As a Vicodin-addicted Doctor once taught us, everybody lies. However, if you ignore that cynical assumption and take people for their word then everyone who made Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009) and Terminator: Genisys did so out of love for the first two Terminator movies. So many producers, directors, and writers tell familiar stories of wanting to become a filmmaker after seeing the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), which was both the most expensive film and one of the highest-grossing films of its time. It set a new bar for what special effects could accomplish, and as a hard R-rated film it oddly had toy commercials airing during Saturday morning cartoons:
The problem is James Cameron’s Terminator story naturally ran its course across two movies. The weakest among us, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, became the baddest action heroine we had ever seen, and one of cinema’s best monsters, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, became the good guy, a machine learning the meaning of life and canceling Armageddon. However, because Cameron sold the franchise rights for one dollar in exchange for getting to direct the first Terminator he’s had no control over what’s happened since T2 . The people who have followed him swear they want to do right by the franchise, but it’s been a case of diminishing returns, finally bottoming out in the creatively bankrupt Terminator: Genisys.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Terminator 2: Judgement Day producer Mario Kassar formed a production company, C2 Pictures, for the sole purpose of making Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and the Sarah Connor Chronicles. That doesn’t necessarily mean he truly loves Terminator, but it does mean he put everything he had into reviving the franchise. Sadly, it never quite worked out for him. Sure, Terminator 3 ultimately had something interesting to say in a post-9/11 world, director Jonathan Mostow flipping the classic franchise script by suggesting nuclear annihilation was always unavoidable, but it came wrapped in a campy package, e.g., a tired-looking Schwarzenegger wearing Elton John glasses, the Terminatrix’s pointlessly inflating breasts, etc. Rise of the Machines made plenty of money, but as a profitable venture, it was undone by a legendarily ill-advised contract for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
While the first season of the Sarah Connor Chronicles was in pre-production, Kassar lost complete control of the franchise rights to two aspiring producers from the marketing and finance world who immediately went into development on a new Terminator film trilogy. Rise of the Machines had been a perfectly fine B movie, but without James Cameron’s involvement maybe that’s all any future Terminator movie ever could be.
The new franchise producers wanted McG (Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) as their director, but he was not interested in a Terminator 4, let alone a Terminator 5 and 6, telling IGN that it “felt like flogging a dead horse.” Yet there was still that part of him that remembered how much he loved those first two movies.
“No two films shaped my life more than the first two TERMINATOR pictures,” he told Ain’t It Cool, “The first one scared the shit out of me and the second one made me want to be a director. I mean when Robert Patrick’s head came apart and the T-1000 liquid metal coming back together and doing what it does… Shit, I put Robert Patrick in two out of the first few movies I made. It was that big of an influence on me, so I’m really passionate about that whole idea.”
But the run-and-explain Terminator movie (where you don’t notice the clunky exposition because it comes as the characters are stuck in a constant chase scene) had been done three times. If they were going to continue the franchise they needed to convince audiences that something was different. So, why not honor Terminator 3’s ending and stop trying to save the future through time travel? Let’s finally see John Connor kicking Skynet’s ass in the future!
The prospect of getting to actually depict what the prior films had only alluded to convinced McG to sign up for Terminator Salvation. He was going to give us something like Road Warrior, Children of Men and The Road, slapping us across the face with the utter brutality of a post-apocalyptic LA. The story they cooked up was actually legitimately interesting, a kind-of sci-fi Ben-Hur in which a new character named Marcus would rub shoulders with the messiah figure John Connor but it would still be his story, not John’s. Their big twist was also fairly awesome – Marcus was actually a Terminator who didn’t know he was a Terminator.
And then they cast Christian Bale fresh off The Dark Knight to play John Connor. As Arnold says in Last Action Hero, “Big mistake.”
Bale demanded a meatier role for John Connor, Marcus (played by Sam Worthington) and Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin, who is sadly a mansel in distress almost the entire time) be damned. Jonathan Nolan re-wrote the script and planned out the next two films, aiming to take the trilogy through the end of the war against the machines.
Then news of Salvation’s planned surprise ending leaked online – John would die, but Marcus would volunteer to let them graft John’s skin to his metal endoskeleton so they could pretend John was still alive thus allowing the Resistance to continue. John Connor is simply not a particularly interesting character once he’s already become the savior of the world, but their dramatic reach-around was remarkably extreme, angering online fans. They suddenly had to rethink the entire third act of the movie.
Things were clearly not going so well during post-production when McG threw special effects house ILM under the bus while talking to IGN, “But I have to say, I don’t like what they’ve done yet, so maybe you should email them and tell them to get their s**t together!”
Of course, he might have said that in jest, but the stink of disaster was hovering all over the project, the internet having a field day with the leaked audio tape of Christian Bale going ballistic on a poor lighting guy on the set of the movie. Warner Bros. was so desperate to change the conversation about the movie that they built their entire marketing campaign around the big twist:
A Terminator movie with such bad press that the studio’s marketing department chooses to build a marketing campaign around the movie’s one big surprise. Hmmm. Why does that sound familiar?
Unfortunately, Salvation turned out to be a largely joyless affair. In McG and his production team’s efforts to go out of their way to justify Salvation’s very existence, they forgot what made the prior Terminator movies, the ones they loved as kids and teenagers, so enjoyable: a perfect mix of sci-fi, horror and action. A gritty, post-apocalyptic war movie just didn’t feel like Terminator, and why the hell was Christian Bale treating it like it was Shakespeare? McG promised a sequel would be better, “I think [Salvation] missed some of the fun that Jim [Cameron] brought to the early pictures […] We wanted to be very, very nose to the grindstone and really establish credibility and it worked in many ways and it was unsuccessful in other ways.”
So, next time around they would let John Connor have a turn in the time travel machine, chased by a new badass Terminator at some point in the past. They had Christian Bale signed up for both sequels, but it didn’t matter. Mere months after Salvation’s 2009 release the two producers who had taken the franchise rights from Mario Kassar declared bankruptcy, felled by Salvation’s $371m worldwide gross for a movie which carried a $200m prod. budget. The franchise rights could now be had by the highest bidder through bankruptcy court.
This time it’ll be different, David and Megan Ellison apparently thought. The brother and sister pair, bankrolled by their billionaire father, were just starting out as film producers, David co-founding SkyDance Productions in 2010 and Megan floating money to the Coen Bros. for their True Grit remake. Megan spent over $20 million to buy the Terminator rights in 2010, announcing her intentions to co-produce at least two new films with her brother as well as a TV show.
Echoing the now-familiar line, David told SlashFilm the Terminator films were always especially beloved by the Ellison family, “I’ll never forget seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day with my mom when I was eight years old, and way too young to be going to see an R-rated movie, and it changed my life. It’s what made me want to make movies, and James Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. To give you an idea of how big of a fan my family was, my mother actually got into the shape that Linda Hamilton was in that movie, and I have pictures that can prove it.”
Megan, more comfortable backing indies like The Master, American Hustle, Her and Zero Dark Thirty, eventually walked. David took over with SkyDance’s President of Production Dana Goldberg, a sci-fi lover who’d previously worked on the Matrix films. “I love science fiction because science fiction can take you to a whole other world but is also typically a comment on the world that you’re actually living in,” Goldberg told SlashFilm. “To be able to make those kinds of movies and to be able to make big, fun movies that have real characters and that are smart and have heart, but that a worldwide audience can go to and escape and have a good time with, I mean that’s fun. “
Fun wasn’t the first word that came to mind for screenwriting partners Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier when they were first approached about scripting what became Terminator: Genisys. Instead, they reacted much in the same way McG did when he was asked to take on Salvation: they openly wondered if a new Terminator was really a good idea.
“Simply put, having worked with Jim Cameron and regarding him as one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever or will ever live, this sort of towering, genius figure, and I’m not exaggerating — everything that exists in this (Terminator) universe exists because of him. He created all of it,” Kalogridids told DenOfGeek, “So I had no desire to add anything to it that diminished it in any way or that was disrespectful in any way, or that felt that it didn’t, hopefully, anyway, add some value to it as opposed to subtract it.”
However, wouldn’t you kick yourself if you turned down the job and somebody else took it and ended up making an even bigger mess of the franchise you loved?
Kalogridis and Lussier’s job interview was to tell the producers what exactly they would do if they took the gig. The very first thing that came to mind was any Terminator movie they made would bring Arnold back in a big way, Lussier telling DenOfGeek, “Not an extended cameo. We wanted him to be a vital part of the story. The time travel was something we felt was missing from Terminator Salvation. Then the core characters of Kyle, Sarah, and John Connor, we wanted them to be in there. I talked about how we would work Arnold into the story and how important he would be to the story. And coming up with the, as Laeta puts it, the funhouse mirror version, of seeing things that you knew and that were part of the world that had been set up originally and then turning them on their ear. It was all part of the original pitch.”
They got the job, and for months they spent 8-hour days cooped up in a room on the Paramount lot throwing around story ideas and script pages with David Ellison and Dana Goldberg. The thing that broke the story wide open for them was an idea to have present-day Arnold fight 1984-Arnold, which seemed like an inherently cool visual. They had to reverse-engineer a story from there, nailing a draft of the script they really liked on July 17th, 2013, immediately sending it out to various casting agents to start their search for the new Sarah Connor, John Connor and Kyle Reese. It’s the draft they hired Thor: The Dark World’s Alan Taylor on as director.
In their funhouse mirror notion of the story, Sarah Connor was originally a directionless waitress in 1984 who knew nothing of the future, and in 1991 the best father figure her son John ever had was a Terminator programmed to protect him. So, in their version Sarah’s parents were killed when she was 9, leaving her to be raised and trained by a T-800 programmed to protect her. By 1984, she’s a socially awkward soldier with an intricate plan for preventing the machines from ever making it to Judgement Day, and by the end, she is as attached to her father figure Terminator as the Edward Furlong John Connor was to his in T2. The audience surrogate character is Kyle Reese. He’s the one who gets to ask, “What the fuck is going on? Why is everything different?” except he can’t say “fuck” because it’s PG-13.
It’s all very much so like the JJ Abrams Star Trek if that movie had actually recreated the events of a classic Original Series episode and then used present-day Leonard Nimoy to walk through and change everything.
As the cast fell into place, Emilia Clarke beating out Margot Robbie and Brie Larson to become the new Sarah Connor in late 2013, the ambition of the project swelled. The plans for just two movies morphing into a new trilogy with the sequels to be filmed back-to-back over 9 months. Paramount even planted their flag in release dates for the sequels, 5/19/17 and 6/29/18.
At the same time, the Genisys production was coming together and obsessively planning out a very faithful recreation of the 1984 setting and costumes from the first Terminator. After all, it’s not just the producer and screenwriters who came to this project with a deep love for the franchise. The costume designer, Susan Matheson, told ScreenRant, “This is the entire reason I went into moviemaking, was a combination between Terminator and Mad Max. Those two movies made me decide that I wanted to do costumes.”
Matheson was so committed to doing the first Terminator justice that she hounded Nike for two months to recreate those Nike Vandal sneakers with the Velcro high-top that Kyle Reese steals from the department store at the beginning of the movie. When Nike offered up something which was similar but not the same she turned to Paramount to lean on them harder. To Matheson, “the single greatest moment on this entire movie was when Nike said they were going to stop production in the line and make me the sneaker from scratch. So they made me the sneaker, the original exact replica of the original sneaker.”
That’s indicative of everything that ultimately turned out wrong with Terminator: Genisys. They were obsessing over making sure they got Kyle Reese’s 1984 sneakers right, although kudos to Matheson for being so committed to her job, when they should have been looking up to realize that Emilia Clarke is a horrible fit for Sarah Connor, her regal fierceness from Game of Thrones not at all transferring to the grunt soldier toughness needed to play Sarah. She nails the iconic lines “Come with me if you want to live” and “On your feet, soldier!” but most everything else is strained.
Or maybe they should have wondered why Hollywood keeps trying to make Jai Courtney, their new Kyle Reese, a thing when he’s mostly just an impressive set of abs attached to the blandest man from Blandonia.
Or maybe they should have been thinking up better explanations for all of the time travel hijinks in their movie.
Or maybe they should have realized that a somewhat inverted version of the familiar Terminator story makes for fun fan fiction but a piss poor movie if you don’t actually create characters worth caring about, even if they have familiar names.
That’s not to say that nothing works in Terminator: Genisys. It is watchable, albeit sometimes in the way that a car crash demands our attention, and Arnold delivers a solid though surprisingly underutilized performance. However, it is a remarkably dumb movie, answering any questions about planet-sized plot holes with a forceful “Because shut up, that’s why.” Collider joked, “Genisys isn’t building a mystery; it’s procrastinating because the writers didn’t figure out how to explain the plot points within the span of this movie” and they weren’t wrong.
Genisys is a movie born out of genuine love for the first two Terminator movies, yet that love often comes off as clumsy or over-insistent. For example, Genisys attempts to create new catchphrases for Arnold, hoping to replace ”Hasta la vista, baby” with “Theoretically” and “Old, not obsolete,” but it does so by shoving them down our throats. “Old, not obsolete” is invoked so often it starts out as good, turns annoying, somehow becomes good again, and ends up as something you don’t want to hear ever again.
Ultimately, Genisys contorts itself so hard to both pay homage to T1 and T2 before pushing them aside that you wonder if they might have simply been better off doing a straight remake. Maybe they could have revisited James Cameron’s original concept for a Terminator who you would never see coming because it blends so perfectly into a crowd. Maybe they could have added Hollywood’s franchise Viagra, Dwayne Johnson, who has been attached to various potential Terminator movies in the past.
Or maybe they shouldn’t have made anything at all.
The Total Recall and RoboCop remakes didn’t make enough money, and the one time anyone made a Terminator movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger it bankrupted the company. So, Terminator: Genisys is part reboot, part sequel, part prequel. As Collider argued, “The film plays like a greatest hits album that thinks it can remix old tracks into something new […] It’s also the pinnacle of lazy storytelling; Genisys relies on contrivance after contrivance and hopes that we’ll be too busy relishing the return of Schwarzenegger to notice. Genisys parasitically latches onto anything that was positively received in the previous movies without understanding any nuances whatsoever.”
The original films had a little more than robot vs. man or robot vs. robot though. They were meant to offer fairly standard sci-fi ruminations on tech phobia and Cold War era anxieties while also exploring the notion of fate. To its credit, Genisys does genuinely take a stab at this kind of commentary and thematic storytelling as well, re-conceptualizing Skynet as the next big “Killer app” and having Sarah treat her fated future with Kyle as some kind of time travel-enhanced arranged marriage she wants no part of, especially when she knows how it will end. That’s all there. It just gets so lost in the shuffle, and Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney’s Romancing the Stone bickering feels more forced than natural.
That’s before you even get to the big twist with John Connor (a perfectly hammy Jason Clarke), which is nonsensical and again born of a “How do we do something different this time?” line of thought.
What I kept thinking as I was watching Genisys was how much the people making the movie clearly loved T1 and T2. I imagined them beginning many of their pitches for potential plot points with, “You know what would be so cool?” ala the way a group of fans of any film franchise might when gathered together to dream up hilarious “What Ifs?”
What if there was a Terminator–Back to the Future mash-up? Boom! Internet cartoon:
What if the Terminator fought Wolverine? Boom! Hilarious internet cartoon:
What if Sarah Connor was raised by a Terminator, and then Skynet turned John Connor into a Terminator and sent him back to kill Sarah and Kyle Reese even though that makes no sense? Boom! Terminator: Genisys.
It’s just that one of these “What Ifs?” is so very, very official now.