Time Travel, as a trope within the science-fiction genre, has become a tired set piece within the contemporary blockbuster sub-genre, used by filmmakers who hold little originality of their own (their scripts tired, boring exercises in past genre filmmaking successes), with a few exceptional independent and studio marvels being the exceedingly rare exceptions to the rule (see Safety Not Guaranteed and Edge of Tomorrow). For some contemporary filmmakers and blockbuster technicians, time travel is a convenient tool by which potentially convoluted or genre heavy feature films can be made more accessible via dramatic obfuscation. In certain films (see J.J. Abrams Star Trek) time travel is a means by which meta-narratives longstanding in a given intellectual property may be conveniently explained away and simultaneously acknowledged. The Trekkies for whom the Star Trek series in particular have proven a longtime bastion for emotional and spiritual succor is both honored and revitalized for an entirely dissimilar audience.
Which brings the conversational inevitably around to the current state of James Cameron’s seminal 1984 sci-fi, horror/thriller The Terminator, and its supported and subsequent franchise it gave birth to (directly or indirectly a matter of opinion left up to the discerning eye of your average viewer to decide). In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, James Cameron took what was so virile and revolutionary about his first film and scrapped all of the narrative logic established initially in the service of an entirely separate film genre, trading the idealism of sci-fi for blockbuster spectacle. Without a doubt T2 is one of the greatest action films of all time (and has served to define the action genre well into the twenty-first century), but much of its success is carried on the back of an independent feature film whose ties to its legendary intellectual property are tenuous at best; the T-800, Arnold Schwarzenegger model killing machine made incongruously replicable within supposedly consistent and continuous time lines, making a mockery of the first film, and Cameron as an intelligent director of any kind in the process.
Terminator Genisys looks to be more of the same. Set in some undisclosed period of time between what can only be assumed between the third and the fourth Terminator films (which is a largely hypothetical statement that in and of itself points to the redundancies inherent to a film that is fundamentally irreconcilable to logic or continuity), the new film is unlikely to support any new concepts for Cameron’s original property, though no doubt director Alan Taylor will try his hardest to make the situation appear otherwise. In terms of the T-800 antagonist (which will again be used erroneously in the film’s script and portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger), there’s just no where for the man/machine/beast to go that’s terrifying or thrilling any longer. In 1984’s The Terminator, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 cyborg was the proverbial thing-that-could-not-be, his power unmatched, and his drive not to be depleted.
But with each subsequent release in the franchise, Schwarzenegger holds a little less menace and terror in his large, bulky frame, the inevitability of the last four films (and counting) serving to lessen any of the tension built up so well by Cameron initially, and resulting in a horror movie monster that has become something of a tired, expected joke (a la the final sequence of Stephen King’s It). In persisting to use Schwarzenegger as the central protagonist and antagonist of the entire franchise (a trend that has its origins in the action packed success that is T2, for better and for worse), the Terminator franchise has become trapped in a recursive loop that has yet to reach very far beyond, and Alan Taylor’s new film looks to hold little in the way of promise in terms of heading in a new direction.
There have been plenty of sci-fi and genre films to implement time travel as a narrative device and set piece that have worked, and they have all done so by offering up something new and revolutionary to the concept, often through the implementation of Gene Roddenberry-esque philosophy and conceptual narrative constructs. In Doug Liman’s masterful, barn-burner, action romp from last summer, Edge of Tomorrow, Liman couched his time travel adventure story within the same basic framework as Harold Ramis’ cult classic comedy Groundhog Day, borrowing equal parts of Ramis’ surprisingly deft and well-constructed narrative logic representative in both films’ supported scripts, in addition to using melodramatic romance as a means by which to distract viewer attention away from the nitty-gritty of a plot piece that is by its very nature pervious to close scrutiny. In Edge of Tomorrow, time travel is the means by which Tom Cruise’s character may come to find his own inner strength, and serves as a means by which Emily Blunt’s character may reach its end, and the two of them together may find peace at the end of a war that has gone on for far too long, caught in the recursive time loop that is the film’s chief narrative conceit and shining triumph as an example of originality in genre filmmaking.
Perhaps then what the Terminator franchise gets so wrong in its use of time travel is its need to use time travel as mere dramaturgy, with no real cathartic or thematic focus outside of said narrative conceit. True, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day work due to their central focus on Sarah and John Connor, and the T-800 Terminator protagonist and antagonist, but their arcs largely culminate in that thrilling final sequence from T2, an emotional climax that the series has yet to reach very far beyond. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation wears the same characters like an albatross, each one respectively bogged down by the history of the series, their persistent call backs to the first two entries tired, clichéd, and boring. While the jury is still convening regarding the merits and follies of Terminator Genisys, it’s unlikely that another Terminator film will serve to truly revitalize a series that has been dead and buried since 1991, unnecessary sequel after unnecessary sequel a unilateral bore, and means by which to rejuvenate enthusiasm for a series that has become beholden to its use of time travel as sub-genre piecemeal. Arnold might be back, but does anyone really care?