NB: The following contains spoilers for Terminator: Genisys and some saucy language.
When James Cameron made Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, he turned what was originally a standalone sci-fi film into a major Hollywood franchise.
It’s worth remembering that, when independent studio Carolco purchased the rights for The Terminator, Cameron’s debut feature, it had made a multi-million dollar gamble. The Terminator, released in 1984, was a considerable hit; when Carolco spent millions on buying the property, and around $100m on making T2, it was betting that Cameron could turn a low-budget sci-fi thriller with horror overtones into a major summer blockbuster.
In the end, of course, the investment proved to be a shrewd one: T2 was a massive success, and paved the way for a series of occasional sequels – and a TV spin-off – which led to the release of Terminator: Genisys in 2015. After T2, other directors – namely, Jonathan Mostow, McG and Alan Taylor – tried to continue the style of that movie, with its cool lighting and grandiose action, which emphasises spectacle over violence.
Go back to the original 1984 Terminator, meanwhile, and you’ll find a film that, although similar in plot to the much bigger T2 – time-travelling cyborgs, relentless chases and so on – is markedly different in tone. Where the Los Angeles of T2 feels clean and sunlit, the LA of its predecessor feels grubby and frayed around the edges. Where T2’s violence is big and exhilarating, The Terminator’s is brutal and often quite bloody. Where T2 offers an upbeat message of hope and humanity, The Terminator ends on a note of ominous gloom.
Before its release, Terminator: Genisys left us hopeful that the franchise might bring at least a shred of that original film’s grittiness back to the franchise. This is, after all, a movie which sends a new Kyle Reese (this time played by a brawny Jai Courtney, standing in for Michael Biehn) back to an alternate 1984 where Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, replacing Linda Hamilton) is already a battle-hardened warrior rather than the fragile waitress we once knew. This is because Skynet – the human-hating race of sentient machines from the future – sent yet another Terminator back to the 70s, its aim to once again kill Sarah before she can give birth to humanity’s saviour. In response, the humans reprogram another cyborg – a T-800, played by a returning Arnold Schwarzenegger – to protect the young Sarah. The mission’s a success, but Sarah’s left as an orphan, raised by the T-800 and turned into a tough robot killer.
But while Terminator: Genisys spends a good chunk of its story in 1984, it still isn’t quite the greasy, trash-strewn and distinctive Lost Angeles from Cameron’s film. Some of the details may be right – the Nike trainers, the homeless guy complaining about a real bright light – but the tone is closer to the blockbuster slickness of T2 than The Terminator.
All of which brings us – at last, you’re probably thinking – to the point of this article. Terminator: Genisys is careful to explain why Schwarzenegger, its biggest star, is visibly older looking than the cyborgs we saw in The Terminator and T2. While the combat chasis powering the T-800 remains the same, the flesh on top is subject to the same ravages of time as a real human: “Old, but not obsolete,” is this latest Terminator’s catchy refrain.
There is, however, a bit of a problem with this, at least if we look again at a brief yet important scene in The Terminator.
Towards the end of the second act, the T-800’s murderous pursuit of Sarah Connor has left it with some superficial yet grotesque-looking damage. As the Terminator sits on a bed, flicking through an address book stolen from Sarah’s apartment, we hear the sound of buzzing of flies. The shot cuts to the T-800, its eye socket empty, its flesh pale and clammy. There’s a knock on the door. It’s a janitor, lugubriously trudging around the flophouse corridors with his mop and bucket.
“Hey buddy,” the janitor says, chomping on a cigar; “you got a dead cat in there?”
The question triggers one of the funniest lines in the movie: “Fuck you, asshole,” the T-800 fires back.
It’s easily overlooked, but the sequence raises an interesting plot point: Terminators in fleshy disguises aren’t just subject to aging, but also to infection and disease. The T-800 will keep pursuing Sarah Connor until one of them is Terminated, but the scene above makes clear that the skin surrounding the cyborg is on borrowed time.
What does this have to do with Terminator: Genisys? Well, the plot simply ignores the implication that a T-800’s skin has a shelf life. The friendly T-800 we meet in its alternate 1984 – or “Pops” as Sarah calls him – is quite severely damaged through the course of the first act. The skin on his face is lacerated during its fight with another T-800, and the flesh on his arm is dissolved completely as it disposes of a T-1000 in acid. Not long afterwards, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese jump forward in time to the year 2017, where, over the course of 33 years, Pops’ skin has not only aged, but also healed itself.
“My flesh will take years to regrow,” the T-800 says in an earlier scene, as he explains to Sarah why he can’t leap forward with her to 2017. We later see that he really can grow his his skin back; when the T-800 makes a dramatic return at the movie’s mid-point – carrying a giant teddy bear – the cyborg once again has a complete, flesh-covered arm, right down to the fingernails, if you look closely. The strong suggestion from the original Terminator, that a damaged T-800‘s skin will start to decay once it’s damaged, has been quietly set aside in order to further Genisys’ convoluted plot.
This is, admittedly, a tiny nitpick in a film with far greater issue, such as its awkward tone and overwrought storytelling. The writers could even explain it away, perhaps – the evil T-800 that first pursued Sarah in the original 1984 timeline may have simply not cared about disguising itself as a human, and therefore let its skin rot through self-neglect. The good T-800 – Pops – on the other hand, might have used something to prevent its skin from infection, thus giving it time to heal.
For this writer, though, this plot detail strikes at the heart of what’s wrong with Terminator: Genisys – it falls between two stools.
The 1984 Terminator is a dark, relentless nightmare of a movie – famously inspired by a nightmare, in fact – and arguably as much a horror film as it is a sci-fi action thriller. The scene with the rotting cyborg in the LA flophouse is a shining example of James Cameron’s talent as a storyteller at this age in his career; there’s something incredibly disquieting about the notion of a machine lurking inside a slab of meat; in the heat of a humid Los Angeles summer, the high-tech grim reaper has begun to reek of death.
The horror is largely absent from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but that’s by design. This is a bigger, slicker Terminator, retooled and refined for the summer multiplex crowd. The grotesque concept of the metallic incarnation of death, flies buzzing round its pallid face, may have gone, but it’s replaced by something else Cameron is incredibly good at – creating a sense of occasion. Even today, the crashes feel huge; the punches look bruising; the blazing guns and bullet hits have weight and fury. T2 has action and thrills that you can actually feel in your gut.
Terminator: Genisys, meanwhile, fails to muster the scuzzy, fly-blown horror atmosphere of The Terminator or the sense of momentous events of T2. Firearms are discharged, punches are thrown, and a school bus is flipped over at one point, yet it all feels somehow ephemeral. Try as he might, Alan Taylor can’t muster the weight and big-screen grandiosity that Cameron conjured up with apparent ease.
Whether we’re talking about sci-fi horror in the first entry or blockbuster action in the second, the first two Terminator films are united by Cameron’s storytelling brilliance. Terminator: Genisys – and the other post-T2 films, for that matter – may retain the concept of a combat chassis covered in living tissue, but it doesn’t play with the implication of metal and flesh in the playful, deceptively smart way that Cameron’s movies do. Without the buzzing flies, the sense of impending doom or the event status of T2, Genisys becomes just another action movie stuffed full of special effects.
From a distance, Terminator: Genisys might look like a return to form for an aging franchise; on closer inspection, its resemblance to a pair of genre cinema classics is merely skin deep.