James Cameron’s original 1984 film The Terminator and its 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day are, combined, one of the best sci-fi stories ever told on the screen. One of the reasons for that is because together they create a mostly seamless whole (aside from that central time travel paradox of a man sending his comrade back in time to become his father) and tell a complete, satisfying story.
And yet whoever is holding the rights to the property that particular week has decided three times now to extend it, only to dilute and cheapen the memory of those first two films. Terminator Genisys, the fifth entry in the series, is better than 2009’s near-unwatchable Terminator Salvation and does boast some outstanding production values as well as the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his signature role, but it is clearly just a cash grab for all concerned.
The biggest problem with Terminator Genisys is that it wants to be all things to all interested parties: it is a sort of remake of the first two films, yet it is also the presumed launching pad of a whole new trilogy (box office returns notwithstanding) that will veer the story into an entirely new direction. It is that tug of war between revisiting the old and moving forward with the new that is crystallized in the movie’s main “twist” — which has already been revealed in the trailers, by the way — and embodied overall by the screenwriting conceit that this time the story is spinning off into an alternate timeline where all bets are off (we have to thank J.J. Abrams for introducing this increasingly odious way to scrap a franchise’s history with his 2009 Star Trek reboot).
The film starts off with the now familiar prologue about Skynet and Judgment Day, yada yada yada (the movie presumes — perhaps unwisely — that you have a good working knowledge of the canon, so we’ll do the same), the war against the machines by the human survivors and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) being sent back in time by his commanding officer and friend John Connor (Jason Clarke). But instead of landing in 1984 and finding a frightened, clueless Sarah Connor to protect from a Terminator sent back in time to kill her, he is instead scooped up by a Sarah (Emilia Clarke) who is fully aware of who he is and why he’s there, and who has a T-800 of her own, nicknamed “Pops,” whom has been caring for her since she was nine.
That is the first of the film’s bizarre contortions of the original story, although her T-800 is of course played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, returning to his signature part for the first time since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. His hair graying and skin wrinkly (apparently the flesh covering the T-800 can age even if the machine underneath does not), his first task is to battle and defeat the younger T-800 (played by a CG-generated youthful Arnold) who has also traveled back in time to find Sarah. The sight of an older, wearier Arnold battling the image of his young self is both oddly poignant and ironically indicative of what is wrong with the rest of the film (here comes a spoiler if you have not seen a commercial or trailer for this picture).
From there the movie also manages to shoehorn the plot of Terminator 2 into about 20 minutes of screentime, this time with Byung-hun Lee as the shape-shifting T-1000, before getting to what is meant to be the most shocking twist of all: Sarah, Kyle, and Pops are joined in the past by John himself, who is exposed as a hybrid of human and machine now controlled by Skynet and intent on making sure that our heroes don’t prevent the A.I.’s awakening and the extermination of most of humanity.
We suppose that the idea of John being transformed into the villain seemed like a daring one in all those studio development meetings, but after it’s revealed the film just settles into a tedious pattern of chase, confront, fight, and repeat, culminating in a showdown at the headquarters of Cyberdyne, where Skynet — disguised as a cool new app called Genisys — is about to go live. As numerous questions are left unanswered, such as “Who sent Pops?” and “What exactly is Matt Smith supposed to be in this movie?”, one has the dawning realization that Terminator Genisys isn’t telling a complete, gratifying story; it’s just setting up future entries in the series (and yes, there is a mid-credits bonus scene as well — Marvel can take all the blame/credit for that trend).
If only we cared about the story that those future films might tell, or the people that will presumably star in them. The only real standout in the film is Arnold himself, although he’s more or less a supporting player in this one. Yet he remains the same implacable presence as the T-800 that he was in the first three films, this time seasoned with a bit more humor, an understanding that both he and the character are aging and a subtle sense that his loyalty to Sarah is closer to something like fatherly love.
Emilia Clarke seems out of place as Sarah and does not play the rugged warrior as well as she plays an imperious dragon lady on Game of Thrones, while Jason Clarke seems unsure of whether he should be an emotionless android or a cackling, over-the-top supervillain. The weakest link, however, is the charisma-free Courtney, who does not register as a hero or, indeed, as much of a flesh-and-blood human being. Perhaps he’ll be revealed as a robot in Terminator 6.
Hey, why the hell not? There’s a feeling watching Terminator Genisys that the filmmakers are just making it up as they go once they finish with the first hour’s quasi-remake, but how many times can we watch Skynet get switched on, nuke the human race, and have the tables turned on it again thanks to that good old scriptwriting shortcut, the alternate reality?
To his credit, director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) keeps the whole rickety machine speeding along just fast enough to keep things from getting really bogged down, and there are some entertaining action and fight sequences (although far too little true violence, being that this is a PG-13 picture) to go along with the ones we first saw 30 years ago. But that was a time when this saga felt fresh; now, if the grosses bear it out, we’re all but doomed to an endless series of Terminator chapters run off a soulless assembly line much like the one that produces the gleaming, mechanized assassins themselves. Terminator Genisys may or may not predict the future of humankind, but it certainly foresees the way Hollywood is likely to continue functioning in the days ahead.
Terminator Genisys is out in theaters Wednesday (July 1).