James Cameron’s original “Terminator,” released in 1984, late in Ronald Reagan’s first term, was a response to Star Wars—not George Lucas’s movie, but the popular term for the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan’s 1983 proposal for a space-based, computer-controlled shield to protect the country against incoming nuclear missiles. Though “Terminator Genisys,” directed by Alan Taylor, essentially borrows (sometimes, nearly shot by shot) the setup from the first film in the series, as well as its basic premise—nuclear catastrophe unleashed by a system called Skynet, featuring weapons that function independent of human control and, in effect, themselves declare war on the human race—this movie’s central phobia is less specifically military than generally technological.
“Genisys” is a new operating system that boasts comprehensive control over the full spectrum of electronic devices, from cell phones to refrigerators. It’s a massively ballyhooed technological innovation—an app for which the world is eagerly waiting, for which a billion consumers are joining in the countdown to the launch—and it’s the seed of apocalypse, running amok by way of its links to an S.D.I.-like weapons system.
The story, of course, involves a revolutionary uprising in a postapocalyptic near-future against the machines of Skynet that are seeking to exterminate the remnants of mankind. The revolution is led by John Connor (Jason Clarke), along with his disciple, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney). That apocalypse and the resistance to it are made laboriously explicit from the start of the movie with a grindingly grandiose depiction, thanks to widely deployed C.G.I., of the ravaged world that they’re fighting to redeem.
As in the original, Skynet seeks to defeat John by means of what was called, in Cameron’s film, a “retroactive abortion”—the murder of his mother, Sarah (played then by Linda Hamilton, now by Emilia Clarke), before she could be impregnated by Kyle and give birth to John, thereby preventing John in advance from arriving to lead the uprising. The twist in the new film (which a trailer has already famously revealed) is that the dual time-travel that sets the action in motion—which propels Kyle back to 1984—also propels John (or a cyborg simulacrum of him) to seemingly help Kyle protect Sarah but actually to thwart his mission.
Fortunately, Arnold Schwarzenegger is on hand, too, playing a veteran cyborg—“old, not obsolete,” he says—whom Sarah calls Pops, and who, for all his impossibly sophisticated internal hardware, gives the movie its sole touch of personality. Schwarzenegger is a self-conscious comedian of poker-faced sentiment, a sort of action-figure Charles Coburn, but he has no one to play to here but the camera. (Pops repeatedly addresses Kyle as “Kyle Reese,” with a peculiar warmth in its clueless mechanical formality—a John Ford-esque touch.)
The other main actors, Courtney and both Clarkes, come off in the film as nonentities, due to Taylor’s direction or non-direction. None of the three seems to do anything but provide flesh and blood to the written text. They don’t seem to exist except in terms of the scripted action. If they never seem to be thinking about what they’re doing, it’s not for lack of ability to do so, but for direction that never catches them doing so—that flees, in effect, from spontaneity. The director gives the sense of not paying any attention to whom or what he’s filming; he had a script, he had action, and he had the cameras take pictures of them—and those pictures are themselves throwaways, all coverage, no choices. Next to him, James Cameron comes off like Stanley Kubrick.
It’s an unfortunate failure, because the script’s time-travel premise offers some cute conundrums of parallel worlds. Taken together, the movie’s mixture of the surprising overlap of these worlds and of the subjective, point-of-view shots depicting the way that the world looks to a cyborg that’s endowed with super-sight, could have given rise to some remarkable tricks with images. Things could have appeared radically strange and radically different, and it wouldn’t have taken more than a handful of shots and a thimbleful of imagination to pull it off. It could have offered high-tech wizardry or, for that matter, a delightfully low-tech curiosity, a world sweded or stripped down to the clumsy clarity of machine dreams.
It’s all the more unfortunate because some of the movie’s effects, such as a magnet frittering away a solidified liquid-metal body into filings like those adorning Wooly Willy, are fleetingly wondrous and suggest imaginative vistas that, however, are instantly closed off. And the movie has a deadly lack of self-consciousness: the technophobia in “Terminator Genisys” is ludicrously out of place in a movie that was likely made entirely on video cards, without a single shot unmanipulated by computers—with its most striking details generated within a machine to express a fear of machines.
Though, to be more specific, the fear that “Terminator Genisys” reflects is that of centralization, corporate control, and an unwarranted interpenetration of business and government. As was true of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” the new “Terminator” evokes suspicion of a hegemonic operating system unleashed on a public all too eager for convenience, competitive consumption, and fun. (Genisys gains power, with disastrous results, when it links to the weapons system.) The fear of a centralized computer system becomes the fear of its dangerous manipulation by diabolical corporate overlords or a usurping government, but also by the infiltration of a hacker or rogue programmer who, by one maneuver, can wreak absurdly disproportionate destruction. That’s also a key lesson from Edward Snowden’s revelations—the very fact that a system made up of an unprecedented range of sensitive data is vulnerable to the unauthorized intervention of one determined individual, such as Snowden himself. And such doings, slipped deftly into the action of “Terminator Genisys,” prove extremely significant to the plot, though they remain unconsidered. The incantatory warning on which the tale pivots, “Genisys is Skynet,” sounds less like redemptive wisdom to stave off the apocalypse than like an ad campaign following a cell-phone-carrier merger.
The apocalypse that needs to be undone in a parallel world gives rise to extremely long and detailed exposition—such as is absent from the original “Terminator”—likely due to the fact that many more kids will watch the new PG-13 film than ever saw the original, which was rated R. The first film featured brief nudity and the word “abortion,” as well as lots of indiscriminate gunplay, bloodshed, and Schwarzenegger’s horrific “Andalusian Dog”-style self-performed eye surgery. The new movie is altogether more abstract in its mayhem, which is depersonalized and mainly bloodless even when massive.
“Terminator Genisys” isn’t truly terrible. It is sleek and disposable, both perfectly yielding and leaving no place to grip; perfectly solid and allowing no view through it to the development of any idea, implication, or stray glimmer of inspiration. In effect, it’s a simulacrum of a movie that takes the place of the experience of watching a movie—but does so adroitly. It could, for the most part, be the programmed product of a perfectly sealed operating system; only Schwarzenegger’s performance provides any immediate and vital presence.