Having read a few reviews beforehand, I expected to be disappointed by Terminator Genisys, which is currently holding a dismal 27% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. However the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score for Age of Ultron is currently 74%, and that film was a narrative disaster, so let’s perhaps not hold up professional reviews as indicative of a film’s worth.
I’m going to disagree with just about everyone (including my personal favorite geek news site, The Mary Sue) and tell you that it is absolutely great and a worthy addition to the franchise. I even rewatched the original Terminator last night to make sure that I wouldn’t be approaching Genisys mired in rose-colored nostalgia.
Largely, people’s enjoyment of the film seems to be directly proportional to their ability to accept Emilia Clarke in the role of Sarah Connor. I fell in love with her as Sarah from the moment I first heard her say, “Come with me if you want to live” in the trailer, so this was absolutely not an issue for me. Many complaints about Clarke seem to hinge on the fact that she is such a petite woman, but let us please not forget that despite the fact that Linda Hamilton was undeniably ripped in T2, she was also a petite woman. Beyond that, Sarah Connor is not and never has been a character who relies on physical strength. She survives through her wits and her weapons expertise; physical fitness, although important to her, was always secondary. There’s no need for her to be physically imposing because she’s not going hand-to-hand with a Terminator (something a human could never hope to do anyway).
The thinly veiled body shaming isn’t just sexist; it’s indicative of a lack of understanding of the character.
All of that said, I’m not writing this to tell you why other people didn’t care for Terminator Genisys. I’m writing this to tell you why I loved this film. Spoiler alert: It’s because of two of the things nearest and dearest to my heart—explosions and feminism.
I’ll get the former out of the way pretty quickly. The effects are fantastic, and there’s plenty of adrenaline rush to go around. As with all action films, you have to completely abandon any knowledge of the laws of physics in order to suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy it, but with the notable exception of the helicopter sequence (I’m not sure the writers have any idea how helicopters fly), that’s not terribly difficult to accomplish.
On to my favorite hot button and yours: Strong Female Characters™. I’m going to unpack a lot about Sarah Connor in Genisys, so if you’re hoping to go into the film with a blank slate, you may want to skip this and come back.
As we already know from the trailers, when Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) goes back to 1984, he expects to find a normal American girl whom he must protect until he can help her discover her own inner strength, but finds instead a complete and total badass who is perfectly aware of her own destiny as the Mother of Humanity’s Last Hope—despite not accepting it blindly.
Sarah Connor is subverting gender tropes, including those of the first film, from the moment we lay eyes on her. Within minutes of its arrival, she destroys the original T800 that was sent back to kill her and in the process saves Pops, the T800 that raised her (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Immediately thereafter, Reese is inches from death at the hands (blades?) of the T1000 when Sarah appears as a dea ex machina and steals both Reese’s thunder and iconic line in one beautiful fell swoop of bullets and debris. She’s not just capable of protecting herself. She’s capable of protecting the men who believe themselves her self-appointed guardians—and she does. Later in the film, it’s Reese who has an emotional breakdown when confronted with the full truth of their “destiny” and the discovery of John’s (Jason Clarke) betrayal, and Sarah is the one who has to tell him to calm down and be rational. It’s Reese who is starry-eyed in love, and Sarah is the one who remains resistant and emotionally reserved and wants to build a relationship before entertaining a romance.
The film’s approach to Sarah and Reese’s romance is another of its strong points. A lot of viewers complained that they had no chemistry, which is arguably true, but the cliché of romantic sparks flying alongside bullets is, to be blunt, pretty tired and trite. We don’t see two people “love a lifetime’s worth” in two days, which is all the better because we get the sense that Reese and Sarah are building a real relationship with a foundation of trust and understanding rather than indulging in a lust-fueled night in an attempt to affirm the life they’re on the brink of losing. It’s a more mature and thoughtful approach, which necessitates a slow burn instead of a bonfire. When we finally reach the prerequisite kiss at the end of the film, there’s a sense of hope accompanied by mutual trepidation. It’s the beginning of their story together, not an ending tied up in a neat little bow. (Also, having watched the original Terminator within 12 hours of seeing Genisys, I feel safe in saying the chemistry between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn wasn’t exactly atomic; one spicy sex scene does not chemistry make.)
Sarah is also the one who holds all the power in the relationship. She takes charge from the beginning and does not at any point allow herself to be led around by the hand. The one time she changes her plans at Reese’s behest is only after he has proven beyond a doubt that he is correct. Despite Reese’s continual insistence that they cannot trust a machine, she never loses faith in Pops. She also keeps the knowledge of their future child from Reese in an effort to protect him and, it’s implied, in order to let him make his own choice about their relationship instead of being with her because he feels he must be with her in order to father John.
Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is every bit as confident, powerful, and smart as Linda Hamilton’s. She knows who she is, she knows what her objectives are, and she knows she is capable of achieving them.
Terminator Genisys is not a perfect film. Like almost any sequel involving time travel, it has its contradictions and complications. It also has a very flimsy grasp of science. However, it makes all the right tongue-in-cheek nods and tributes to its predecessors to keep fans of the franchise happy, it has a well-developed and interesting female lead, and it has a grasp of human interaction and emotional attachment that excels in places where other films in the series have failed. All in all, it fulfills its promise of an exciting ride and it lives up to the series’ legacy of featuring a strong female lead who displays personal agency despite being in a world that entertains predestination to a certain degree.
Besides, the ferocity of Emilia Clarke’s eyebrows alone could bring down Skynet.