We have to go back about 12 years. This was before phones played movies. My uncle had just installed a DVD player in his truck, and to prove he had this technology – that’s why you put a DVD player in your truck, for other people to know you have it – he took me and my brothers on a road trip. This was before it was too expensive to do that.
It was absurd that Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. It was absurd that my uncle was doing 90 in traffic. And it was absurd that we were watching Terminator 2 in a truck. But that was the point, probably. It was American leisure in its purest state: wasteful and dangerous. If my uncle could have figured out a way to add fireworks to the equation, he would have done so.
Shortly thereafter, I worked on my college paper as an editor. This was a job that entailed, essentially, buying one pseudo-professional outfit, waiting until everybody left, then using the office’s giant iMac to steal music and click around eBay. But sometimes it required actual editing. This meant correcting the staff’s heroic misspellings of “Schwarzenegger.” It became such a big issue that we had to write it on a white board in huge red letters, underlined five times. The only important part of my job was spelling Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name right. So I had to think about Arnold Schwarzenegger constantly, albeit as an abstraction. I became an expert in spelling his name.
Jump forward eight years. I was filling in for a friend at an art gallery in one of those parts of Los Angeles where Columbo finds out the actress poisoned the producer. It was functionally identical to the editing job. I was sitting in an empty white room, in my one pseudo-professional outfit, using a giant iMac. Every couple hours somebody walked in and lingered for a second, like they were at a wake, then they made eye contact with invisible me, got a bit uncomfortable, and left. Just before my shift was over, somebody who was slightly overdressed walked in. It was Schwarzenegger.
Right. Celebrity sighting. That story’s been done already. You know before it starts that he was so much shorter than in the movies, and older too, and he was inferior to me in some unquantifiable way, and we exchanged two sentences and let’s call that a “conversation” to make it sound like I flirted with access, but you know, man, there was a magic in that room, he exuded something. Turns out, none of that was true. He was just as tall as the movies and his posture was immaculate. He walked the way celebrities used to walk – as if money was literally peeling off his skin and dancing around the room like a dust devil. Me, I had a job. I said nothing.
I never got to live it down with the folks. That was my one shot, they said, and I blew it. That was my one shot to ask “will you be back?” to Arnold Schwarzenegger and maybe tell him about seeing his movie in a truck, maybe get some of that money. My perpetual rebuttal was that this would be an insane thing to do. It would have pissed him off, and it wouldn’t have been funny, and even if he said “I’ll be back,” who cares? There are YouTube videos that can do the job just fine. But it still comes up, this “missed opportunity,” every time his name does.
It’s a song and dance act, is what it really is. Everybody likes the melody of that argument. And it gives them an excuse to talk about Terminator. The argument will outlive the man.
So me and Schwarzenegger, or at least the image of Schwarzenegger, we have a history. He’s a cultural force that crowded its way deep into my awareness without my input. So It’s a family thing. It’s a wistful teenage thing. That’s what you have to know before I say this. That’s how we approach the following statement on equal footing.
Terminator: Genisys was my favorite movie of the summer. Hold on. Come back. I know. I’m not talking about arthouse movies you have to live in a big city to see before Christmas. I know. The reviews were catastrophic. It died at the box office. Its planned sequels probably will not happen. Its stars are mostly blank slates, you couldn’t pay me enough to remember their names, the title is terrible and it has no business existing. No one will ever talk about it ever again once Star Wars comes out and explodes the national dialogue until polls open in 2016. But it deserves a proper burial.
What’s it about? The script makes no sense at all, so let’s answer that structurally. Structurally, it’s a movie about a cop, Schwarzenegger, trying to have a relationship with, basically, his estranged daughter. She’s a paragon of virtue, so she’s wanted by bad men. She’s falling in love with a boy. Dad doesn’t approve. Everybody roams around and gets in trouble, but they’re never threatened by real danger, just breakaway glass and roller coaster danger. And there’s time travel in it, which is handled with all the grace of a little boy ad-libbing plot twists for his action figures.
Those who need their escapism to be plausible and coherent and have immaculate internal logic will hate this movie. They might even find its overwhelming mediocrity a problem too. But I have no such burden. I’ll never take robots seriously. I will always approach a movie like this as a comedy. It’s dumb and vaguely irresponsible that I’m discarding two hours to see it, and it’s dumb that somebody paid zillions of dollars to make it. I don’t even know the name of my country’s defense secretary and here I am watching these robots. Not even well-reviewed robots. It’s funny.
But the movie knows. That’s the good thing. Or if it doesn’t know, it doesn’t know with gusto. Terminator: Genisys looks like it crawled out of a TBS warehouse in 1993 and wound up in 2015 by mistake. It’s like something Bill McNeal and Jimmy James from Newsradio would raved about after the A-plot had been resolved. This dinosaur is a perfect home for Schwarzenegger and his outsized, absurd legacy. It’s consistently goofy and low-stakes. I want a movie starring a kitsch cultural icon and freak accident governor to be goofy and low-stakes.
And I want it unapologetic and affable about its clichés. Steam factories. Metal grates. CGI that’s not identifiably flawed so much as plain not good enough. A broad villain with an obvious weakness. A Reagan-era art director’s idea of “near-future computer terminals.” It’s a movie with shootouts where shootouts never happen, important things happening in parking garages, and characters who are perpetually on the verge of saying “if you want to live, keep moving.” It’s everything you could want at 11 p.m. on basic cable twenty years ago and in exactly no other context.
A movie called Terminator: Genisys was never going to be good. That was fundamentally impossible. But it was the right kind of bad, and that qualifies as refreshing in 2015. Chalk it up to comic book movie burnout. I’m tired of action movies that have to make a billion dollars domestic by week two and have to put the whole universe in peril to do it. And here was a movie where, never mind what the script said, the only things in peril were the protagonists and maybe San Francisco. The bad guy was a social media platform. Its idea of a cool climax was as simple and childlike as “hey, let’s blow up a bus.” And that’s fine. It was a relief to watch a dumb American action movie that pulled me back to more carefree days for a couple hours. It wasn’t much, but I’m tired of much. Sometimes it’s more fun to settle for small victories.