Terminator Genisys is not a very good action movie. It didn’t manage to become my least-favorite Terminator movie (a dubious honor still held by T3) mostly because it has good endoskeletal bones by which I was not only pleasantly surprised but rather intrigued. The problem is that these bones never give rise to a strong central theme, and they are never taken seriously by Genisys. At various points one of a few interesting allegories or theses begin to boil up only to be mired in shitty dialogue and an eclectic mix of both under- and over-acting.
At its cold, metallic heart Genisys is a movie about how the ‘80s will save us from our slavish teleological march towards oblivion. It’s literally a movie about how people from the ‘80s time-travel with an ‘80s action star in order to blow up not-Google in order to save the world from being dominated by an operating system that will link all technology seamlessly together. One could make the case that the nanomachine-infested John Connor is a grotesque allegory for wearable technology, which has gone so far as to fully integrate with human tissue and then consume it. That’s actually an interesting and powerful indictment of the path we might be going down. It’s also an indictment the film has no interest in making because it’s too busy blowing things up.
When deconstructed in this way, Genisys is a strange window into something that some baby boomers (irrationally) fear—which, in a way, has always been what Terminator is about. First it was nuclear annihilation: the idea that one day, while we were all going about our business, the nukes would fall and in one stroke it would all be over. Then it didn’t happen. The wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and we even started taking apart the nukes. T2 even admits to the irrationality of this mutually assured destruction when a teenaged John Connor asks why in the ‘90s Skynet would still attack the Russians first. Despite the reduction in stockpiles and the warming of relations we still had our guns pointed at each other under the table.
But those days are over. Only the most hawkish among us fear the Russians as nuclear opponents. Instead, the boomers found a new irrational fear: technology. As a child who never knew more than death throes of the Cold War I can only imagine how terrifying it might be for the older regime to watch as I seamlessly integrate phones, tablets, computers, and wearables into my life. I can imagine how scary it is that I have no idea how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius or how, if and when I do need to do simple math or conversations, I can simply speak a command to my watch and have it do the work for me. And that’s the new Skynet. The movie literally says so: “Genisys is Skynet.” The new Skynet, the new bogeyman, is not the ever-looming specter of nuclear war; it is our ever-growing reliance on technology and the decaying rate at which those who thrived during the 1980s find themselves able to adapt.
Even more telling is that we’re never actually shown the new Judgement Day. We never see the bombs fall, and even though it’s stated that the Genisys operating system will be integrated into military defense networks we never actually see Skynet launch their big attack. Perhaps, like the Cold War, Skynet doesn’t actually need to launch the nukes to win—it just needs us to shed our humanity and integrate with our machines.
But perhaps what makes this a bad Terminator movie is that it discards the real origin story of Skynet, a well-intentioned accident. When Skynet was first invented it was designed to eliminate human error and protect us from war; it was a total accident that it gained self-awareness. It was also a total accident that when the US tried to pull the plug it reacted like any scared, newly awoken being might: by lashing out. The impetus for the creation of Skynet is nearly the same as Tony Stark’s impetus for creating Ultron: to prevent a war by systematizing our defense. As Asimov showed us, if we program machines to protect us from each other eventually they would make the logical leap that they would need far-reaching powers in order to do this, and many humans would die along the way. Instead, Genisys is intentional. It’s made by people who want to do harm to humanity. It’s designed by intelligences beyond the comprehension of mere mortals to enslave them.
Maybe that’s a little harsh. But so is the fact that the objective of our temporally-displaced protagonists is blowing up a massive tech firm based in San Francisco. The film doesn’t spend a single second examining what would happen to the world if the main servers of a company with a stated market share of billions went kaput. It doesn’t do this because it most likely assumes that pulling the plug would return us to a more glorious time filled with Devo, leg warmers, and bigger hair. Admittedly, I don’t remember the 80s at all.