WASHINGTON — There’s a cardinal sin that shouldn’t be committed in sequels.
The filmmakers should make sure not to alter the story logic of the original.
That’s because those are the movies that made us fall in love with the franchise in the first place.
Thus, a revival should either: (a) pick up right where the story left off (“The Dark Knight”); (b) show its impact on the distant future (“Aliens”); (c) show us the characters’ origins (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”); or (d) accomplish several of these things simultaneously (i.e. “The Godfather Part II”).
“Terminator Genisys” insults fans of James Cameron’s sci-fi action masterpieces — “The Terminator” (1984) and “T2: Judgment Day” (1991) — by messing with the established mythology that Cameron created. Rather than expanding the story into new territory, it undoes a lot of pre-established truths with a cavalier, “just kidding” attitude. Thus, the fifth installment continues the downward trend of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) and “Terminator Salvation” (2009).
Like the original, we once again open in the year 2029, where John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a rebellion against Skynet, the evil A.I. system that commands an army of cyborgs to wipe out humanity with a nuclear holocaust. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) travels back to 1984 to protect Connor’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), from an arriving cyborg assassin, the Terminator T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). But when things go wrong, mankind’s existence hangs in the balance.
It’s fantastic that the 67-year-old Schwarzenegger agreed come back as the T-800, adding humor to the once menacing character, repeatedly insisting he’s “old, not obsolete.” Arnold’s return sets up a “how did they do that” fight sequence where Old Arnold battles Young Arnold, created by VFX wizards who combed through archived Arnold footage to build a digital face and movements on a body double. The process took 12 months to create 35 shots for just five minutes of screen time.
While this achievement will make for a great CGI tutorial, it’s weird seeing the same T-800 with a different Sarah Connor. If we went back in time to 1984 and found Arnold looking the same, why not also find Sarah looking like Linda Hamilton? It would be like “Back to the Future 2” taking great pains to digitally-recreate Christopher Lloyd, then casting someone else as Marty McFly. It’s bizarre.
That’s not a knock on the new faces — Jason Clarke was brilliant in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) while Emilia Clark rocks it as Daenerys Targaryen in “Game of Thrones” (2011) — it’s merely a symptom of the larger franchise disease, especially when the sequels try to cover the exact same ground.
As for replacing Kyle Reese, “Genisys” picks the same actor who played Bruce Willis’ son in “Die Hard 5” a.k.a. “A Good Day to Die Hard” (2013). We wish Mr. Courtney all the best in his career, but playing long-lost relatives in fifth installments of action classics isn’t aiming very high.
Such casting might have worked with a better script. The mildly compelling setup quickly turns for the worse, as the original T-800 is destroyed by his future self. To continue our “Back to the Future” analogy, it would be as if a future DeLorean came crashing into the original car back in the mall parking lot, preventing Marty from ever having gone back in time. Robert Zemeckis had his sequel characters fight to restore the order of the original timeline, not throw it out with a whimper.
As we grapple with our crushed nostalgia — with major plot points erased from existence — the film offers a ridiculous flashback trying to convince us that the T-800 (older Arnold) previously went back in time to Sarah Connor’s youth to save her life — causing her to now call him “Pops” with grandfatherly affection. If this were the case, why was she so scared of him in the original film?
By the midpoint, the script has out-twisted itself, as babyfaces turn heel amid an array of alternate timelines that need too much explaining via Exposition Machine Schwarzenegger. You may overlook the logic holes while you’re watching, but they’ll infuriate you the more you think about them.
So while the first two movies dropped our jaws in wonder, the latest installment sends us out of the theater scratching our heads. It makes you wonder why director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”) spent so much of his $170 million budget on the effects and not more time on the script.
The conclusion is perhaps the biggest insult, as Taylor has a chance for a touching ending (a la “T2”), only to offer another twist that nullifies any sense of sacrifice. Stop undoing what you’ve done!
Which brings us back to that cardinal sequel sin, which should be etched in Hollywood like a cinematic commandment: “Thou shall not covet another director’s film.” You’ll almost always lack the initial magic. Even worse, you take up space that could offer a chance to the next rising Cameron to make his original sci-fi idea. Instead, he or she is crowded out by yet another pointless retread.
At this point, it’s clear the studios have adopted the mantra, “I’ll be back.”
But we the audience should begin to say, “Hasta la vista, baby.”