little bit afraid of her because she was a tiny bit insane.
With the casting of Emilia Clarke, Sarah’s edges have been softened and it’s not just that she’s been given a more traditionally emotional feminine personality. Hamilton’s Connor was all emotion and it radiated from her–the anger, desperation, the love and devotion to her son and her mission to save the world. Clarke has none of the urgency or the force behind her of Hamilton. She is too methodical, too controlled, and it feels like she is going through the motions. Where Hamilton barks orders, Clarke suggests courses of action. It may seem a little unfair to compare the two, but that’s the risk you take when you decide to take on such an iconic character. To be fair, Clarke isn’t awful, she’s passable. In fact, other than a cameo from J.K. Simmons, who is fantastic as always, she’s the best thing about the film, which quite frankly says a lot about the film that surrounds her.
Like the first Terminator, the official protagonist of Genisys is Kyle Reese, but unlike the first film, Reese overpowers Sarah and it’s not because Jai Courtney is awesome. Jai Courtney is all biceps and has about as much charisma as a sack of flour (in all honesty, I’d give the edge to the sack of flour). Writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier seem to think they are giving Sarah more power by making her self-sufficient off the bat, but in the process, they have stripped her of what made her such an appealing character. Starting at her original endpoint, her future is predestined and set in a way that it never was before. Yes, her future has always been preordained, but before she had choice and agency granted by ignorance of her role in history. Now she has known what’s coming since the age of nine, and she has become simply another cog in the machine. Reese has much more agency because he is allowed to make his own future, while Sarah must follow a preset path even though she is the historical force on which Reese is just a footnote.
Sarah Connor’s body is no longer the hard and functional body of the action hero; it is an object to be ogled.
To add insult to injury, the script tries to leverage the myth of Sarah Connor while still reducing her to the female sidekick who we all know is just there just so we can have a romantic plotline. She might be good with a gun, but let’s not forget that she’s also a hot chick. Even though there are two scenes where Courtney gets naked to Clarke’s one, Clarke is the only one who is actually shown undressing in a PG striptease that is completely unnecessary. Hamilton was never objectified in this way, even though she got an actual sex scene in the first Terminator. In Genisys, Sarah Connor’s body is no longer the hard and functional body of the action hero; it is an object to be ogled. I am not a fan of James Cameron, but there is no denying that he has a great deal of respect and admiration for intelligent and strong-willed women that is pretty much absent from the current Hollywood landscape.
Which brings us to the real problem with Genisys. This film wants to capture the iconic status of the original, but it doesn’t really believe that it is possible for a woman to reach the mythic status of Sarah Connor, even with the evidence to the contrary. Instead they flip the tables and attempt to give us a Sarah Connor who is a legend by erasing everything that created her and instead place Kyle Reese as the true mythic saviour. Sarah may be a legend, but it’s because she happened to be associated with Reese, not the other way around.
Unfortunately, Reese has never fit comfortably into this role. He is as much in awe of Sarah as we are because she is the true hero, the one who lives on in geek mythology. But mythic status must be earned. Terminator Genisys forgets this and skips all the hard work, riding on Linda Hamilton’s coattails and reducing Sarah Connor to just another woman who looks good in black leather.