I get it; for years now, we’ve been living in a time where reviving dormant or dead series to capitalize on brand recognition is Hollywood’s flavor of the day, and after Harry Potter and The Avengers blew open the doors for long-form serialization, every studio was left scrambling to launch or repurpose any franchise they could find that might conceivably sustain continuous, indefinite, installments. The problem, though, is that not all stories benefit from this open-ended approach. There’s still a great deal of value in endings, and that’s no more clear than it is with the Terminator series.
This whole thing just feels so profoundly tired at this point. The last movie that anyone agrees was any good came out 24 years ago, and we’ve had three new movies during that time. The series, by its very nature, is a repetitive time loop, constantly telling the same story over and over and over again, and the idea that we’re going to keep this going forever is exhausting.
This new movie goes the extra mile by telling us the last two movies and 24 years don’t count anymore. That’s right, Terminator Jenny Craig is a direct sequel to Terminator 2, completely ignoring the events of Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation. The film reintroduces us to John Connor and Kyle Reese well into the war with the machines. We get to spend a little bit of time with them there, but very quickly we fast forward to 2029 when the human resistance is just about to win the war. John Connor leads a battalion of soldiers to capture the time displacement device before Skynet is able to send any Terminators back in time, but he arrives too late. A T-800 has been sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, starting this time loop all over again. John prepares to send Kyle Reese back in time, knowing that he will be his father in the past, but right as they fire up the time machine, something unexpected happens. John Connor is attacked, and when Reese finally arrives in 1984, everything has changed. Sarah Connor is already waiting for his arrival, along with a T-800 that was sent back to protect her as a child. Together they resolve to jump forward to 2017, just before Skynet comes online in this timeline, in an attempt to prevent Judgement Day from happening.
Allow me to cut to the chase and say that this is, without a doubt, the worst movie in the whole Terminator series, which is a fairly impressive accomplishment when you remember just how terrible T3 is. Terminator Jelly Bean is possibly the most fan fiction-ey blockbuster ever made. The whole movie is little more than an endless string of lame callbacks to the first two films, along with a few ideas that are stolen wholesale from the movies it writes out of the timeline. It is so profoundly lacking in ideas that in the first half-hour of the film, they ripoff the climactic battle with the T-800 from Salvation. That’s right, they steal one of the worst parts of the movie that everyone hates the most, and they do a worse job of it. The film also makes the baffling mistake of straight-up remaking scenes from the original Terminator, intentionally inviting a comparison that’s not going to come down favorably on the side of the new movie.
The stuff in 1984 is terrible, it bounces back and forth between being a watered down remake of the original and being jokey and bad. The movie thinks it’s being really clever with the Kyle Reese/Sarah Connor role reversal, but none of it plays in a way that feels interesting or smart, instead it amounts to little more than irritating bickering and winking callbacks to the first two films. There’s no joy or momentum to any of this, it’s just spinning its wheels with empty fan service until the real story starts.
Even then, the movie doesn’t get much better when we jump forward to 2017. Instead we just get a watered down version of the same plot we got in T2 and T3 with some halfhearted whining about the way we’ve integrated technology into our daily lives. All of it feels so played out and pointless and also weirdly dated. The movie’s MacGuffin is the launch of the operating system Genisys that will supposedly revolutionize the world by linking your phone, your tablet, your computer, and your car – you know, just like iOS and Android have been doing for years now. Beyond the lame attempt at a message, there’s no real reason to have it set in 2017 other than the fact that the first three movies were all set in roughly the present day. Beyond that, continually moving the goalposts so that each new movie can take place in the present means that the story can never progress. For all of T3’s badness, it had the balls to end with the annihilation of the world, and Terminator Salvation followed through by giving us a whole film set in the post-apocalyptic future. Instead of continuing that story and taking it to new, interesting places, Terminator Gary Coleman takes the most infuriatingly lazy path of erasing the previous few films and resetting the status quo. I’m not a stickler for fetishistic adherence to continuity (though I appreciate it when it happens) but if you are going to ignore the series continuity, it must be in the service of telling a more interesting story. Doing the T2/T3 story again is so boring.
It doesn’t help that the whole thing feels neutered with a PG-13 rating. Yeah, T3 was terrible, but at least it had the decency to be live up to the standards of violence set by its predecessor, and even the PG-13 Terminator Salvation got close enough to that line that it felt of a piece with the rest of the series. Terminator Jasmine Rice, though, feels like a cartoon. Everything is so safe and squeaky clean that it almost feels patronizing.
Part of the problem lies in the continued softening of the titular Terminator. The original film is basically a slasher movie with guns instead of knives. The Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator was a relentless, unstoppable force in much the same way as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, and frankly it was scary. T2 shook things up with its cute, first act twist, but that decision has effectively rewritten history and retroactively defined the whole series in a way that I think is really unfortunate. Outside of that initial twist, there’s nothing particularly interesting or cool about the Terminator as a good guy, in fact, the movies end up using him as a joke – this goofy, out-of-touch father figure. The whole thing that makes the Terminator interesting is that it’s an unstoppable killing machine – when you take that away, you might as well just be making the pilot for a CBS sitcom called My Dad, The Terminator. In fact, the character has become so softened that he’s not even listed as the Terminator in the end credits! I’m not kidding. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s actual credited role in this film is “Guardian.” To his credit, Schwarzenegger is clearly having fun with the role, and I can’t help but be charmed by the national treasure that is old Arnold, but beyond the simple pleasure of hearing Kyle Reese pronounced as “Calories” this character doesn’t work in the context of the larger story being told. Outside of participating in the action scenes, he has virtually no bearing on how the story plays out.
As for the rest of the cast, Emilia Clarke does a serviceable job as Sarah Connor, playing her somewhere in between T2’s hardened warrior and The Terminator’s version of a woman who is in way over her head and is just trying to make it to the next moment. The problem is that it never comes together to a point where Sarah feels like a real person, it always feels like an actor playing a character rather than feeling real and alive. Even worse is Jai Courtney who is a personality-less lump who plays his scenes as though he’s thinking about what he’s going to have for dinner that night. He has absolutely no presenc, which is really unfortunate since he’s basically the lead of the movie. The biggest problem is that these two don’t have an ounce of chemistry between them. There’s so little spark that you could douse them in gasoline and not be in any danger. What makes this so crazy is that the romance between the two of them is, on paper, the driving force of the film. While the movie mostly riffs on stuff from T2, it borrow’s the original film’s central love story in a big way, so the fact that these performers don’t connect in a meaningful way means that the whole affair is sunk before it can even get off the ground.
If ever there was a film that had no reason to be made, it’s Terminator Jheri Curl. Not only is it another bad entry in a series that passed its expiration date two decades ago, it also undermines any amount of progress that was made during that time. The idea of a series predicated around a perpetual time loop sounds like it could be fertile ground for the kind of long-form serialization that movie studios are craving, but it’s absolute death for storytelling. What makes the Marvel movies work is that each movie feels a little bit different, they play with different characters and different genres and progress the story to new places. With the Terminator series, three of its five films now have identical plots.
The only way to make this series interesting now is to end it, to break these characters free from their time loop and give this thing some sense of resolution. The series has made it clear that Judgement Day is inevitable and you can’t un-invent Skynet, so force these characters to deal with the consequences of the future instead of constantly trying (and failing) to change the past. But of course, that’s not going to happen, because the Terminator franchise can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.