‘Terminator Genisys’ is technically the fifth film in the 30-year-old franchise, but as James Cameron or anyone who was actually involved in the project will tell you, it’s really the third official movie in the series. You see, the first two ‘Terminator’ flicks remain rowdy action/sci-fi classics, while the subsequent two haven’t been mentioned since release.
Much like the almost inexplicably successful ‘Jurassic World’, ‘Genisys’ is built on nostalgia while serving as a franchise retcon. It’s a relentless attempt to revive the ‘Terminator’ series by acknowledging how far off the mark things have gone and essentially removing the last two flicks from continuity. It also feels like watching at least three ‘Terminator’ movies at once, in ways both good and bad.
Things kick off with another trip to the apocalyptic future. John Connor (now Jason Clarke) leads a victorious final battle over the machines with his best bud Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), only for them to discover that their efforts might have all been in vain since Skynet was able to send a Terminator back to 1984 right before losing the war. Connor then sends Reese back to save his mom and become his father, as we already know from the first ‘Terminator’ movie. However, everything plays out almost shot-for-shot the same until an elderly Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator shows up to battle a CGI-enhanced younger Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator. (Say what?!)
Much like ‘Back to the Future Part II’, the timelines get all messed up when the events of the new movie interact and interfere with the events of previous movies in the series. 1984 Sarah Connor is already a badass warrior who was raised by a Terminator since childhood and calls him Pops. Then a T-1000 shows up to make the film a remake of ‘T2’ as well. Then Reese and Sarah Connor decide that the fractured timeline has screwed things up so thoroughly that they need to take a trip to 2017 to stop a new Skynet that’s about to take over the world via some sort of super special operating system/social media network/search engine/whatever called “Genisys.”
That’s a whole bunch of plot and yet it somehow only encompasses less than half the movie. ‘Terminator Genisys’ has been rattling around studio development hell for years now and boasts a messy Frankenstein script to prove it. The movie is all over the place, serving up fan service remake material for 20 minutes, hamfisted internet-as-Skynet social commentary for 20 minutes, future war epic for 11 minutes, snappy future-lover rom-com for 6 minutes, convoluted time-travel math movie for 12 minutes, aging Arnie comedy for 10 minutes, Terminator-daddy melodrama for 9 minutes, ludicrous CGI clusterfuck action flick for 25 minutes, and a few more movies I’m forgetting for the rest of the running time.
The sequel tries so hard to be so many things for so many quadrants of the audience that the filmmakers never settle into a single tone that makes it unique. At times, the thing devolves into a convoluted mess. On the plus side, if you ever find yourself irritated, bored or confused, all you have to do is wait a few minutes for the next mini-movie to kick in.
The best section is likely the retro-‘Terminator’ remake, which pushes nostalgia buttons hard and delivers some wonderously absurd action sequences. (Want to see a rocket launcher blow up a T-1000 and a police car mid-chase, or a metallic T-800 skull fly towards the camera in IMAX 3D? Your prayers have been answered.) That’s when ‘Thor: The Dark World’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ director Alan Taylor has the most fun and is the in the most command of the serpentine plot and endless action. Like the folks behind ‘Jurassic World’, the filmmaker gets away with not being able to match the shock-of-the-new of the original movies by referencing hard, increasing scale, and cracking irreverent jokes about the irrelevance of the project.
Aside from that section, ‘Terminator Genisys’ is pretty hit-and-miss. The action scenes remain consistently entertaining and the gags about Arnie’s ancient machine being an “old but not irrelevant” father figure serve up some fun. The rest is all over the place. It’s hard to judge the performances of Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney since their characters suffer the most from troublesome rewrites. When they aren’t stuck spitting out as much time-travel exposition as their mouths can muster, they’re either speaking somberly about fate or cracking wise about their mutual attraction in awkwardly clashing ways. Any sense of character that those performers drum up is the result of past associations to other, better ‘Terminator’ movies. The script they’re stuck with gives them no human roles to play, just cogs in an overwritten machine.
As for all the time-travel rigmarole, it really doesn’t add up to much other than an easy narrative device to shake things up every few minutes. There’s some attempt to speak to themes about the nature of fate and the inevitable fallibility of man, but not in a way that makes sense or means much. While ‘Terminator Genisys’ might be big, expensive and unexpectedly entertaining, it’s really nothing but a dumb summer sequel despite all its desperate attempts to transcend that label.
Ultimately, the fivequel proves just what a good pop filmmaker James Cameron truly is. Sure, it’s pretty easy to mock Cameron’s kick-to-the-groin sense of thematic subtlety and cornball dialogue, but his two ‘Terminator’ movies managed to deliver wild entertainment, groundbreaking special effects, digestible time-travel narrative gymnastics, and even a little commentary on fate and redemption in a pleasing popcorn package. ‘Terminator Genisys’ tries to do all those things and more in such a clumsy and nakedly manipulative way that nothing much registers beyond the boom-boom entertainment and nostalgia. The movie is still goofy fun and decidedly better than any ‘Terminator’ movie since 1991, but sadly that’s not saying much.