It’s great to see Arnold Schwarzenegger back on the big screen but he continues to be the best thing in bad movies during his rocky comeback. The future’s not set so there are possible ways that revisiting the Terminator franchise could have worked, but Genisys takes the road often travelled with Hollywood reboots – total mediocrity that borders on outright contempt for its audience here.
After 2009’s abysmal Terminator Salvation squandered much of the dwindling goodwill of the series (seriously, how do you mess up a future war against killer robots?) it was important for Genisys to bring fans back on board if the proposed new trilogy was going to take off. Casting Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) as Sarah Connor was an inspired choice, as was bringing back Arnold to the role that made him famous – the unstoppable T-800 cyborg.
Unfortunately that meant a series that already had a complicated web of time travel would have to retcon previous events to star a young Sarah Connor and somehow make sense of the 67 year-old Schwarzenegger in the same role he first played over 30 years ago. The screenwriters navigate such a fraught minefield with all the grace of a blind donkey, resulting in plot machinations that are head-smackingly stupid (“[He’s] remembering his past, which is our future”, “Watch out for nexus points!”, etc.).
Kyle Reese (franchise poisoner Jai Courtney) is the nominal lead, although he’s so vanilla as to be a non-entity. His story begins in dystopic 2029 as he’s joining an assault on his robot oppressors alongside the human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke). Their true relationship will be familiar to Terminator fans, but the movie withholds the nature of it until the halfway point so I won’t spoil it here. They discover that the terminators have built a time machine that can only send back organic material (a franchise rule that means the cyborgs look human by necessity and ensures lots of nudity), so John sends his best solider Reese back to 1984 to stop the Terminator from his killing his mother Sarah.
That’s where everything changes and Genisys diverges sharply from previous entries. Turns out that Sarah is no mild-mannered waitress but is already battle-hardened, and far from being a damsel-in-distress, she rescues Reese from an attacking T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee taking over for Robert Patrick) that has inexplicably made it to 1984. There’s also a T-800 played by a digitally de-aged Schwarzengger attempting to exterminate Sarah. But wait! It’s taken out by another older T-800 played by Old Arnie! Kind of cool, but already difficult to explain.
Turns out the first benevolent T-800 (dubbed “The Guardian” in the credits) travelled back years before 1984 and rescued a pre-teen Sarah Conner after her parents were murdered. The good Terminator became her defacto protector/father figure (Sarah calls him “Pops”, ugh) and they’ve been on the lam since just evading robots and such. Confused yet? All this exposition is unpacked in the first half hour, and as Reese proclaims at one point during one of the movie’s few moments of self-awareness, “Time travel makes my head hurt”.
The first 40 minutes do have the benefit of moving along quickly and packing so much incident in that’s it hard for the audience to catch its breath and realize how dumb the surrounding movie is. The action begins somewhat competently, but relies too much on winking callbacks to previous Terminator films (targeting reticules, excessive property damage, robot’s shifting loyalties, etc.) and eventually devolves into weightless CGI that becomes more meaningless as the movie drags on and you care about the characters less with each passing minute.
There are some parts that work intermittently. It’s undeniably thrilling to see Schwarzenegger back in the role that made him famous (“I’m old, not obsolete” is his character’s mantra), even if the movie surrounding him mostly falls flat. His T-800 here is more jokey than T1 or T2, and closer to the goofy Terminator from T3. National treasure J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) is hilarious as a beleaguered cop that tries to convince skeptical co-workers of the existence of what he calls “goddamn time travelling robots!”.
That’s about it really.The rest is a like a jumble of Terminator greatest hits played by a cover band that can’t read music and has never played their instruments and maybe they’ve just been concussed. The filmmakers seem to have only a surface level understanding of what made the franchise great (relentless action, killer robots, time travel) but don’t realize that some of the key elements here ring hollow.
Linda Hamilton’s tough-as-nails Sarah Conner from T2 was a revelation and fit in perfectly with other strong female characters that director James Cameron brought to the screen. Here Clarke’s Connor is blandly competent but not believable in the least. The action in Genisys is likewise robbed of any impact or thematic meaning, as is the future anxiety that Cameron so ably tapped into in the first two instalments. T2 had a horrific scene of nuclear war that seared itself on those that saw it an impressionable age. Genysis attempts the same paranoia about advanced technology by suggesting that true artificial intelligence (previously called Cyberdyne and referred to as the Genisys of the title here) will come in the form of an all-encompassing smartphone app. It just doesn’t hold the same visceral appeal.
I guess that’s to be expected from a toothless PG-13 entry in a franchise that began as decidedly R-Rated action movies for adults. What’s unfortunate is that no one thought long or hard enough to come up with a believable reason to return to this world. It could’ve been done (and in fact the bones of this story could’ve worked with some more finesse), but around the time that the three leads are arrested and booked to a montage featuring the Cops theme “Bad Boys” you can’t help but wish for an alternate future in which this movie was never made.
Terminator Genisys simultaneously disregards its predecessor’s events while shamelessly attempting to steal the best beats from them, all to severely diminished returns. If not for Shwarzenegger and Simmons the movie would be totally unwatchable. As it is, even occasional glimmers of a once-proud past can’t help it rise above the level of thudding idiocy.
Terminator Genysis (2015)
Directed by Alan Taylor
Runtime: 126 minutes