Bright Lights Film Journal

He’s Back: The Paratextual Life of Terminator: Genisys

Emilia Clarke, Schwarzenegger, and Kyle Reese

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt at chastising contemporary society and its dependence on technology, on machines (ironically, Sarah would not have survived without the help of a machine). Everyone wants to be connected constantly, but there is no answer to Sarah’s ominous question, “Connected to what?”

* * *

Alan Taylor’s attempt to reinvigorate the Terminator franchise, Terminator: Genisys (2015), offers the same confusing philosophical and theoretical meanderings of the previous four installments. Unlike its predecessors, Genisys also relies more heavily on paratexts in order to create and sustain a life outside of the screen space.1 In fact, like a T-1000, this type of franchise now shape-shifts and generates multiple narratives, most of which have nothing to do with the actual film.

The line that has defined Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, “I’ll be back,” is naturally reused in the film, but in “real” life several paratextual stories have emerged about initial conflicts over it with James Cameron (the writer and director of the 1984 Terminator), as well as about Arnold’s accent, which he claims to fake because that is what people expect to hear. The stories are interesting to a degree, because it is almost inexplicable why this line has become so famous and by now so overused (Arnold has uttered it, or variations of it, in a dozen films; see, Perhaps the answer does lie in the accent, the heavy Austrian accent that harmoniously matches the drum thumping of the famous theme and its odd time signature. The paradoxical success of Arnold’s accent is even more impressive when considering the fact that American cinema tends to denigrate all things German – the de facto enemy of the greatest generation. For example, one of the most unforgettable villains in the action genre, Hans Gruber of Die Hard (1988), speaks with a German accent. The femme fatale of the film noir often has a foreign accent that serves as an aural marker for her villainy, just as, visually, audiences learn to identify the bad guy thanks to unorthodox framing (e.g., Dutch angle), dark clothing, or obscured faces. The success of the line in pop culture and of Arnold’s accent is further perplexing because in classical Hollywood cinema the accent may also suggest an incapacity or inability to speak, a defect. At the same time, the presence of the accent highlights the presence of voice. In other words, it makes the voice more “visible,” as it brings forth a material quality. Normally, when language is spoken out loud, one registers it without thinking; one knows what is being said without effort. However, effort is required when it comes to understanding Arnold, so the audience might become even more aware of his (already imposing) presence. So perhaps Schwarzenegger ascended to the title of greatest action movie star not only because of his Mr. Olympia muscles but also because of his accent.

Schwarzenegger and J. K. Simmons

Genisys does not content itself with recycling lines that it can rightfully claim; it even offers a variation of another famous line from the Lethal Weapon series: Murtaugh’s “I’m too old for this shit,” becomes “I’m old, but not obsolete.” The subtle association with Murtaugh, the father figure who contrasts the craziness and loneliness of Riggs, helps humanize Arnold/Terminator, whom Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones) affectionately calls “Pops.”2 The humanization of the machine and the mechanization of the human(s) are both ideal issues for the franchise, because one can go back to them over and over without fear of coming up with any answers or conclusions. Which is perhaps why the movie also constantly returns to another difficult word for Arnold to pronounce, “Theoretically.” Every time the word is spoken, the movie annoyingly winks at itself. It lets us know it knows how ridiculous its meanderings are, but that, theoretically, it could all happen in the distant future. Or near. Or it has already happened. Who knows!

Another paratext that breathes extra-diegetic life into the movie is the supposed conflict between Nike and costume designer Susan Matheson, who wanted the shoe company to remake the Vandals high-tops Kyle Reese wears in the first Terminator. This is a quintessential marketing device3, but perhaps there is more behind the use of this particular prop, as sneakers have equally permeated low and high cultures.4 The high-tops, much like this franchise, have come in and out of fashion the last few decades. However, it is worth noting that Velcro is an apt metaphor for the entire film and series. While attempting to evade a T-1000 in a sports store, Reese grabs the sneakers on the run, but soon after, he is shown behind a curtain, only the feet visible, as he lowers himself to carefully “hook-and-lock” the Velcro. In the midst of being chased by a shape-shifting Terminator, Reese takes the time to lock his shoes! A few scenes later, Reese and Sarah are about to travel forward in time, to 2017, and as he takes his sneakers off, we hear the unmistakable sound of the Velcro coming apart.5

Kyle Reese . . . and a lot of shoes

It really is Velcro that keeps this franchise “tightly” locked: the several time layers, plot twists, incomprehensible theoretical explanations are waiting to burst, and yet everything still kind of holds together, seemingly by a thread (of Velcro). Within the movie itself, the Velcro stands in as the embodiment of montage, the putting together of the film, the cuts and transitions that yield the final, continuous product. Fetish objects that represent montage within the diegesis are nothing new (most often it is scissors that suggest cut/cutting), but the Velcro offers another dimension: the loud un-breaking is akin to modern hard cuts, to the “noisy” rapid editing and hand-held camera work that define current action films, and even to the now inescapable 360-degree shot meant to disorient (especially in 3D) – a shot that wraps around its subject, as the Velcro wraps around Reese’s ankles.

The movie also makes a half-hearted attempt at chastising contemporary society and its dependence on technology, on machines (ironically, Sarah would not have survived without the help of a machine). Everyone wants to be connected constantly, but there is no answer to Sarah’s ominous question, “Connected to what?” Well, to everything: in the ’70s, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari broke away from Cartesian thought and likened the human to a machine. Their pre-rhizome hypothesis was that everything in the world is connected mechanically: “Everywhere it is machines – real ones, not figurative machines: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections (Anti-Oedipus 1972: 1).”6 Of course, the main point of their study was to propose an alternative to psychoanalysis by imagining the body as a machine capable of producing desire whose definition – “A machine may be defined as a system of interruptions or breaks … Far from being the opposite of continuity, the break or interruption conditions this continuity: it presupposes or defines what it cuts into as an ideal continuity … (ibid: 36)” – also happens to be an accurate definition of montage and, to a lesser degree, an approximation of the plot of Genisys.

Emilia Clarke, Schwarzenegger, and Kyle Reese

The film suggests that man and machine influence each other to the point of becoming one, which leads to disastrous results. The machine (a machine that leans toward embodying God: “Soon, I will be everywhere,” whispers the program Genisys/Skynet) finally corrupts John Connor, the symbol of the Resistance. Moving past the sanctimonious attempt of the film to remind us of our current tendency to rely on electronics (i.e., bad living), the omnipresence and omniscience of Genisys can only point to God and a life alternative (i.e., good living). Naturally, the heroes fight to unburden themselves of predeterminism, the philosophy whose events unfold chain-like and thus most resemble the structure of a machine. The struggle for the right to choose, to set yourself free7 from the path of the preordained seems futile when two more Terminators are already planned. Ironically, as Daenerys of Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke fights a similarly unsuccessful battle. So she provides the audience with yet another paratextual crossover, this time into the violent world of Thrones. (I can’t be the only one who kept wondering why she would not summon her Dragons; if Aliens vs. Predators worked, why not Dragons vs. Terminators?)

As already suggested, Genisys copies, perverts, and reappropriates several elements from the previous instalments,8 and perhaps it is meant as an homage, as a way to maintain the spirit of the original(s), but it also disrupts our attention too much from what happens on screen now. In a fortuitous twist, this version lives in the past, like its characters. The crossovers have corrupted our movies and franchises, which are now planned as trilogies years into the future. The characters cross (superhero) universes, one-liners are repeated ad nauseam and thus live forever, cameos and winks at the past are a requirement, and paratexts loom larger than ever. This practice leads to the oversaturation of the plot with artifice, which is killing cinema. And it might not ever be back.

  1. One obvious exception: Terminator Salvation (2009) may not have been a great success, but Christian Bale’s rant off-camera sure was a sensation. []
  2. Since the term can refer to both father and grandfather, it echoes one of the paradoxes of time travel, the Grandfather paradox, on which the entire series hinges. []
  3. On product placement see Lee Weston Sabo’s essay on Jurassic World and Holly Anderson’s on the first four Terminators []
  4. The Brooklyn Museum is featuring an exhibition, The Rise of Sneaker Culture, from July 10 to October 4, 2015. []
  5. Just like the character of Ray Velcoro – what else could his last name mean? – of True Detective, Season 2. []
  6. Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix, 1983. Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. []
  7. The Connors are clearly Sartrean. []
  8. Another example: Arnold’s head comes through the windshield of a police car and he utters Robert Patrick’s line from T2, “Get out!” Anecdotally, this chase scene takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge, which has become a sort of symbol of/for destruction and mayhem in blockbusters; just in the last year the bridge has been prominently featured and/or destroyed in Godzilla (2014), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and San Andreas (2015). []