Arnold Schwarznegger can still believably play a robot. The world still ends in 1997, and that iconic, stomping score still has the power to send apocalyptic chills down your spine. These elements of the now long-running Terminator franchise are all present and correct in the latest instalment, Genisys, but much else has changed. Director Alan Taylor has rebooted the series with new actors, messed around with time and science and pushed logic to its limits, and both offered a nostalgic nod to the previous instalments and literally wiped them from history.
There's not much more theologically interesting content in the film than you might expect; the Bible is short on time-travelling cyborgs after all. Yet Genisys does provide an interesting study in what happens when you attempt to breathe life into a tired old institution, so perhaps the church can still learn some lessons from both its successes and its failures. After all, we too are part of a once mighty tradition which enjoyed global popularity in the early 1980s; we too are invested in the mission to remain relevant to a very different culture.
Lesson 1: Celebrate the old
It's no spoiler to reveal that Arnie is absolutely the star of the show in Terminator: Genisys, and the film is all too aware that he's the main attraction, giving him the best action scenes despite his advancing years, and most of the best lines and funniest moments despite his... limitations in that regard. It also uses him as the focus for the film's running theme, that age does not render us obsolete, but brings with it other virtues: experience, wisdom, trustworthiness and the inability to shake an Austrian accent. As we seek to make the Christian faith more relevant then, we should heed that same lesson; the church has centuries of tradition, ritual, writing and beauty which is attractive to anyone seeking depth in a shallow world. We lose that at our peril.
Lesson 2: Keep it simple
As you might have sensed however, Terminator: Genisys is no cinematic classic. The acting and script are clunky at times, and no amount of exciting explosions and high-octane chase sequences can cover over a plot of headache-inducing complexity. The presence in the cast of former Dr Who Matt Smith seems fitting, given the amount of 'timey-wimey' science-fiction rule-bending that goes on. By comparison, the original film was relatively straightforward -– a chase through time to ensure the future did or didn't happen, but this sequel seem unable to carve a believable narrative path without tripping over its own traps. There's surely a lesson here for the church too: the Christian faith is beautiful and attractive because it can be understood and practiced by a child. In seeking to appeal to a world that demands constant entertainment, we shouldn't over-burden our faith with flashing lights and diversions which attempt to fool people into thinking it's cool. Christianity is brilliantly compelling to people of 5 and 95 because despite all its undoubted depth, it's wonderfully accessible.
Lesson 3: People connect with people
It's perhaps ironic in a film about robots that the human characters are just as two-dimensional. This is arguably the reason that Genisys doesn't really work; there's so much plotting going on that the characters have to explain what the blazes is going on, rather than having any time to show us who they are or how they're developing. So Sarah Connor is just your stereotypical Hollywood feminist action hero (says she doesn't need male help, but ultimately gets saved over and again by a [robot] man), and Kyle Reese is as permanently confused as the audience. We don't see them grow, and we don't connect with them. If there had been half as many gunfights and a little more time given over to character, it might have made a half-decent story. Again, the lesson here is that smoke (machines) and (guitar) explosions don't build connections with people. People connect with people, not spectacle and bombast, and some parts of the modern church are in danger of veering toward the latter at the expense of the kind of genuine depth that provokes lifelong commitment. I still love The Terminator (1984) for exactly that reason: the captivating love story at the heart of the adventure.
Terminator: Genisys is certainly an exciting film, full of twists and turns, and at times it's intentionally funny. In its over-blown, over-complex storytelling though it somewhat loses its way – and its audience. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from it. Let's hope the film-makers learn too, and make this the final chapter. If there's one phrase I don't want to hear any more times, it's: "I'll be back."