Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


July 8, 2015

On the troubling gender politics of Terminator: Genisys.

Spoilers, Dummy!

It shouldn't surprise you to learn that Terminator: Genisys is a mess. It wants to be a big, sloppy kiss on the mouths of Terminator fans, but it's too convoluted and tone-deaf to be taken seriously. Nostalgia doesn't count as screenwriting. "Hey, remember this other movie?" does not a plot make. 

And like most films-by-committee, this one is thematically lost. Those in the "turn off your brain" camp may protest, but science fiction has always been about speculation and philosophy. It's meant to be allegorical, to poke the depths of the human experience. Where we're going and why, that sort of thing. Genisys plays with lots of ideas ("no fate but what we make," "reliance on technology is deadly," etc.), but few play out or pay off in logical ways. That's not to say the film has nothing on its mind. In fact, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to explore the film's only fully-realized message - Sex before marriage will destroy your life. 

For the uninitiated: James Cameron's 1984 film The Terminator joins nineteen-year-old Sarah Connor on the worst night of her life: A killer robot has traveled back in time to prevent the eventual birth of her son, John. Seems that in the future, John will lead the humans to final victory in The War Against The Machines, and they'd like to nip that in the bud. Thankfully, John sends hunky solider Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah and ensure his own birth. What no one knew was that Kyle and Sarah would fall in love and conceive John while on the run. Sweet, right? A causality loop! Kyle dies fighting the terminator, but Sarah goes on to shape her son into the savior of all humanity. 

Robots and explosions aside, The Terminator is really about the immense responsibility of impending parenthood. We all want our kids to be leaders, to thrive in a frightening future that we won't be able to understand or control. Sarah is terrified, but Kyle turns her naivety into strength. He in turn opens up about his own childhood horrors, investing Sarah emotionally in the future they're creating. John learns through recorded messages that though his parents were only together for one night, they fought and died to give him a world free of pain and suffering. He's born to carry on a legacy, and the various Terminator sequels follow the ins and outs of that journey.

Genisys, a self-styled reboot/reimagining of the series, opens with humanity's final victory over the machines in 2029. Knowing this victory is for naught if the time-traveling terminator isn't stopped, John sends his lieutenant Kyle Reese to protect Sarah in 1984. So far, so familiar. That's when things get meta: Kyle barely has time to slip on a pair of stolen Nikes before Sarah Connor drives an armored car through the storefront to rescue him from an advanced terminator masquerading as a cop. This isn't the scared teenager from the first film. She's gritty, tough, and partnered-up with an aging T-800 she calls "Pops." Certainly not what Kyle was expecting. 

It's by playing with the familiar mythology of the series that Genisys makes its major statement: Both Sarah and Pops know that Kyle will be sent back and that Sarah and Kyle will conceive John (There's a nice running gag where Pops keeps asking Sarah if they've "mated" yet), but neither of them tells Kyle. Later, Sarah confesses that she hesitated because predetermination has overshadowed her entire life. Just once, she wanted to make a decision on her own. She doesn't even know if she likes Kyle (Jai Courtney is a disaster in the role, so who can blame her?), let alone whether or not she wants to bone him.

Taken on its own, it's a fine bit of character development for Sarah, befitting a more progressive view of female agency. Unlike her counterpart from The Terminator (hereafter known as Sarah Prime), this Sarah has been mulling over her fate for a decade. Why should she just give it up to this guy? She's been training as a sniper and eating military rations since grade school. What use does she have for him? The intimacy from the first film is stripped away, but she's a different character in a different place. 

Things get even more complicated when they travel to 2017 to take down the machines before the revolution begins. In yet another twist, John has become a terminator (seriously) hell-bent on preventing them from succeeding. Sarah reasons that if John is evil and they have the capacity to end the war now, why bother sleeping with Kyle at all? In fact, it's in their best interest not to. It gives Sarah one thing she's never had: a choice.

What is the difference between the two versions of this woman? Pops, of course. Sarah Prime was alone, save for a ditzy roommate. She waited tables and seemed to have no real direction. She needed Kyle to shape her growth as a character. Sarah Beta (as we'll call her) has Pops, a hard-nosed killing machine who anticipates every danger and has groomed her for battle from childhood. He's a father figure, another thing Sarah Prime lacked. 

And now, finally, the point: Terminator: Genisys fundamentally rejects the basic premise of the first film, in which a teenager gets pregnant and destroys her life, by giving Sarah Connor a strong father figure to combat the influence of her reckless boyfriend.  

With this in mind, you'll notice that Genisys is packed silly with father/boyfriend exchanges between Kyle and Pops. They're wary of each other. Kyle believes all terminators are unfeeling and unrelenting killing machines. He doesn't understand Pops' expository technobabble about memetic alloys and time displacement fields. Kyle is a bumbling mess the entire film, forcing Pops to lament that he sees not a single trait that qualifies him to protect "his Sarah," and for god's sake there's literally a scene where the two men challenge each other to a gun-loading contest, packing rounds into clips as fast as possible. It's almost too on-the-nose. 

Pops makes most of the major decisions and fights most of the major battles. When the team jumps from '84 to '17, he stays behind to build and stock a new compound for Sarah. While she and Kyle are overwhelmed by their reunion with their son, Pops immediately recognizes John's true identity and takes care of business. Finally, Pops sacrifices himself to destroy John and end the war. To protect his daughter from her own offspring. To save her future from undue stress. 

He gets better, now coated in liquid metal, and they all make their way to safety. Sarah glows, thrilled that she can finally make her own choices. She plants a wet one on Kyle right in front of Pops. He smiles in approval. It's chaste and fleeting, a far cry from the passionate, intense sex scene from The Terminator. The happy couple sets off into the sunset under Pops' watchful eye. One imagines Kyle will have her home by eleven, lest he catch hell. 

Consciously or not, the crew behind Terminator: Genisys has saved Sarah Connor from the horrors of single motherhood by giving her a tough, no-nonsense father. No unsupervised time with the boyfriend means no baby to cause the apocalypse. It's a major conservative/family values statement, which is fine, but it also strips the character of thirty years of development. Sarah Beta seems strong and agile, but when is she ever in real danger or faced with a compelling emotional crossroad? Pops is always there to save the day, and her boyfriend is an ineffectual dunce. Sarah Prime may have been a single mother driven to the edge of madness, but by the time we get to Terminator II: Judgment Day, she's a goddamn Amazon. Genisys has rendered one of cinema's finest heroines bland and pointless. What exactly are we rooting for, here? 

Rob writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club. Terminator: Genisys is in theaters now. 


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