I can only imagine what someone who hasn't seen a Terminator movie might make of Terminator: Genisys, a film that leans heavily on tinkering with the complex mythology of its predecessors (the first two, anyway) and on referencing the beloved moments of its predecessors (the first two, anyway). Would it make any sense at all? There are countless moments that contain weirdly off-key elements (lines of dialogue, visual references, action beats), but most of these moments are direct callbacks to stuff from James Cameron's iconic action films, so I guess we're supposed to applaud when they appear. It's unsurprising that the film attempts to trigger nostalgia so shamelessly, but it's so bad at mimicking the virtues of the stuff it's paying homage to that the approach backfires. The movie isn't just junk... it's junk that continually reminds you of the existence of vastly superior movies.
The film begins in the year 2029, where John Connor (a pretty good Jason Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is leading the resistance against Skynet's machines. The war is finally won, but the good news is undercut by the fact that Skynet managed to send one of their Terminators back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones), John's mother. If their mission succeeds, John will be wiped out of existence, and history will be significantly altered. So, John sends his right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, Unbroken) back to 1984 to protect Sarah.
“But Clark,” you say, “All of that stuff was in the first Terminator movie.” Right you are. But this is where things start to get complicated.
This time around, Kyle arrives in an altered version of the timeline. In this version, the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, True Lies) sent to kill Sarah is confronted and quickly defeated by an entirely different T-800 (Schwarzenegger agains) charged with protecting Sarah. “The Guardian” is also from the future, but he arrived back in 1973, when Sarah was a 9-year-old orphan. Since that time, The Guardian has been preparing Sarah for the future that awaits her. She already knows that her future son will be the leader of the resistance against Skynet, that Kyle will be John's father and that Kyle is fated to die protecting her. Ah, but will knowledge of the future alter the future? No fair telling, but time travel movies gonna time travel movie.
The thing is, Sarah isn't the only one with an expanded set of knowledge. Kyle is also experiencing memories from his childhood, but it's a childhood he never actually experienced. Turns out he's seeing something from an alternate timeline, and these memories contain a message on how to combat Skynet. It seems that Skynet's origins can be found in a program called Genisys – an operating system designed to connect every single electronic device you own. Kyle knows about Genisys because his alternate 12-year-old self received it as a birthday present. Why would a 12-year-old want an operating system for his birthday? That's a weird gift. Anyway, Genisys will be launched in the year 2017, so Kyle and Sarah decide to travel to the future in order to defeat Skynet before Skynet is even a thing. Basically, they're attempting to do to Skynet what Skynet is attempting to do to John Connor.
That's a slightly oversimplified version of what happens, but we don't have all day. Naturally, this stuff requires a lot of explanation, so Terminator: Genisys often turns into an exposition factory. However, it also fears that its audiences will be bothered by all of the nerdy scientific explanations of everything, so it has frequently has someone (usually Kyle) offer up some variation of, “English, please!” If there's one thing sci-fi movies have taught us, it's that the English language does not permit the use of accurate scientific terminology.
If this installment isn't quite as tedious as the grim, dusty Terminator: Salvation, it's thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to the series. While the explanation for why The Guardian looks so old is a little unconvincing (if the skin the T-800 is wearing naturally ages over time, why is it so easy to heal everything when large chunks of that skin get blown off?), Arnold is still the perfect guy to play this emotionless-yet-tender man-machine. It's a pleasure to see those frozen facial expressions and hear those monotone line readings again, and there's a seed of a good idea in the notion of a machine attempting to take on the role of a father figure. Portions of that idea were effectively explored in Cameron's surprisingly warm, funny Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but this time they're mostly window dressing. It's as if everyone making the film liked the idea, but no one knew what to do with it or could find time to properly flesh it out.
More frustrating is the fact that Terminator: Genisys doesn't really seem interested in Schwarzenegger at all. He may get first billing and half of the title, but this isn't his movie. He's merely an on-and-off sidekick for Kyle and Sarah, who take center stage for the bulk of the film. Their relationship isn't the same as it was in The Terminator – obviously, their new knowledge makes a difference – but they really don't even seem like the same characters. Weirdly, the film attempts to turn them into a time-traveling version of The Bickersons, forcing them to engage in petty, juvenile arguments all the way to the finish line. The movie tries to be funny on a surprisingly regular basis, but it doesn't have any good jokes to offer. The playful banter between Clarke and Courtney feels strained, partially because they have little chemistry and partially because the writing is so clunky. Separately, Clarke's Sarah Connor is passable and Courtney's Kyle Reese is basically a blank space. I didn't think the Terminator series would ever have a lead actor less charismatic than Sam Worthington, but here we are.
The film is directed by Alan Taylor, though I have to admit I'm curious about how much control he actually had over the production. The made-by-committee vibe of Taylor's Thor: The Dark World (a film which was essentially taken away from the director during post-production) is very much present here, as it often feels as if the movie is merely checking off test-marketed boxes rather than telling a single compelling story. Here are some cameos from the first Terminator flick. Here's a callback to an exciting action scene from the second Terminator flick. Here's a goofy scene of Arnold trying to smile (a joke that gets used way too often in this film). Here's an “I'll be back.” Here's a “come with me if you want to live.”
Taylor is a reliable TV director, but that's because he's a good chameleon – he can capture the tone of whatever show he's working on. His big-screen work suffers from a severe lack of personality. I have no idea what “an Alan Taylor film” is, other than that it's a tonally conflicted mess that feels like the product of too many studio notes. His action scenes are dull and blandly-staged, which is a big problem for a series that basically redefined the modern action movie. Why bother constantly referencing T2 when you aren't even going to make a half-hearted effort to match it? The film's generic limpness is further accentuated by a forgettable, derivative Lorne Balfe score that rehashes riffs from Batman Begins and every other Zimmer-scored blockbuster of the past decade (it's unsurprising to see that Zimmer served as an “executive music producer,” whatever that means).
While we're on the subject of differences between Cameron's Terminator films and this one: both of those movies were rated R. This one is rated PG-13, which would only make sense if the movie weren't entirely fueled by nostalgia for two R-rated movies. I'm not one of the “PG-13 action movies always suck” guys, but this film is so blatantly an R-rated movie trying to squeeze into a PG-13 skin. Tons of people are killed in horribly violent ways, but the movie shies away from actually showing blood and guts. The film's version of time travel requires time travelers to be naked during their trip... so, we have a lot of time traveling scenes in which all the naughty bits are concealed by carefully placed shadows and fog (it gets very Austin Powers after a while).
I haven't talked about the film's central antagonist, because he doesn't show up until the film's halfway point and to say much about him would probably constitute a spoiler. However, let it be said that the ongoing battle against him is a tedious one, and that everything that is accomplished over the course of this film is essentially undone by a stinger buried in the middle of the end credits. Given the film's inescapable aura of pointlessness, that feels thematically appropriate. On numerous occasions through the film, The Guardian utters a motivational mantra of sorts: “I'm old... but not obsolete.” Schwarzenegger may not be obsolete, but his once-great franchise most certainly is.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Year: 2015