Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the Terminator series, is a confusing mound of frustratingly insular happenstance. Drawing on plot threads from previous movies (particularly 1984’s The Terminator and 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), and incorporating familiar characters played by newly minted actors, Genisys weaves a convoluted (and ultimately nonsensical) time travel story about evil robots from the future who have been manipulating history since the 1970s in order to ensure that a certain event – the robot uprising – occur by a certain date. When dealing with time travel stories, the filmmakers should have perhaps addressed the inherent illogic of having a deadline. If you have access to a time travel machine, then, logically speaking, there is no need to hurry. You literally have all the time in the world.
Of course, paradoxes are the bread and butter of time travel movies. The genre is rife with causality loops and the like, so I cannot begrudge the occasional monkeying with destiny. But when you find yourself distracted by faulty plot machinations, it means the film you’re watching has perhaps failed to tell an interesting enough story.
The faults of Terminator Genisys lie with its speedy delivery. I understand that millions upon millions of people have seen the previous films in this series (or at least the first two) multiple times, but some sort of early chance to catch our breath – to understand what’s at stake this time – is never offered us. The film is so heavily reliant on previous movies, and makes so many assumptions about what the audience remembers (especially from the less-than-popular Terminator 3) that it begins to feel less like a taut feature film, and more like the series finale of a long-running TV show. It’s all reference and parody and fan service. This is a film that hopes to draw strength from your love of the previous movies, rather than offering anything you can love from its own mechanical heart.
The story repurposes the story of the original. An evil Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was sent from 2029 back to 1984 to murder Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of the future human resistance leader, John (Jason Clarke, no relation). Only now, thanks to so ill-explained causality shenanigans, a good Terminator was also sent back to the 1970s to raise Sarah, who, by 1984, has become a grizzled, fate-obsessed gunfighter. Yes, there is a showdown between the young Arnold and the current one.
Meanwhile, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), a soldier from the future, has also been sent back to 1984 to protect Sarah from the evil Terminator, only to learn that robots have been infecting the timeline for a decade, and that, curiously, he has memories of two timelines in his head. Eventually, Kyle, Sarah, and the good Terminator (who now looks like Schwarzenegger in his 60s) will have to use a cobbled-together time machine built in 1984 to travel to 2017 when the robot uprising will occur. I hope you could follow all that, because it took a lot of concentration to absorb. I won’t even mention the well-known plot twist, wherein it is revealed that John Connor has been assimilated by the Borg – I mean machines – and sent back to 2017 to do usual end-of-the-world stuff with his new robot body that appears to be made of magnetic sand.
The convoluted plot wouldn’t be so bad, were the characters at all interesting. Emilia Clarke, who is 23 but looks 15, is disastrously miscast as Sarah. Sarah, in previous movies played by Linda Hamilton, has been convincing as a hard-edged, violent loner who is comfortable with weapons. Clarke looks like a high school student who just got off the cosplay bus to Comic-Con. She has no weight or gravitas, and is never for a second convincing as a capable fighter. She is then paired with the wet blanket Kyle (previous Michael Biehn, now Jai Courtney) who has no personality whatsoever. Poor Courtney seems to be stuck in Hollywood limbo. Studios are trying to position him as an action star, but he can’t seem to display any charisma at all. He’s suffering from the same syndrome as Sam Worthington, who, incidentally, appeared in 2009’s Terminator Salvation.
The only actor who seems comfortable in this mess is Schwarzenegger himself. I never thought I would ever write this sentence, but Schwarzenegger lends the film a level of level-headed maturity. At this point, Schwarzenegger is like an elder statesman of action cinema, and he is a savvy enough actor to play to his age. He is still a commanding presence on screen, and his occasionally meaningful glances toward Sarah provide the audience with more concrete emotional interplay than anything written in the goofy-ass dialogue.
Some have been calling Genisys a reboot, others a remake, others a “part 5.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s still a slick, overstuffed action spectacular with nothing to add to the series other than a vague sort of dorm room spitball version of cleverness. It’s a “what if” conversation writ large, or a draft of a Terminator sequel that would have been pooh-poohed in a previous generation. It’s also not very much fun.