Monday, July 13, 2015

My Nostalgia Goggles Have Blinded Me - 'Terminator Genisys'

So, to be completely honest, I have absolutely no idea if Terminator Genisys, the most recent installment in the increasingly complex and bizarre Terminator series, is a good movie. I really don't. Because the Terminator series, for all of its frequent badness and general crazy, is one of my favorite pop culture institutions. It's something I have genuine nostalgia for. And for that reason, I just plain can't be objective about this movie.

It's funny too, because I'm really nostalgic like this for pretty much anything else. It takes a very particular blend of childhood fervor, genuine appreciation, and sycophantic love to blend into a true nostalgic blindness, and I really only have that for this series and a handful of other things. I first watched The Terminator when I was seven, wide-eyed and completely entranced. Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese were my first OTP*. They were one of the images of romantic love that I glommed onto, for better or worse.

I was a little older, appropriately, when I saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and it had the sort of impact you expect a movie like that to have on a young impressionable girl. I looked at Sarah Connor doing pull-ups on her bedframe in an insane asylum and all of a sudden all I wanted in the world was to be that badass.

The third movie largely passed me by because it didn't have any of the reasons I loved the first two - no Sarah Connor and no Kyle Reese. Same too went for the fourth movie. But I did fall head-over-heels for the television show where Lena Headey proved herself a worthy heir to Linda Hamilton, and Summer Glau played a terminator who beats up everything.

In other words, for me the Terminator series isn't about John Connor and it never was. The Terminator series is about Sarah Connor, and so when I found out that they were making a new Terminator film that featured Sarah Connor as a young woman, more Kyle Reese, and some time travel shenanigans, I was totally sold.

This is a means of explanation for why I can't tell you if the movie is good or not. I have too much emotional weight bearing on it to know for sure, and even if I didn't, it's a film about two of my favorite characters making goo-goo eyes at each other while shooting at robots. I'm not sure there's any timeline where I'm objective about this.

Still, I am ostensibly writing a review of this movie for you, so here's why I've got.

In the future of 2029, Skynet has destroyed the world and the remnant of humanity is fighting back against the machines, led by John Connor (Jason Clarke). We're told all of this by Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), Connor's right-hand man and surrogate son. John rescued him when he was just a kid and they've been inseparable ever since. And now the war they've been fighting for so long is almost over and John wants Kyle to come with him on one last mission.

That last mission is to destroy "Skynet's final weapon". It's the time machine from the first film, the one that sends a terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor so that she can't have John Connor so that he can't lead the resistance, etc. John and Kyle are unable to stop the terminator from getting through, but they do come up with their solution: send Kyle in after it to save Sarah. 

So far, it's all lining up with the first movie. It's a little weird when you think about the causality of it all - if Skynet doesn't send back the terminator then John doesn't send back Kyle and then John is never born anyway - but whatever. John seems to be compartmentalizing it pretty well and not thinking about how he and we both know he's about to send his dad back in time to screw his mom.

Anyway, Kyle gets into the machine and is already about to go when a face walks out of the crows (played by Matt Smith) and grabs John. He snarls "Did you really think it would be that easy?" before some kind of super creepy orange glow goes up and Kyle is off bouncing down the timeline. He catches visions while he's in the portal, images from his past, but also images of a past that never happened, a world that doesn't exist. In this world, Kyle Reese is raised by his loving parents and is given a tablet for his twelfth birthday. Then this Kyle Reese stands in front of a mirror and tells himself to go to October 2017 because Genisys is Skynet and that's when it goes online.


He lands in 1984 and at first everything seems to go according to plan, but then it doesn't. The first terminator is taken out by an older terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) isn't some damsel in distress. Actually, she's terrifyingly competent, barging in with a truck to save Kyle's life and whisk him to safety. 

Because, see, the timelines aren't doing what they're supposed to. There's no simple version of the storyline anymore. If time travel is possible, then why not keep going back earlier and earlier to kill Sarah Connor? Why not send protectors earlier and earlier too? So in this world, Sarah Connor saw her world explode when she was only nine and was rescued by the older terminator we now see helping her. She calls him Pops, and it becomes clear that he raised her. She's a mush of the Sarah Connor from the first movie, the Sarah Connor from the second film, and a person all her own.

Kyle has no idea what to do with this, since he's been raised on stories of the heroic Sarah Connor, but never like this. He thinks he's in love with her, but the woman he's in love with really doesn't exist. She's a relic of a defunct timeline. Now he's here and everything's screwy. Also Sarah knows that Kyle will be the one to father her son, John, but she doesn't tell him that because how the hell do you work that into normal conversation?

It adds a really complex twist onto their story, though. The idea that Sarah has known since she was a child that the most important thing she will ever do is have sex with Kyle Reese and give birth to John Connor. That she's known her whole life that Kyle Reese will die immediately after they fall in love, and that she will die too before she ever sees her son grown. She knows this, she has been brought up with this information swirling around in her head. It's a lot to take in.

Since the timelines are already messed the hell up, Kyle brings up his weird alternate memories as a possibility on fixing everything. Sarah and Pops have built a time machine of their own to get to 1997 and stop Skynet, but Kyle gives them a new address. Go to 2017, stop Genisys from becoming Skynet, save the world. After some hardcore arguing and insanity, they agree.

But, as it's established that anything not encased in "living tissue" will make the time machine go boom, Pops has to stay behind. He'll take the long way and prep for their arrival. Unfortunately for all of them, he's late.

Instead of being picked up by Pops and going right back to the plan, Sarah and Kyle are picked up by the LAPD and charged as terrorists. They're trying to figure out how to escape when, surprise, here's John Connor to rescue them. Everything goes, I guess, and he's come back in time to help them fulfill their mission.

Or not.

As we get further into the story we find that John Connor has been compromised. Not quite a terminator but definitely not a human, John has been altered by Skynet and now exists in this time and place to protect it. He's there to make sure that Skynet happens, and though it kills Sarah and Kyle to turn on their child/mentor/messiah figure, they do. And that's where the action really starts.

I have a hunch that if I weren't so emotionally invested in this franchise I would be very frustrated with this movie. Its plot is labyrinthine at best and utterly incomprehensible at worst. The characterizations, though better than most modern action films, are still thin and watered-down. The theme is trite and weird and there are plotholes big enough to drive a tank through.

But I don't care. Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese make googly eyes at each other and kiss and pretend they don't want to be together forever and I love it. Sarah insists that Kyle not fall in love with her because she doesn't want him to die and it's every romance novel cliche I adore. They bicker. They gaze longingly at each other. They blush when John reveals that Kyle is his father. It's so adorable I can't stand it!

And that's really at the heart of my inability to objectively view this movie. It's based on stories that have utterly shaped my concept of what romance is. How am I supposed to view it without nostalgia goggles?

Also, and this could just be rationalization, I actually kind of like how messy the story is. For all that it's very hard to understand, it's also one of the more honest looks at a time travel narrative you get in modern fiction. I mean, once you have time travel all bets are off. It actually makes more sense that Kyle Reese would step into a maelstrom of shifting timelines and confusion than that somehow only one terminator came through and he just has to defeat that one guy.

Like the fantastic Steven Universe episode "Steven and the Stevens", the movie makes it clear that once you start messing with time travel and causality, nothing is safe. Seriously. The plot is under no obligation to make sense to you, there's time travel involved. And I can appreciate that a lot. At least it's honest.

This could just be rationalization, though. I have no idea. I know that I was entertained for the whole film and I know that I didn't have to roll my eyes too much at blatant stereotyping or painfully awkward dialogue. I know that it kept my interest the whole way through and I left the theater happy I'd seen it. These are all relatively low bars for a film, and normally I hate that, but right now I just don't care. It's like I've been taken over by pod people. Very disturbing.

J.K. Simmons is in the film and absolutely hilarious as the one character from our present who knows what's going on and wants to help - he witnessed Sarah and Kyle kill a T-1000 in 1984 and immediately recognizes them when they appear in 2017 - but he's really the only side character we care about. Mostly the movie is an exploration of the relationship between Sarah and Kyle and John and Pops. And I'm really okay with that.

I mean, for all that it's very head-bending and painfully confusing, I like the way the storyline examines free will and predestination. I also like how it deals with bodily autonomy. Sarah has known her whole life that she was destined to be a walking uterus, basically, and to become a footnote in history. It has clearly messed her up. Her choice not to tell Kyle the truth about his role in all of this is therefore a really interesting one. She doesn't want to burden him with the same knowledge.

From his perspective, though, it's all equally confusing. He's been in love with Sarah Connor for ages, having fallen in love with her from a photograph that was never taken and stories that never happened. Ow.

Meanwhile they're both trying to figure out how they feel about John, both the authentic man and the machine who has taken his place. Sarah wonders what the son she's lived her whole life to create must be like, and Kyle grapples with the concept that he is the father of the man who is like a father to him.

And then there's Pops, who clearly has developed some kind of personhood/soul in the eleven years he was caring for Sarah on his own and then the thirty-three years he waited for her return. It's all very screwy and causally weird and I love it.

I love it because it's a huge amount of what attracted me to the series in the first place. A story about a man sending his own father back in time to save his mother? Sign me up! Like, the reveal that Kyle Reese was John's father and John knew all along blew my little child-sized mind. And I'm so glad that we got a film that explores that because that was the coolest part of the first movie for me. Obviously this movie isn't as good as Terminator 2, but almost nothing is as good as that movie. That's one of the best movies of all time.

I guess the upshot we have to take from all of this is that I really have no idea if Terminator Genisys is worth your time. My guess is that your mileage will vary wildly. Some of you will hate how Sarah isn't the badass hardcore terrifying death queen of Terminator 2, while others will appreciate the new version of her character who is still very much a young girl. Some of you will love getting to know more about Kyle Reese and others will wish he would go away. Some of you will love the insane time travel plot and others will want to murder every writer involved in this film. Or both.

I have no idea what you'll think of the movie. I just know that, as Sarah and Kyle tell us all the time, we have "no fate but what we make for ourselves." Which is a super pretentious way of saying that I don't know if you would like it, go and watch it and see for yourself.

Oh Jai Courtney. You were wasted in Divergent and that Die Hard movie.
*One True Pairing, or the couple you find most believable and pleasing from a certain fiction, a fanfiction term totally worth working into your everyday speech.


  1. It's something I have genuine nostalgia for. And for that reason, I just plain can't be objective about this movie.

    I expect this is how I'll feel when I get the chance to see it as well.

    In other words, for me the Terminator series isn't about John Connor and it never was. The Terminator series is about Sarah Connor.

    It's alternately amusing and frustrating to watch the hoops Hollywood will go through to find a reason other than Sarah Connor for why the the second two films didn't do as well as the first two.

    (And I'm one of those who suspects the Sarah Connor Chronicles series was sacrificed for the Salvation film).

    I have to say, Emilia Clarke *really* looks the part in these images.

    1. Yes. Join me in nostalgic subjectivity!

      The idea that T:SCC was sacrificed for that crummy Salvation film fills me with rage. I loved that show. I still love that show. It was everything you want a Terminator story to be. But no. Hollywood loves the money that Sarah Connor makes them but they hate her as a character. Laaaame.

      Emilia Clarke looks the part scary well.

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