In a summer of rehashed franchises, I quite enjoyed Jurassic World (it isn’t a great movie, but it’s a damn lot of fun), and Mad Max: Fury Road is one of best, most eyebrow-scorching action films in years. If you were hoping that Terminator Genisys, the fifth installment in the killer-robots-from-the-future saga, was going to fall somewhere in this realm, you will be disappointed. Lazy storytelling, messy CGI, and bland action combine to form a movie that the most natural reaction to is a slump-shouldered sigh and a muttered, “I wish that was better.” Intended to launch a new trilogy, it doesn’t bring enough, or any, new ideas to the table to warrant more.
Genisys starts off on a bad foot. An extended voiceover from the new Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) tells you things that even people who have never seen one of these movies know about the Terminator franchise: Skynet becomes aware and ruins the world and John Connor (Jason Clarke) saves us all. From there, things proceed as expected for a while. On the verge of victory, the machines get off one last Hail Mary, sending a T-800 (a heavily CGI’d Arnold Schwarzenegger clone) back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) so John will never be born and the Resistance will never come to be, but John sends Kyle back to save her.
You’ve heard this story before, right? But from here on out, Terminator Genisys rewrites the entire timeline. Some of the more skeptical among you might say it shits all over what came before, but I’ll leave that for you to decide once you’ve seen it. It also ignores the last two movies, which is probably for the best.
See, the 1984 Kyle Reese arrives in is not the 1984 that John Connor intended to send him back to. Sarah is not the meek, frightened young waitress we first met more than 30 years ago. In this new timeline, everything is different. She was raised by a Terminator, who she calls Pops (an age appropriate Schwarzenegger), and after they rescue Kyle from a sticky situation, the newly established trio jumps through time, trying to wrap their head around all of these new changes and stop Judgment Day all over again. Along the way they find new twists and villains, the biggest of which were utterly and completely spoiled in almost every last bit of marketing released for the film.
People throw around the accusation that a trailer ruined everything more frequently than one actually does, but in the case of Terminator Genisys, that claim is well founded. When we first saw the big reveal in a trailer, most of us thought, okay, if they’re willing to unveil this in a promo, there must be more, there must be some other secrets we know nothing about. But there aren’t. They just blurted out the big secret for all to hear. It’s like you walked into a screening of The Sixth Sense in 1999, yelled, “Bruce Willis is dead,” and strolled out.
I’ve never been one to be too bothered by spoilers. I can know what’s going to happen and still enjoy a movie or show as long as it’s told well. Unfortunately that’s not the case with Genisys. The script from writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier is very pleased with itself and thinks its really smart and clever, while the reality is that the narrative is clunky and convoluted and a jumbled mess of half-realized ideas. They throw huge logical flaws at you when it comes to the science involved, making big statements of fact, like how Kyle can somehow remember two timelines, and you’re supposed to accept them point blank. You want to raise your hand and ask, “Um, what?” But when Pops, who is all of a sudden an expert in hypothetical time travel scenarios, shrugs and says, “Theoretically,” as a explanation, which he does multiple times, that’s all you get.
And there is so much talking. Part of what makes the Terminators so scary is that they’re near silent killing machines, relentless in pursuit of their goal. While you get a bit of that sense of menace early on when Lee Byung-hun shows up as one of the liquid metal T-1000s, this time Arnold’s T-800 won’t shut the hell up, and most of his dialogue is overly convenient exposition.
All of these flaws, and many more problems, can be forgiven if a movie of this ilk comes bearing kickass action. Genisys, however, is not one of those movies. Directed by Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World), the big action set pieces here are flat and toothless. In this regard, the film peaks early on with a car chase involving the T-1000 that feels like a gritty ‘70s throwback, but everything else is just a tepid mishmash of questionable CGI choices and action you’ve seen countless other times in flat Hollywood wanna-be blockbusters.
Taking place partly in 1984, Terminator Genisys revisits moments from the first movie, but with a new spin. One of the scenes I was most looking forward to is when the first T-800 arrives and rousts the gang of punks at the Griffith Park Observatory. We’ve known for what feels like forever that this time the scene would feature old Arnold throwing down with young Arnold, which sounds like a dream come true for ten-year-old me. But it isn’t. Instead of one of the greatest action badasses of all time battling himself, it’s a mess of pixels and poorly edited fisticuffs that is just one in a series of letdowns.
Genisys revisits a few other iconic stops along the way, trying to deliver playful twists on lines like, “Come with me if you want to live” (delivered by Sarah Connor this time) and “I’ll be back.” While these might elicit mild chuckles from the audience, they don’t hit in any substantial way. In fact, they’re mostly forced and don’t fit naturally within the flow of their respective scenes.
In general, I dig this new, post-political career path Arnold Schwarzenegger is on. He’s embraced the action elder statesman role and for the most part, in movies like The Last Stand and Sabotage, I’m on board with his choices. He’s actually the highlight of Genisys, and though he’s just continuing on with his shtick from Terminator 2, he’s having fun with it, including a running joke about being old but not obsolete. J.K. Simmons, in a small part as a beleaguered detective with a link to these characters, is also a total blast. Underutilized to be sure, he’s still as great as you might hope.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, is basically sleepwalking through this one. We’ve been watching him for a while now, and I think it’s time to pull the plug on the idea of Jai Courtney as a leading man. He hits all the necessary beats, but he has zero charisma on screen. It’s like watching a handsome mannequin try to carry an action movie. While she’s going through the motions of a badass warrior, Emilia Clarke displays none of the traits that make her character on Game of Thrones so watchable and engaging, in addition to being tough as nails. She has none of the edge Linda Hamilton, or even Lena Heady on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, brought to the role. Granted, the script does neither of them any favors, and their relationship is tedious and mostly involves quips from Pops about “mating” with Kyle Reese. Sarah comes across like a teenage girl talking about sex with her dad, but it’s not as funny as that sounds.
Terminator Genisys isn’t god-awful terrible, there simply isn’t anything here to recommend. The drama is heavy-handed and tasteless, and the action lacks any attitude, edge, or sense of spectacle, which is almost impressive considering the number of explosions involved. Aside from being a cynical cash grab while Paramount still retains the rights to the franchise (they revert back to James Cameron in 2019), you can’t think of a single reason why this needed to happen, and the obvious dangling threads leave the door open for the future. I don’t often root for a film to fail financially, but part of me hopes Terminator Genisys tanks just so they don’t try to make any more. [Grade: C-/D+]