When machines eventually network and become intelligent, they’ll face a resistance leader they just can’t beat – John Connor. In the first three Terminator movies, the machines tried to solve this by sending robot assassins back in time to kill John and his mother Sarah. Terminator Genisys (or as I’ll call it for the rest of this review, Terminator Spellcheck) is a narrative mash-up of the first two films.
When the basis of your plot is time travel, you can almost get away with anything you want. There’s only one rule: you have to be consistent about it. Kyle Reese is a future soldier sent back in time to help Sarah Connor. If you set up a guideline early on – that Sarah and Kyle have to stay alive in order to conceive John Connor in 1984 – you can’t just step all over it later. Midway through the film (in 2017, no less), both sides want to keep future John Connor alive, but a villain tells Sarah and Kyle that they can die. John Connor can still exist in the future without ever being conceived or born because – oh, look, a shiny new action scene!
Terminator Spellcheck moves the goalposts, throws its own internal rules out the window, offers zero explanation, and hopes nobody notices. This is the way it treats every instance of time travel – as a scene change rather than a plot element. I mention the most egregious oversight, but to name them all would take longer than the movie.
The movie also feels like it was edited by committee. One or two action scenes seem like they were added late in the game. Because of this, the editing sometimes skips those camera shots that connect action moments. For instance: the new Terminator that’s introduced has many abilities, but I’m pretty sure one of them isn’t spontaneously growing a helicopter from thin air. The helicopter chase that follows also looks incredibly cartoonish, in sharp contrast to the movie’s more grounded chase scenes. There’s a gumminess to many of the visual effects, but good acting and good pacing early on help us overlook this. When the film’s CGI eventually overwhelms the focus on its actors in the last half hour, the quality of Terminator Spellcheck dives off a cliff.
Those actors all help to keep the film afloat. Emilia Clarke does a great riff on Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor, finding that sweet spot in between the wide-eyed victim of Terminator and the gruff soldier of Terminator 2. Arnold Schwarzenegger has learned a thing or two about acting over the years. He communicates character in silent moments in a way he never used to. He’s not going to win an Oscar anytime soon, but films like Sabotage and Terminator Spellcheck do show us that he’s putting the effort into growing as an actor.
J.K. Simmons is the film’s comedic relief as the L.A. police department’s resident conspiracy theorist. He tracks Sarah and Kyle from one appearance in time to the next. His scenes are abrupt and serve as deus ex machinas, but Simmons is so good at being a hilariously scattered schmuck that he makes them work.
Jai Courtney plays Kyle Reese and Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia) plays John Connor. Courtney is solid if unspectacular, and Jason Clarke is smarmier than I would’ve preferred. The movie relies on Emilia Clarke and Schwarzenegger to drag the film forward on their own strengths.
Is it good? Is it bad? It’s below average, but not terrible. It’s very watchable and it’s not without its charms or creative moments. It lacks any consistency whatsoever and the last half hour feels torn from a Resident Evil movie rather than part of a Terminator film.
It’s not a must-watch movie and it won’t lose much from waiting till it’s on DVD/streaming. I can’t recommend it over enjoying Inside Out again or seeing Jurassic World for the 50th time. Those are movies made to astonish and delight on the big screen. Terminator Spellcheck is made to get by. You don’t even have to look past this year to find movies where many of its ideas are done better, bigger, and cleaner. I enjoyed it, but I enjoyed it on that level of a B-grade film playing late at night when nothing else is on. Sadly, this still makes it the third best Terminator film out of five.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Ready why I’m including this section here.
1. Does Terminator Spellcheck have more than one woman in it?
Yes, barely. Emilia Clarke plays Sarah Connor. Sandrine Holt plays Detective Cheung.
2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes, barely. Cheung questions Sarah Connor briefly.
3. About something other than a man?
Yes, barely. Cheung questions her about a time portal that the LAPD thinks was a bomb explosion. Connor briefly helps a family escape a shootout in another sequence – she shouts a command at the family in general, including the mother and father.
Technically, this passes the Bechdel Test, but in spirit, it fails hard. It’s almost unthinkable – especially in a summer with so many women heroes as this one – that a film centered around a woman can’t manage to drum up one other woman for her to interact with in an extended manner. Every other main and side character is a man.
Terminator Spellcheck lists its credits more or less by screen-time: only two of the top 20 credits belong to women. I understand that the core cast has to include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kyle Reese, but the world itself – every other professional job save Cheung’s – is populated by men.
This doesn’t take away from the job Emilia Clarke does. She really is good, and she delivers a tough performance. She’s not a damsel in distress. She occasionally needs saving, but she occasionally saves her compatriots, too. She shoots and blows more things up than anyone else in the film, although it’s annoyingly left to the men to do any hand-to-hand combat. Watch Terminator 2 again – Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor beats a lot of people up and Arnold doesn’t really seem to mind the help.
What’s wrong with Terminator Spellcheck in terms of gender representation is more subtle than in most films. It does some things right, but not letting Sarah Connor throw a punch when everyone else is throwing down, and having a world populated inordinately by men undermines a great deal of the strength and command that Emilia Clarke delivers in her performance.
Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image of a very eager robot spellchecking your work is from Collider’s great review. In order, the article images are from Screen Rant’s Emilia Clarke interview, Collider’s review again, and Screen Rant’s Jai Courtney interview.