This may surprise you, but it’s already been six years since Terminator Salvation stormed multiplexes with its dour, future prequel antics. The idea was to reboot the franchise after 2003’s better than you remember third film, Rise of the Machines, and now they’re doing it yet again. A paranoid film lover could almost make the argument that Hollywood keeps sending us sequels in the hopes of killing our love for the first two movies.
Terminator Genisys takes the story in a bold new direction while also being extremely familiar. It’s not very successful in that endeavor – too convoluted, too unnecessary – but the attempt to reinvigorate what we know with what we don’t is an admirable spin on the usual sequel doldrums, and that combined with some solid action beats make for one more example of passable summer entertainment. (Attention Paramount, you’re pre-approved to use “passable summer entertainment” as my pull quote for the Blu-ray cover.)
The film opens in a world at war as Skynet’s efforts to wipe out humanity continue at a fever pitch. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) narrates our introduction sharing how he knew only a life built on fear and survival until John Connor (Jason Clarke) saved his life and trained him to resist the electronic occupation. John’s plan to strike the enemy’s metaphorical heart and destroy Skynet succeeds but not before a T-800 is sent back to 1984 on a mission to kill his mother. Kyle immediately follows expecting to find Sarah (Emilia Clarke) quivering, scared and in need of his protection.
“Come with me if you want to live!”
Instead, it’s Sarah who saves his life when he comes under attack by a T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun). A change in the past has essentially turned ’84 Sarah into the battle-hardened warrior no one expected until ’91 (Judgement Day), and along with her friendly T-800 nicknamed Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger) she’s preparing her own assault to prevent Skynet from ever being created. This new timeline features a new Judgement Day, 2017 instead of 1997, triggered by the launch of a nifty, highly anticipated consumer application called Genisys that – get ready for this science fiction pipe dream – connects all of your smart devices. Huh.
Recent trailers have already spoiled a big moment from late in the film, but I won’t be discussing it here. Suffice to say things get weird as the timeline and franchise canon is twisted into oblivion.
It’s clear from very early on that director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) and writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier have affection for and knowledge of the earlier films – our arrival in 1984 gives us multiple moments mirrored to James Cameron’s original film from the garbage truck driver to the three punks at Griffith Observatory who lose their clothes to the T-800, and many more that are spun to play with our expectations. Much of it is revisited solely for the purpose of rewriting it though, and for every change that works to ratchet up our interest three others leave us shaking our heads. These extensive narrative shifts aren’t going to tell themselves (apparently) which leaves viewers taking in a lot of exposition between explosions.
One of the changes resulting from this new timeline is that Sarah and Kyle know that they need to get busy between the sheets in order to create John, and that’s a major problem here. Cameron’s original gave us characters brought together without that knowledge who find an emotional connection in the heat of a nightmare. Their love was hurried but real – here that connection is spoken of but never truly felt. The urgency is missing along with the emotion, and while it’s tempting to blame Courtney’s acting “style” the problem is script-based.
Taylor stages some well-paced and exciting action sequences which, along with several jokes and lighthearted moments, keep the two hour film from ever growing dull. There are plenty of gunfights and chases alongside enemy Terminators of varying makes and models. Schwarzenegger’s “old but not obsolete” T-800 is involved in the vast majority of these skirmishes, but Sarah and Kyle see their share of the action too.
Schwarzenegger is the only returning player, and he continues the evolution from serious machine to comic relief we’re seen throughout the series. He delivers several of the film’s jokes and gags, some more successful than others, and maintains a strong presence along the way. Jason Clarke has less flexibility to work with as the character requires a more consistent seriousness, but he is solid. The two new leads are a real mixed bag though.
Emilia Clarke can do tough as evidenced by the past few seasons of Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t really translate here. There’s a softness to her that feels perfect for the Sarah we knew from the first film, but she seems incapable of recreating Linda Hamilton’s fierce appearance and performance in Judgement Day. That’s the Sarah she’s supposed to be here, but it’s not projected in her actions or opportunities.
Courtney meanwhile is tasked with being the emotional core of the film, and this, amid a flurry of other issues, is one of the movie’s biggest mistakes. He’s simply not up to the task – a job made admittedly tougher by this script – and when a character refers to him as a “human-shaped thing designed to gain our trust” we can’t help but agree. Okay, fine, that’s something Kyle says about the T-800, but it could just as easily be said about Courtney.
Terminator Genisys is similar to (but better than) the recent reboots of Total Recall and Robocop in that it misses the mark on what made the originals so effective. These new films mistakenly value cutting edge CG and iconic, pop culture touchstones over the personality, heart and economy of exposition that made audiences fall in love decades earlier. But hey, that’s nothing another crack at time travel couldn’t solve.
The Upside: Some solid action beats; the Clarkes; shows respect for franchise mythology; occasionally fun
The Downside: Script is frequently dumb as it tries to be oh so smart; new Sarah Connor is a step backwards from T2’s; Genisys, really?; some rough CG; Jai Courtney