In the year 2029, John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads the Resistance in the war against the machines. Upon learning that Skynet has sent back a T-800 back to 1984 to kill his mother, John sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to the same time to protect his mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke).
Upon arriving at his destination, Kyle discovers another machine, a T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), has traveled back in time as well, and before the liquid metal cyborg can kill him, he is saved, much to his surprise, by Sarah and her “Guardian”, a reprogrammed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), thereby changing the entire game for him both in the past and the future.
Terminator Genisys marks the fifth film of the billion dollar Terminator franchise which began 31 years ago with James Cameron’s The Terminator, and continued on into the ’90s with Terminator 2: Judgment Day and then into the 21st century with Rise of the Machines and Salvation. Judgment Day is one of the greatest sequels ever made, and I even enjoy Rise of the Machines and Salvation, even though neither carry the impact that the first two have. Now we have Genisys which reunites Arnold Schwarzenegger with the franchise and attempts to be another one of those “forget everything you once knew” time-travel stories.
The Rise of the Machines and Salvation haters will be pleased to know that director Alan Taylor and writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier have officially erased them from the franchise timeline. Feeling that’s not enough, Taylor, Kalogridis and Lussier go the extra mile by erasing Judgment Day and The Terminator too.
The “clean slate” device for time-travel franchises isn’t one that’s inherently bad if used right. X-Men: Days of Future Past made it work last year. Taylor, Kalogridis and Lussier’s problem, however, is that they’re biting off more than they can chew here. Between all the alternate timelines, villains and the new cyber program Genisys, on top of the original baddie Skynet, there’s enough mythology for two movies in just this one film. Kyle’s “What if?” setup had me hooked a bit at first once things change entirely for him upon running into the T-1000 (a nice nod to James Cameron’s original idea for both the T-800 and T-1000 in The Terminator, which had to be nixed ’cause he didn’t yet have the right effects necessary for the T-1000), but as the story continues on, too many convoluted ingredients get thrown into the pot without any proper development.
Taylor does add few little details as a way of explaining key moments from the first film that are nice touches, such as Kyle’s awkward landing back to 1984. He also does a spot-on job in recreating a couple scenes from The Terminator almost shot-for-shot that are given a boost from Neil Spisak’s production design which effectively captures the time of each period in the film.
Filling in the shoes previously worn by Linda Hamilton in the first two films, Emilia Clarke does fine work as Sarah Connor. Even though her performance kinda comes off a little too “Linda Hamilton impression” at first, she gradually grows on you, especially during her moments with Schwarzenegger. Jai Courtney, making no effort to channel Michael Biehn, has had a tendency to come off bland in past films. His performance probably won’t do much to alleviate the online hate he gets on a daily basis, and honestly, I can practically hear the knives sharpening over what many fans will see as him contributing to another iconic franchise “bastardization” (in fairness to Courtney, as bad as he was in A Good Day to Die Hard, he was far from the only reason why the movie sucked). Courtney’s not bad here, maybe a little stiff at times, but serviceable enough to not warrant the inevitable death threats he probably has in his inbox by now.
Just saying, if he shows up in Star Wars: Episode VII this Christmas, the streets will probably be running red with blood from all the mass rioting.
The short end of the stick, though, not counting J. K. Simmons whose role as a crackpot theorist detective feels like it was wedged into the story at the last minute, goes to Jason Clarke. Clarke’s normally a strong actor, but there’s very little he can do with his underwritten role of John Connor. Of all characters to come off as the least compelling, you’d expect it to be someone other than one of the Connors, and the fact that they turn him into the villain this time around (it’s been all over the trailers and posters, so I didn’t spoil anything) is all the more reason to give him something more substantial to work with. But I guess Taylor and Co. figured just the fact that it’s John Connor as the villain would suffice.
Ultimately, if there’s anyone who redeems this movie, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose post-governor film career has been dying for a hit. Sure, The Expendables movies are fun, but he’s nothing more than an extended cameo there. Maggie’s a different kind of movie for him, one superior to this film, and features one of his best performances (mainly ’cause director Henry Hobson, like Cameron, knew how to utilize him well), but it’s hardly what you’d call a hit at the box office. At the end of the day, the T-800 has always been and always will be his “glass slipper” role, and though pushing 70, he proves that he can still slip back comfortably into this role (his age not only isn’t an issue, it actually fits the character’s arc nicely).
Certainly not a roaring success, but also not a train wreck, Terminator Genisys has a sleek look, some nifty special effects and some solid, though sometimes overlong, action sequences, but is held back by a murky mythology with alternate timelines that raise questions which either rush to the answer or are left by the wayside. Despite its problems, though, Arnold Schwarzenegger manages to keep the film afloat by providing just enough intimidation, toughness and empathy once more to the role that defined his career over three decades ago.
I give Terminator Genisys a C+ (★★½).