A lot has changed from when the James Cameron’s original The Terminator was released in 1984. The special effects of seeing the skeleton of the T-800 chasing Sarah Connor at the end had the feel of a Harryhausen creature gave way to the leap forward that was the T-1000 in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which has given way to state of the art CGI in just about every movie we see today. Much like the dinosaur world of Jurassic Park, the rest of the film world has passed the Terminator by. Terminator Genisys arrives in 2015 with a desperate attempt to show that it is still relevant, rebooting the timeline and trying to update the story of man vs. machines for the modern world. Several times, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 character mentions that he is “old, not obsolete,” a rallying cry for this once great franchise that has fallen on hard times as studios have gone back to the well several times since the success of T2. Aside from riding a wave of nostalgia, there is little in Terminator Genisys that gives any indication that this franchise is not obsolete.
Rebooting has become a studio fad of the last few years that several film franchises have attempted instead of a pure remake, most notably with the Star Trek and X-Men franchises. Here, things start out relatively normal to how we are supposed to know things, in 2029 Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time by resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) to 1984 to protect his mother Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from a T-800 Terminator sent back to kill her. Moments before he is sent back, Kyle witnesses John being attacked by some kind of advanced cyborg, and things in 1984 are not at all how we remember them. Sarah Connor is not the scared, innocent young woman in need of protection. Rather, she saves Kyle Reese from a pursuing T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) and has her own protector T-800, affectionately called Pops, in tow. Future events, due to time travel, have created a fractured timeline and they must get to 2017 to try to take down Skynet, now known as Genisys, an eagerly anticipated app that is going to launch, created by Miles Dyson and his son Danny (Courtney B. Vance and Dayo Okeniyi, respectively, and whose story inclusion is for little more than token diversity), before it’s too late. Once there, they encounter John, and things are not as they seem with him.
The first few moments of the movie being in 1984 are an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the opening of The Terminator. It’s impressive, and the sudden appearance of new, unexpected factors that were not in the original movie throw in a taste of unpredictability. There is a prolonged sequence involving the T-1000, and the film does a good job of finding new, inventive ways to use the T-1000 here rather than just repeating itself from T2: Judgment Day. I especially liked how they managed to defeat the T-1000 here. Speaking of recreating, it is impressive how well they manage to make Emilia Clarke look believably like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Emilia Clarke probably gives the best performance here too, portraying Sarah Connor as someone who feels trapped by her destiny and unable to her own decisions. There are a few good action scenes. While many will point to the stunt involving the bus on the Golden Gate Bridge, there are fights at a hospital and later a police station that work as well. Arnold is given his moments to shine as the Pops Terminator, not just in action, but in more than a few moments of comedy, even if they go to the same jokes a bit too often (awkward smile, anyone?).
Unfortunately, I found little else to like. Obviously, given that Kyle Reese is John Connor’s father, the storyline of Sarah and John falling for each other has to play into things, which is subverted bit by the two getting off on the wrong foot initially. But Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney also have zero chemistry together. There is a hospital scene between the two where they are handcuffed to beds and are attempting to escape and have a back and forth that plays out like a bad attempt at doing some Han Solo-Princess Leia banter in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s unfortunate, because I think Clarke is a good actress. I just am not sure if Jai Courtney is a good actor. He’s another one of those actors from the “hunky Australian” assembly line for Hollywood that has little range or charisma, like Sam Worthington, that Hollywood seems intent on making a movie star, trying to replicate the success of Chris Hemsworth, Hugh Jackman, and a few others from down under. I’ve seen nothing from him here, in A Good Day To Die Hard or Unbroken to indicate someone who can be a box office star. J.K. Simmons is also part of the cast, and his supporting talents are mostly wasted here as a cop in 2017 who has a connection to Sarah and Kyle. Jason Clarke feels miscast as John Connor, someone who is a good actor, but his strengths as an actor lie in things other than what he is asked to do here.
Speaking of John Connor, what happens to him involves special effects concerning nanotechnology that reminded me of Lucy and Transcendence, two of the more disappointing movies of 2014 and not complimentary comparisons. Apparently applying nanotechnology and fractured timelines and saying “theoretically” a lot allows you to do whatever you want to do with your movie and explain anything. The fractured timeline creates new memories in Kyle’s head, of a childhood he never had, like it was something cribbed from Rian Johnson’s Looper when Bruce Willis’ memories start to change. The movie also completely ignores both the 3rd and 4th installments of the franchise, two forgettable entries, which wouldn’t be a problem if Terminator Genisys itself were not equally forgettable. There are also plot holes and story threads left unanswered (maybe on purpose for further, already planned sequels). At one point, Arnold’s Pops and John Connor, the newest Terminator (a T 3000, I guess), are fighting in a police station, crashing through walls and sending people scurrying. The movie cuts to a few scenes involving Sarah and Kyle elsewhere in the building, and then Arnold joins up with them, and with no explanation of what happened with the previous scuffle. And who sent back the Pops Terminator to protect Sarah Connor at age 9 is never revealed, clouded in mystery either for future movies or simply explained away so they wouldn’t need to answer that question (I would have to expect it is the latter, since the previous timeline is done away with).
The Terminator franchise is one that was originally groundbreaking, but has become increasingly ordinary with each successive sequel. Desperate attempts to modernize it and make it relevant to todays world of high-tech gadgets and interconnected apps. It all just falls a little flat. It failed to move the needle for me in hardly any way, either to loathe or love. Rather, I felt largely indifferent walking out of the theater. But this is what Hollywood is now. Hollywood is our Skynet. And these film franchises and film universes, aside from the small handful that are actually good, are the Terminators of Hollywood. They’re here. And they can’t be bargained with. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop until every last opportunity cent has been squeezed from their once proud legacies. As they said in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, there’s no fate but what we make, and this is the fate we have made for ourselves with these films that offer fan service to the nostalgia of previous movies but offer little else. Terminator Genisys is not the first nor the last of its kind to come along. And I don’t know how we fight back.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars