(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) Where to begin? Terminator Genisys is a big mess of a movie. Not that I care all that much: After all, I’m on record as saying that the first two movies of the Terminator series are bona fide classics, and that the third and fourth ones are nothing more than ascended fan fiction. This fifth instalment has the saving grace of being more ambitious than it could have been, but at this point the Terminator mythos has been trampled so thoroughly that we’re well into the degenerate phase of the franchise: everything gets remixed endlessly and the result is best appreciated as postmodern mush for the fans. Enough is enough: let the whole thing go! But that will never happen and given this certitude, the only thing left to do is to appreciate the good bits and moan about the bad ones. What works is Schwarzenegger being cast age-appropriately and the various contortions the plot has to go through in order to make it happen. The re-creation of the 1984 original is interesting, and so is the craziness of seeing so many temporal loops crashing into each other. On the other hand… Emilia Clarke and Jai Courteney are terrible lifeless choices for the iconic roles they’re meant to reprise. Jason Clarke does better—but while I like the manic episode he gets to play, it severely undermines that character he’s supposed to be. The dumbness of the film can’t be overstated, and its self-conscious status as the first in a new trilogy means that it can’t be relied upon to answer some basic plot questions, leaving them to a sequel that looks as if it will never exist as of this writing given Genisys’s tepid commercial success. (Forget Terminator 6: I want a movie about how the Terminator franchise is being sabotaged by time-travellers who fear that the next film will succeed and bring untold devastation to the world.) At charitable times, I’d call Genisys “interesting”—but at others, I’d call it overstuffed, under-thought, meandering and frustrating. The ruthless simplicity of the first film’s ongoing nightmare has been replaced by a tangled web of fan-service, while the themes and pulse-pounding action of the sequel have been muddled in generic action sequences and puddle-deep snark about modern technology. I would at the very least expect any new Terminator to have something to say about our relationship to machines. Otherwise, well, we’re back to ascended fan fiction.
(In theaters, May 2009) Since I have decided that the Terminator series ended at the end of the second film, I’ve been able to consider all the multiple spin-offs and retreads with far more equanimity. Terminator 3 was a competent action picture, but nothing more than glorified fan-fiction. This fourth entry, alas, struggles even with the “competent” part: While two or three sequences show some action-cinema skills (ah, that helicopter crash!), the script itself is a load of nonsense compounded by an execution that seems determined to evacuate all ideas of fun from the result. Drab and dreary cinematography reinforce the idea of a post-apocalyptic world at the expense of entertainment: It’s not as if dystopias are rare nowadays, even in the evening news, and the peppy shiny future of Star Trek seems a lot more interesting than the blasted deserts of Terminator 4. As for the story itself, the series is stomping harder and harder on an ever-smaller plot of sand: There are few innovations this time around, and the rules of the series, so well-defined in earlier films, seems inconsistent here. (Sometimes the terminators will answer to loud music, whereas other times it takes a quasi-nuclear explosion.) The logic of the film’s world is nonexistent: The screenwriters would like us to believe that the human resistance uses A-10 planes, conveniently asking us to forget the infrastructure required to maintain such things up and running after a nuclear war and years of attrition. At other times, skyscraper-big terminators manage to silently get close enough to the characters to give them wedgies. And need I ask why the terminators would need to herd humans rather than shoot them on sight like they’ve done so far in the series mythology? Also; heart surgery in the future is really easy. But the worst thing about the film remains a script that follows dozens of characters without really committing to any of them. Christian Bale growls his John Connor while Moon Bloodgold makes enough of an impression to warrant a film of her own, but few others are worth remembering. Elsewhere, plot threads are raised and dropped incoherently, but there’s little of the tight human element that made the first two movies such classics. Oh well; it’s all fan-fiction whenever James Cameron’s not involved anyway.
(In theaters, July 2003) As a big fan of Terminator 2, this sequel seemed like one of the most superfluous projects of all times. If James Cameron wasn’t on board, why even bother? It’s not as if T2 needed a sequel. If you really wanted one, well, there’s plenty of fan-fiction on the Internet and indeed that’s what Terminator 3 truly feels like: Without Cameron’s vision, we’re stuck with recycled imagery, pedestrian dialogues and mere continuations of previously-established elements rather than genuinely new things. It all culminates in (ooh, aah) a female Terminator, the “genius idea” of Terminator fan-writers for more than a decade. As the film unfolds, it never completely loses its taint of fan-fiction. This is obviously not The Vision, but An Adaptation that loosely connects with the original duology. Oh, as straight entertainment, Terminator 3 succeeds far more than it fails. There’s a pretty good car chase involving remote-controlled emergency vehicles and a massive construction crane. Plus, there are a few good shootouts. The special effects are the best in the series (despite their annoying tendency to be overly blurry during fast-moving shots), culminating in some truly astonishing make-up/CGI work late in the film. Heck, even the conclusion features a cool little twist, an audacious “so there!” to the audience. But however entertaining it may become, it’s still fan fiction. Good fan fiction, maybe, but still fan fiction nonetheless.
(Second viewing, On DVD, June 2003) Once you see beyond a few dated special-effects shots, this movie holds up amazingly well almost two decades later. This first instalment in the series looks good for its low budget and presents, almost in a nutshell, all the ideas that would later pop up in the sequel. Arnold Schwarzenegger looks too young (and has too much hair), but ably demonstrates his star qualities in a role that seems almost custom-built for his (limited) talents. Linda Hamilton is adorable as the fluffy Sarah Connor and the eighties setting now seems almost emblematic rather than dated. The Special Edition DVD presents plenty of extras, including fascinating deleted scenes (further showing the way to the second film) and a revealing look behind the scenes of Cameron’s “true” first film. We may be tempted to see this film merely as the first volume of a series but it’s actually quite good as a standalone film of the era.
(Third viewing, On DVD, December 2000) This has long stood near the top of my “favourite films” list, and a thorough examination of “The Ultimate Edition” DVD only confirms this opinion. James Cameron always delivers, and his 1991 magnum opus does everything you could imagine from a science-fiction film: Good story, fantastic characters, a lot of underlying philosophical issues, exhausting action scenes and impressive special effects. It has aged very well (at the exception of the trailer, a form of cinema whose execution and overall quality has risen dramatically with the introduction of AVID editing machines during the nineties, but that’s another essay for another time.) and still represent a career high for everyone involved. The DVD itself lives up to it’s “Ultimate Edition” billing, containing no less than three versions of the film, three making-ofs, an astonishing number of video featurettes, the complete script and oodles of miscellaneous information about the film. It’s a film school on a disc (or two) and it features everything to satiate your thirst of knowledge about the film. It’s so complete that it feels as if the only thing missing are the dailies. (There are even edit-your-own multi-angle segments and multi-audio-track sound editing demos) Truly a superlative, nay, an essential DVD: Great film, great use of the medium.
(Fourth viewing, On DVD, July 2003) Yes, this film is ageing. But it’s ageing very well, and the fantastic thematic depth of the film more than compensates for the increasingly primitive special effects. One of the rare actions films to pack a steady punch even after multiple viewings, Terminator 2 is a wonder to behold on almost every level. James Cameron has rarely been as comfortable with the camera, and that also stands for the adult acting talent in the movie. The only increasingly annoying flaw is Eddie Furlong’s freshman performance, which is often the weakest link of the film. Otherwise, well, just sit down and enjoy the true conclusion to the Terminator series. (I scoff at T3) The “Ultimate Edition” DVD is still a stunning example of what is possible with the format, even after being superseded by yet another “Extreme Edition”.