Directed by: Jonathan Mastow1, McG2, Alan Taylor3 || Produced by: Hal Lieberman1, Colin Wilson1, Mario F. Kassar1, Andrew G. Vajna1, Joel B. Michaels1, Derek Anderson2, Mortiz Borman2, Victor Kubicek2, Jeffrey Silver2, David Ellison3, Dana Goldberg3
Screenplay by: John Brancato1-2, Michael Ferris1-2, Laeta Kalogridis3, Patrick Lussier3 || Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger1, 3, Nick Stahl1, Claire Danes1, Kristanna Loken1, Christian Bale2, Sam Worthington2, Anton Yelchin2, Moon Bloodgood2, Bryce Dallas Howard2, Common2, Jason Clarke3, Emilia Clarke3, Jai Courtney3, Lee Byung-hun3
Music by: Marco Beltrami1, Danny Elfman2, Lorne Balfe3 || Cinematography: Don Burgess1, Shane Hurlbut2, Kramer Morgenthau3 || Edited by: Neil Travis1, Nicolas de Toth1, Conrad Buff2, Roger Barton3 || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 109 minutes1, 118 minutes2, 126 minutes3 || 1 = Rise of the Machines, 2 = Salvation, 3 = Genisys
In honor of the latest sequel in the Terminator (1984, 1991, 2003, 2009, 2015, 2019) franchise, Dark Fate (2019), which released this past weekend, I thought it prudent to look back at the low, low depths to which the theatrical series had sunk following the dizzying heights of James Cameron’s greatest filmmaking effort (see Terminator II: Judgement Day ). To say the series made Cameron into the blockbuster genre-master he is today would be an understatement; as much as I don’t care about his ongoing work with the Avatar (2009) sequels, he’s the creative auteur behind several of my favorite movies, and I appreciate his intense, unique approach to action filmmaking, his ability to magnify his set-pieces to scales that would ordinarily prompt exhaustion or disinterest in the hands of most other filmmakers (e.g. Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, Roland Emmerich).
It’s no surprise then, that his original cinematic baby, the Terminator franchise, took a nosedive following his departure after the first sequel. Judgement Day remains as much a benchmark for Hollywood blockbuster sequels as The Empire Strikes Back (1980), a sequel that bests the scope and intellectual merit of its groundbreaking predecessor, and yet its sequels are anything but. They are as underwhelming and unnecessary as any major sequel in modern Hollywood. Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys were directed by three different filmmakers (Jonathan Mostow, Joseph McGinty “McG” Nichol, and Alan Taylor, respectively) and produced by three different studios, and are all quite distinct from one another. Identifiable series’ tropes and plot devices (e.g. time-travel, sentient machine overlords, predestination, killer-robot antagonists, etc.) repeat over and over, sure, but the visual style, tone, main cast, and overall action flavor of each lesser Terminator sequel vary to such an extent it’s impressive how disappointing they all are in different ways.
Let us start with Terminator III: Rise of the Machines; by far the most derivative of the lesser Terminators — which should not be interpreted as compliments to either Salvation or Genisys, for the record — Terminator III (henceforth, T3) feels the most traditional blockbuster sequel of the bunch, playing it safe by more or less recycling the entire plot of Judgment Day only with less interesting human characters who have no chemistry. The lone “creative addition” to the series is Kristanna Loken’s T-X female-terminator, whose screen presence is a significant step down from Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in Judgment Day, and feels more in common with Lara Flynn Boyle from Men in Black II (2002, i.e. it’s a sexy girl villain!). This gimmick of an antagonist might be tolerable if we had likable characters to whom we could relate, but quasi-leads Nick Stahl and Claire Daines are flat-lines; their characters are dry and boast minimal development, while their performances feel amateurish compared to both Arnold Schwarzenegger and the impressive special FX around them. To this day, I remain baffled how a $187 million production was green-lit with not one, but two no-name leads who leave zero impressions with their acting. At least Christian Bale and Emilia Clarke headlining Salvation and Genisys, respectively, make sense from a marketing perspective.
Schwarzenegger’s presence in T3 is the film’s main selling point, and he performs well against Mastow’s competent action sequences. T3 was Arnold’s final starring role before his transition to politics with the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, and his third stab at the titular character is professional, if not worth the alleged record $30 million salary he was paid. Mastow’s action camerawork is sufficient for the film’s high production values and appreciated R-rating, the latter of which would become a scare commodity in 2000-2010s Hollywood as the industry shifted away from adult-oriented action in blockbusters until Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016, Miller, to bring things full-circle, directed Dark Fate).
T3 feels like a big-budget B-movie at times, with its bland starring cast, charismatic though underutilized Schwarzenegger, decent pacing, and memorable FX. The problems with the end result are (1) the aforementioned castmembers besides Schwarzenegger, who possess the collective personality of a rice cake, and (2) the sheer predictability and unimaginative, unnecessary narrative justification of the film’s entire premise. Judgment Day felt like the natural end for the diegesis Cameron introduced in The Terminator (1984), a more upbeat yet ambiguous closing chapter about the series’ contemplation of fate, human technology, and our ability to prevent our own self-destruction. T3‘s chief diegetic weakness is not that it exists, but that it makes no narrative justification for its existence. Its inciting incidents are confusing, its character reunions, contrived, and its ultimate ending, unsatisfying.
The series’ narrative laziness would only metastasize in the films that followed, however. As haphazard as T3’s screenplay felt, McG’s Salvation would take narrative sloppiness to a whole new level. The 2009 sequel at least had a more enticing premise than T3 ever did, in the former’s defense: Rather than recycle the modern-day survival narrative of the first two films, Salvation shifted the series’ focus to the actual post-apocalyptic killer robot-war teased yet never explored in the previous films. It is hard to overstate how much of a breath of fresh air this change in setting feels even in hindsight. I credit the producers for taking this series in a novel yet logical direction, but the third sequel’s execution of that post-apocalyptic vision fails in most every respect not counting its action sequences or FX.
Despite having a far more respectable cast than its predecessor even without Schwarzenegger (e.g. Christian Bale, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common), Salvation squanders them with boring characters, a nonsensical story, and a bizarre focus on the wooden, robotic (talk about irony… ) starring performance of Sam Worthington. This third sequel, in many ways, is the most frustrating movie in the entire franchise given its promising diegetic reboot of the series, Bale’s ostensible lead (he’s more or less sidelined by Worthington, who is the first of three generic Australian stars to waste my time in these films), its fucking incredible sound-design, and creative villain-designs. I’m not sure whom to blame the most for this film’s numerous problems, be it studio interference or McG, himself.
Wrapping up the Terminator films’ self-embarrassment — assuming Miller and Cameron’s involvement with Dark Fate means anything, of course — is Alan Taylor’s Genisys, whose screenplay is every bit as dumb as its title. I remarked on my cynical, disillusioned response to this film’s trailer years ago before the movie was released, finding the trailer’s footage so misguided and so laughable as to avoid it in theatres, altogether. My “appreciation” for Genisys‘ honest marketing was proven well founded after eventually streaming the movie at home: The film is an unabashed hodgepodge of franchise iconography cobbled together with an incoherent, contrived time-travel plot and toothless PG-13 action sequences. It’s debatable whether Genisys‘ hackneyed script is more or less nonsensical than Salvation’s meandering nonplot, but at least the latter tried for something besides another Judgement Day retread; Genisys feels like glorified fan-fiction, ripping entire sequences, characters, and various marketable imagery from installments past and jury-rigging them into a format that somewhat resembles a plot.
This story’s questionable cause-and-effect logic and unapologetic plagiarism of previous titles is, however, only as embarrassing as its lackadaisical computer generated imagery (CGI), comical stunts, and bloodless violence. At least all previous films looked their budget and used their mammoth production values to portray convincing set-pieces. Genisys, however, looks cheap and its action sequences feel cartoonish a la most contemporary comic book-movies. We’ve come a long way from Schwarzenegger mowing down police officers with abandon in 1984, or Jenette Goldstein knifing Xander Berkeley through the mouth in 1991.
I would further describe how embarrassing Daenerys Targaryen, Jason Clarke, and Jai Courtney are in Genisys, but at some point I’d start repeating myself. If you have a morbid curiosity to see just how low the once great Terminator franchise sunk by the mid 2010s, I suppose we all have our weird hobbies, but beyond that, I struggle to recommend these sloppy action movies to most. Salvation kind of works on a purely visceral level, but Rise of the Machines and Genisys are representative of the worst of modern Hollywood, namely the industry’s predisposition to abuse iconic properties, invest hundreds of millions of dollars in movies nobody wanted, and force cynical reboot after cynical reboot only to fail in every way possible way. The Terminator’s bastardization at the hands of so many uncaring executives and untalented filmmakers would be more amusing if not for what its worst films represent: The fall from grace of one of the greatest science-fiction-action intellectual properties in Western filmmaking.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Rise of the Machines is action-packed but heartless and unimaginative; Salvation has some good ideas and looks great, but sidelines good actors for bad ones and forgets about anything resembling a coherent narrative; Genisys is the most openly parasitic of the bunch, aping its parent franchise’s best moments to such a shameless extent it makes
Robert Rodriguez’s Nimrod Antal’s Predators (2010) look groundbreaking and innovative.
—> Terminator 3 and Genisys are NOT RECOMMENDED, no way no how, though Salvation’s effective action sequences and halfhearted novelty leave me somewhat ON THE FENCE.
? Who the fuck nicknames themselves “McG?”