Terminator Genisys went through a very Terminator-like experience this weekend. In July, the film had its ass thoroughly beaten by a slew of upgraded, state-of-the-art blockbuster models. Genisys, old and outdated, is now sprawled on a crusty movie theater floor somewhere with an $89.1M domestic box office (mediocre), quietly fearing for its own death. Could Terminator not actually get a sequel this time?
And in walk four million Chinese people. They extend four million hands in unison. “Come with us if you want to live,” they say, probably in Mandarin.
On Sunday, Terminator Genisys opened in China. And thanks to a whirlwind of good fortune and crafty planning (Genisys being the first Hollywood blockbuster released in China after a two month foreign film blackout; Arnold Schwarzenegger kicking off a gargantuan Chinese press tour last week), it made a shit ton of money. $27M in a single day, actually. Immediately afterward, the conversation around Terminator Genisys shifted from picking out the franchise’s tombstone to admitting a sequel might actually be in the cards. Especially considering Paramount already slotted Terminator Gynesisz for May 19, 2017, and that an earlier report from THR admits that Paramount’s been praying for a massive Chinese opening to make a sequel look viable.
I’m okay with this. Terminator Genisys was an unforgivable mess, but there’s one very small portion of it that’s extremely forgivable, unabashedly brilliant and deserves more than anything to be the focus of another sequel. Prepare for SPOILERS, because this redeeming fraction of Terminator Genisys happens in the last five minutes.
At the film’s climax, the friendly T-800 (Schwarzenegger) and the evil nanomachine-infected John Connor (Jason Clarke) duke it out in the Cyberdyne warehouse floor where the corporation stores all of its most cutting-edge technology. Connor-bot gets the upper hand on Arnie-bot, terminates him, and chucks him into a vat of proto-T-1000 liquid metal. Yadda yadda yadda, the good future is restored and Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) are holed up in their safe room when something cuts through the wall.
It’s Schwarzenegger! Who, thanks to a handy plot device, was rejuvenated with liquid metal and now has all the powers of a T-1000.
As soon as I saw it in theaters- Arnie stepping in through the doorway, his arm shlooping outward to form that iconic, slippery metal hand-sword- something clicked in my brain. This is perfect. It’s the obvious next step in progressing the Terminator franchise, and building on T2’s own upgraded stakes. Here, look:
In The Terminator, the Skynet send a cyborg back, while the humans just send a regular human.
In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the humans recruit their own killer cyborg, so Skynet one-ups them with a nightmare new breed of robot no one’s ever heard of before.
In Terminator 3, shouldn’t the humans have nabbed their own T-1000 (Arnold-shaped, of course) to combat the new threat, only to hit a brick wall when Skynet had their own hot new cyborg?
It’s a huge part of Terminator 2’s wow-factor appeal (beyond its general greatness as an action movie): the hero gets an upgrade, just like the villain. In The Terminator we saw an entire film dedicated to the T-800’s unstoppable killing power, and now we’ve got one fighting on our side. Look at our new toy. Isn’t it neat? (That same “new toy” feeling is what drives Jurassic World– we’ve seen dinosaurs that want to eat us; now they’re ours, and clawing our enemies alongside a gun-toting Chris Pratt).
It’s also perhaps the most dominant flaw in all those Terminator sequels that no one cares about. The villains get their upgrade (something messy and overcomplicated, like the T-X’s exoskeleton with liquid metal and also built-in power tools), but Schwarzenegger’s T-800 stays the same. Same biker bar sense of cool. Same lovable inability to interpret our human mannerisms. T2 layered humanity and family-man values on top of a character we’d only ever seen as a titanium killing machine. It struck a perfect balance. Iconic, even. Future sequels didn’t add a thing to the character beyond more layers of the same human coating.
At the end of Rise of the Machines, the T-800 is reprogrammed from “protect John Connor” to “destroy John Connor,” but in the middle of strangling Connor to death, the T-800 gets one of those look into your heart pep talks (“You know my destiny. I have to live!” Connor shouts, amid gasps) and performs a factory reset through sheer the power of love.
Right from the start of Genisys, the T-800 has protective father-in-law feelings for Sarah (and against Kyle Reese) that are clearly emotional and not programming-based. If not for the endoskeleton poking out from his wounds, he’d barely read as a robot at all when glaring at Kyle and trying to assert his man-dominance by stocking more ammo than his sort-of son-in-law. We’ve gone so far beyond “I know now why you cry” that we’ve turned the T-800 into Archie Bunker and Kyle Reese into Meathead.
To keep the Terminator franchise fresh, you have to keep the actual Terminator fresh. And for the first time since T2, Genisys actually takes a step to do so. Dipping Arnie in liquid metal is the first time someone’s dared to alter the character (a sequel-driving, moneymaking character, no less) in 24 years. Kind of impressive, really. Even if it seems like the writers behind Genisys (Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier) don’t really grasp its power or importance to the Terminator franchise.
For one, the liquid metal Schwarzenegger is introduced Genisys’s closing minutes. This gives our fresh, exciting hero time to cut through one door, perform one arm-shloop, deliver one half-baked quip (I can’t remember it word-for-word, but it’s something about being “upgraded”) and then stand around and do nothing for a minute or two until the credits roll.
This is wrong. When you give someone a new toy, you don’t unwrap it, run through its nifty new features and then lock it in a closet for two years. Cameron gave us his in the first half-hour. Jurassic World built up the idea of dinosaur morality slowly, but made sure to unleash true action-hero dinosaurs in its final, wildly satisfying dinofight.
Genisys’s upgraded Schwarzenegger didn’t even merit a post-credits stinger. Instead, we got a flashing red light in the busted Skynet mainframe, the computer equivalent of the thought-to-be-dead villain’s eyes opening just before the cut to black. If not for the existence of “It was all a dream!” this would be the number one hokiest twist-ending cliche around. If instead, Genisys debuted its cutting-edge Schwarzenegger after the credits rolled, it’d be a sign that the film understands the potential they’re sitting on here.
There’s also this interview with Kalogridis and Lussier at io9. When asked what Schwarzenegger’s T-800 becomes at the end of Genisys, we get this response.
Kalogridis: I don’t think we even have a name for what he is now.
Lussier: He’s a prototype now.
Kalogridis: I guess he is. An unintentional one. But yeah I think.
Germain Lussier (who did the interview) admits that the writers don’t seem to know what the character is anymore. Granted, it’s a few short sentences and to read too much into it would not be the wisest thing. But it comes off like a shrug in regards to such a revolutionary move.
Tasha Robinson penned a wonderful piece on the importance of T2’s villain-hero reversal, back when The Dissolve was still up and running (RIP, The Dissolve). Specifically, she details the great pains James Cameron took to hide the twist until this moment, about a half-hour into the film.
Robinson’s piece continues into T2’s ad campaign, which blew the twist for everyone (“This time he’s back… for good!” reads the film’s coolness-ruining tagline). Robinson argues that this was probably to T2’s benefit financially, because without spoiling the twist you’d have to market T2 as a carbon copy of the first film. Even if that meant spoiling Cameron’s masterfully-crafted twist for everybody who saw the ads.
Except for me, though. I was still counting my age in months when those ads were on TV, so young me had zero knowledge of T2’s big twist. Not much knowledge of Terminator anything, really. Not until I was middle school-aged and my dad found the first Terminator on cable and urged me to watch. I loved it; he went out to Blockbuster and picked up T2 that weekend.
We sat in the basement and watched. Even with the assumption that it’s yet another human-vs-evil-Arnold slugfest, T2 is still cool as hell, with biker bars and George Thorogood and a middle school-aged kid who was a total rebel, man. And then the above clip happens. Schwarzenegger yells “get down”- wait, what?– saves John Connor and blasts the “hero” cop into some kind of evil silver ooze. The entire movie flips on its head. The sunglasses, black leather and “Bad to the Bone?” He’s fighting on my team!
I look over at my dad, goggle-eyed. No way.
My dad looks at me, smiling. Yup.
That might be my favorite movie-watching memory, ever. And in all honesty, probably a pretty major bias in my championing of Terminator Genisys’s strikingly similar upgraded-Arnold ending twist. Seeing Schwarzenegger come through that door with that liquid metal arm conjured up that very same childhood NO WAY emotion (the same memory, too).
There’s real potential here, if all those Yuan flowing in convince Paramount to move forward on a sixth Terminator film. Terminator Genisys tried so damn hard to replicate the first two films that it just mushed ’em together, with a T-1000 hunting Kyle Reese through a shot-for-shot remake of 1984 Los Angeles. Maybe Terminator 6 could replicate the hero T-1000 we should have gotten years ago.