Terminator: Genisys is over the top in all the worst ways. Three decades and four films removed from James Cameron’s taut, career-launching B-movie masterpiece, it further pumps up the volume on a slim story already teetering under the massive weight of shifting franchise expectations. Bloated with CGI overkill and convoluted, even incoherent, myth-making, it drags a once-great film further into the murk and muck of inconsequential and unnecessary summer blockbuster bookkeeping, churning out newer, more disposable, less satisfying reiterations of an oft-mined story so some studio can prey on mindless nostalgia for a quick injection of blood into their profit tills (see also: Jurassic World.) It’s your typical cash grab sequel shitting all over a beloved original.
That said, as far as cash grab sequels shitting over beloved originals go, Terminator: Genisys isn’t all bad.
Certainly, it’s better than Terminator: Salvation, the inert, leaden, vacuously glum previous installment of the Terminator saga, the one now more known for Christian Bale’s on-set freakout than anything that actually happened in it. (It was, umm, a war film, with robots and, ummm, Bale shooting things and, well, Sam Worthington showing his first lack of acting chops in a major film…and, uhh, what else happened?) Unlike that dreadfully dull bore, Terminator: Genisys is not not fun. Because, watching it, it is kinda fun, tickling some lizard brain nerd instinct that dictates that watching robots battling robots is pretty f’n sweet. But it’s also not a very good movie, either, and a pretty damn terrible Terminator one — even while you watch it, there’s this tiny sense, a voice in your head that says you shouldn’t actually be enjoying this.
Writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier and director Alan Taylor — who made a similar franchise-pooping hash of Thor: The Dark World, the odious blight on Marvel’s MCU resume — go back to the original Terminator, monkeying around with the timeline to less than stellar results. It starts well enough, with the humans just about to wrap up the war on Skynet, whom they have finally defeated after decades of conflict. However, Skynet has managed to send a Terminator back in time to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor — mother of resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke)– with trusted soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, taking over for Michael Biehn) following suit, with the mission to protect Sarah and destroy the Terminator.
So far, so familiar, and the filmmakers have some fun redoing scenes from the original film. However, things get twisted– thanks to a “nexus” event, Kyle warps back to a different 1984 — Sarah is already well aware of the threat to her, and has been protected by an older version of the trusty ol’ T-800 since she was 9 years old. (How to explain Arnold Schwarzenegger’s obviously aged visage even though he’s a robot? His human flesh shroud is still subject to the rigors of age even if his cybernetic skeleton is not.)
What happens is a fairly stupid run around through time as John and Sarah flash forward through time to stop Skynet…which is now apparently a super-cool operating system connecting all our mobile devices. It’s The Cloud. Terminator: Genisys basically boils down to Schwarzenegger and the Daeny from Game Of Thrones fighting Apple. Timely, to be sure, but if the filmmakers thought they were making some sort of statement about our plugged in and turned on culture, then it’s lost in an orgy of things going boom boom and bang bang throughout poor, cinematically beleaguered San Francisco. Besides, telling stories about fighting an invasive and self-aware Twitter is already pretty boring in our real lives; why do we need to watch it done in a summer seasonal popcorn movie that asks us to leave our brains at the door then forget them there?
Divorced from the baggage of the original film, Genisys would merely be a poorly acted, terribly written and badly, aggressively, obviously CG’d sci-fi film. It’s full of dopey dialogue, limp stabs at comedy, mediocre storytelling and dumb ideas that are essentially there to get us from one set piece to another. The film does have a propulsive energy that keeps things moving quickly, and those setpieces aren’t terrible — Taylor stages them well, if not memorably, which makes for a breezy enough jaunt through some effects company’s computer program, even if gets numbing and exhausting by film’s end.
As a Terminator film though, it’s a kick in the groin with a stiletto heel, undoing everything good and beloved about the films so far. Let’s start with Sarah Connor – Emilia Clarke is by far the worst iteration of this character ever. She’s utterly unconvincing; a wide-eyed and pony-tailed Disney gal hefting a gun and play-acting at tough. She has no grit. She’s utterly laughable, and is actually outshone by Jai Courtney – JAI FREAKIN’ COURTNEY, the man who makes Sam Worthington look like Hayden Christensen. That’s not to say the actor is good — he’s as bland and depth-free and opposite-of-Biehn as you expect him to be — but he’s at least at his least Jai Courtney-ish here. Needless to say, the two actors have no chemistry and the Reese/Connor romance of the original is reduced to watching two pretty, and pretty uninteresting, characters bicker and snipe through shitty wisecracks like they are in a bad screwball farce.
There are callbacks to the first two films, including the presence of a T-1000 that doesn’t add anything to film ‘cept an antagonist to chase the heroes around for the better part of two hours until they can fight the real big bad. (Also, why do you continue to shoot at a liquid metal thingy even though you repeatedly see how little effect bullets have on it???) JK Simmons shows up as a comic relief cop and is wasted, John Connor is– well you saw the second trailer, and well, yeah. Clarke, a fine actor, tries to inject his role with life, but frankly, he’s fighting a losing battle. The bright spot here is Ah-nuld, resuming his most iconic role with ease. He’s fun, tough, warm and still bristling with the charisma that made him a star so many moons ago. Genisys is at it’s best whenever he’s on screen.
The Terminator was never meant to initiate a franchise. It was a B-movie, a slasher movie with a sci-fi twist, Arnie’s implacable robot menace Jason Voorhees with a robotic overhaul. It was made more through Cameron’s lean but muscular direction — but the franchise has gotten flabbier and clunkier with each new upgrade. Cameron had the skill to turn his original into big-budget gloss, something that the not-Cameron directors don’t, with them following an increasingly rote and overdone playbook. The Terminator franchise is straining ever more mightily to get bigger and badder and fit into a summer landscape where it doesn’t really belong. The results are films tying themselves into knots trying to destroy everything we loved about the original film in the first place. Maybe it’s time for this series to be terminated.
2.5 stars out of 5