It just isn’t summer without Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whether he is clad in furs or crammed with machinery, tracking an alien through the jungle or bringing a difficult pregnancy to term, he is the great staple of that second American pastime: the air-conditioned summer blockbuster. Now, as Terminator: Genisys’ promotional materials will waste no time in telling you, Arnold is back. Politics were, it seems, just a blip in his far more storied career as a cinematic tough guy. He has left the governor’s mansion and returned to the multiplex, and it’s a good thing, too: while the state of California would likely have been better off without his help, Genisys needs all the help it can get.
By now, the Terminator timeline is like a tapestry the franchise’s directors and screenwriters keep ravelling and unravelling like a team of modern-day Penelopes. In the case of the Terminator series, the narrative cannot reach an end without slaughtering a time-tested cash cow. The problem that separates Terminator from the other franchises we can be confident in encountering again and again—with this year’s staples including Mad Max, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, The Fast and the Furious, and The Hunger Games—is that the Terminator series cannot move forward, only back. By necessity, this often means rendering a beloved storyline obsolete in favor of a desperate revamp, and this is exactly what happens in Terminator: Genisys.
Enter the Strong Female Character. In 1984’s The Terminator—the movie that kicked off the franchise and launched a two-bit B-lister named James Cameron into the big leagues—Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, was an ordinary waitress suddenly faced with a futuristic killing machine. (She also had some truly magnificent hockey hair.) The movie’s emotional core was her attempt to defeat a seemingly invulnerable enemy, and to prepare both herself and her unborn child for the coming battle. She was a normal woman—not the strongest, not the smartest, and not the most well-prepared—but the movie ended on a rousing and hopeful note, largely because the audience had come to understand Sarah’s inner core of quiet strength, and knew it would be enough to see herself and her son through whatever struggles lay before her.
After Arnold’s “I’ll be back,” the most-quoted line in 1984’s The Terminator probably belongs to Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a supersoldier sent into the past to save Sarah Connor from the T-800. “Come with me if you want to live,” he tells her, after rescuing her from almost certain death. She does, and soon learns everything she needs to know about the future, and her mission, from him. So it must have seemed quite a stroke of genius to the filmmakers behind Terminator: Genisys, when they gave the same line to 2015’s Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). “Come with me if you want to live,” Sarah barks at the clueless Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, who resembles nothing so much as Channing Tatum run through a laundry press). In this version, it is Reese who is the fish out of water, having just landed in a disrupted timeline, and must rely on a newly Strong Female Sarah to save the future.
This is what feminism is, right? Someone has to shout orders at someone, and if women keep complaining about action movies, the studio heads seem to have thought, then let’s give them what they want: someone controlling, unkind, and emotionally obtuse. Isn’t that what feminists are like?
Terminator: Genisys does an impressive job of gutting a beloved story of all that made the franchise work—a sense of confrontation between the inevitable future and the unflaggable human spirit; the moments of tenderness two people can share in the midst of violence and horror; the astonishing ways in which ordinary people can rise to seemingly impossible occasions—and ignoring all the avenues that might have made it seem relevant today. On my way to see Terminator: Genisys, and on my way back home, I used Google maps to find my way around, and listening to that disembodied voice telling me exactly what to do, it was hard to understand why we persist in believing SkyNet isn’t already a reality. Especially when an NSA surveillance program named SkyNet is actually a reality. This film should be more on-point than ever, since technology has taken over our lives. But rather than actively antagonizing us, technology simply allows us easy ways to indulge in laziness and cruelty. Terminator: Genisys never puts much thought into the humans > robots tautology; it simply enacts it, violently, again and again.
This plot contrivance feels especially unfortunate in light of the only really likable character in the movie: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, who, in this version, returned to the past (for no apparent reason) to raise Sarah Connor and prepare her for combat. (Because even the terrifying feminists this movie was apparently written for must acknowledge that a woman can only become a Strong Female if she is trained by a man.)
1984’s The Terminator was also the movie that solidified Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, transforming him from a bodybuilder that men might covertly idolize into a summer movie staple the whole world could freely admire. And perhaps the most delightful moment in Terminator: Genysis comes when the filmmakers acknowledge every viewer’s fantasy, and give it to them: the ragged, weathered T-800 of 2015 taking on his Greek god of a younger counterpart (not for nothing did Schwarzenegger make his film debut playing the role of Hercules).
This little bit of Arnold-on-Arnold action is the movie’s high point, in no small part because old Arnold gets to win. He has played the same character for over thirty years, and America has loved him for a reason: not just for the dominating, Machiavellian persona viewers encountered in Pumping Iron, but for his strange combination of vulnerability and brawn. He is both physically imposing and verbally maladroit, his accent—still astonishingly thick after all these years—making simple sentence seem like obstacle courses for him. It is a quality that serves to make him not just impressive but endearing. Now, as we watch him in decline, it is comforting to find that he is the one who can deliver the film’s only human touch. Of all the film’s characters, and the script's claims about human superiority and attempts at feminist punch-up, it is only the robot who saves the day, and only the former paragon of masculinity who displays anything resembling tenderness.
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