Terminator: Genisys – A Fascinating Fan Fiction Error (Mild Spoilers)

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Terminator: Genisys is, I think, the first fully-blown fan fiction effort to make it to the big screen.  It feels like some of those fanfic epics I’ve seen: taking unanswered questions from the backstory and going, “What would happen if the timelines we knew were all screwed up?”
The problem is, Genisys makes the same error as a lot of bad fanfic.  Which is to say there’s a very subtle – but very major – difference when someone’s watching because they want to see what what the author does next, and someone watching to see what the characters do next.
Hint: Watching to see what the author does next is inherently less interesting.
Terminator: Genisys is soaked in Terminator backstory – in fact, several of the “previous timeline” scenes are literal shot-for-shot remakes of the original film with new actors, at least until we encounter the point where Timelines Diverge.  And the way the timelines get bollixed is very clever, and if you’re hyper-familiar with the Terminator franchise as I am then you’ll be like “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.”
The problem is, there’s so much baggage associated with “Okay, if you’re not familiar with what happened, let’s tell you about how this all went down.”  So Genisys is bogged with a ton of exposition, with characters explaining stuff to each other instead of interacting with each other.  They have scenes that look, to an untrained eye, like two characters interacting, but in truth what Kyle Reese is doing is telling Sarah Connor a story about how awesome John Connor is. Or Sarah is telling Kyle about how the Terminator first visited her.
The reason it’s subtly wrong is because yes, in the first movie, Kyle tells Sarah about John Connor.  But in that case, it’s not because John Connor is important – it’s because Kyle is trying to share his motivations for being here, and in this sense the revelation is a form of intimacy they’re finally sharing with each other.  The backstory is merely a clever way of doing two things in one scene.  He’s concerned for Sarah Connor right now, because he loves her, and is terrified for her, and wants her to understand him so he’ll trust her.
Whereas in Genisys, the priorities are strictly reversed: Kyle is telling Sarah because we need to know how awesome John Connor is, and how awesome this future is, and here’s all the backstory we’ll lose if this timeline goes wrong.  Oh, yeah, and, uh, I guess we like each other too.  The priority’s not about forging an emotional connection with Sarah Connor, it’s about attempting to forge an emotional reaction with this amazing backstory we’re trying to preserve.
As such, Terminator Genisys blithely assumes we care about Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese before we’ve really gotten to know them – which is an error that fanfics often make.  (Which doesn’t make those bad fanfics, as the glory of fan fiction is that you can enjoy the fuck out of them when you know all about Harry and Hermione and just want to see what happens next – but it renders those fanfics far less emotionally compelling than the original fiction, because it uses the original work as a crutch instead of a platform.  Put another way, it doesn’t make them bad fanfics but it limits them to being fanfics, in much the same way that X-Men comic books are often restricted to being good X-Men stories, moving only to those thoroughly steeped in X-Men knowledge.)
So what you have in Genisys is a series of very interesting plotlines in search of a connection with character.  And this is where Genisys makes its second mistake:
The villain holds back. A lot.
In the first two Terminator films, the good ones, there was zero mercy. That’s what made them so compelling. If you were in the room with a Terminator, it would try to kill you, and would succeed if you didn’t get the fuck out quickly.  If it could kill you with a gunshot, it would take the shot.  If it could sneak up on you and stab you when you weren’t looking, it would destroy you.
The first Terminator we meet in the new timeline bobbles its shot by announcing its presence to Kyle Reese before killing him.  Of course Kyle Reese gets away instead of being silently knifed in an alley.
The big villain has the heroes alone in a room, with them completely at its mercy, and instead chats merrily with them.
The big villain knows the heroes are arriving to stop him, and instead of getting on the roof and sniping them he obligingly walks into his Big Villain Lair and prepares his monologue, which he will deliver before taking his first shot.
The reason the first two Terminator movies worked so well is because the Terminators did not give a fuck about the plotline.  They had one goal: to kill.  Whereas Genisys’s Terminators seem very invested in keeping the characters we love alive, attacking the least vulnerable ones first to give them a shot, and that “Let’s make this interesting” undercuts the whole film.  The seams are showing; you can almost watch the marionette strings yanking upwards, pulling the bad guys’ gun-hands up so they fire over the heads of these characters the plot so desperately needs preserving.
Which is not to say that Genisys is a bad film!  It is, as noted, fanfic.  I loved the twists it put on standard Terminator mythology. The action sequences are enthralling.  The SFX are a lot of fun, and the timeline hijinks are interesting.  It’s well worth a watch.
But during the whole movie, I didn’t think, “Oh, Kyle and Sarah are in trouble.” I thought “Oh, wow, that’s a neat twist, how will that be resolved?”  And as such, the portion of my brain that solved logic puzzles clicked on, instead of the tiny lizard-brain that goes, “I LOVE THESE PEOPLE AND SOMEONE IS GOING TO HURT THEM OH GOD PLEASE SOMEONE HELP THEM.”
Terminator Genisys is, as noted, pretty entertaining.  But I wish they’d been less respectful to the franchise’s history and more respectful of the franchise’s plot mechanisms.  Because what we have here is a very lovely world someone has created, one with characters they needed to tell A Sweeping Story Of The Multiverse, and instead this might have been an A-plus film if they’d forgotten about the damned multiverse and concentrated on the story of two people trying to survive.

1 Comment

  1. Mark
    Jul 13, 2015

    Spot on review. I didn’t have too much of a problem with the first Terminator announcing its presence, even though it seemed moderately dumb of him to do so. But the second villain was just way too pompous and kind to the main characters.
    SPOILER ALERT. The fan-fiction of the film became too much for me at the end. It was like some 14 year old kid’s fantasy: what if Arnold Schwartzenegger becomes a T-1000!!! OMGOMG!

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