Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The more I think about Terminator Genisys, the less of a film it becomes. The Terminator franchise has entered its fifth entry with decidedly little fanfare after the third and fourth entries proved underwhelming: Terminator: Rise of the Machines was a bridge film without a strong conflict and Terminator Salvation was that one movie where Christian Bale screamed at a guy on-set. The series has grown forgettable since James Cameron left the director’s chair. He brought the iconic franchise to life and director Alan Taylor, following up his 2013 effort Thor: The Dark World, seems to clearly admire the visual and storytelling flair that Cameron and his writers employed. Perhaps too much so, for he rarely has an original idea both visually and thematically without tying it to the emotions and awe that those first two entries inspired. T2 is particularly fantastic, yet when Terminator Genisys attempts to re-create the T-1000 here, it doesn’t feel like homage or nostalgia, but rather stealing. It’s a shame, then, that the film continues that trend and uses some strong set pieces but never makes much sense even by time-travel standards.
The story picks up with the futuristic battle to stop Skynet, the popular CPU that developed into a man-killing army of machines hellbent on taking over the planet. The Resistance is led by John Connor (Jason Clarke), who works with long-time friend Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney). Kyle was born after the world changed, and John showed him that Terminators could indeed be killed; this enlightened him and sent them both toward a fight that had to be won for humanity’s sake. Sure enough, in the film’s opening moments, victory is achieved. But Skynet had a last-minute plan to send one of theirs back in time to kill John Connor before he was born; therefore, Kyle Reese must go back in time to prevent this from happening. John has ulterior motives, obviously, and for those familiar with the plot of the first two films you know exactly why. Alas, Kyle is sent back to 1984 and meets the fabled Sarah (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke), who has been protected since childhood by the T-800 (a returning Arnold Schwarzenegger). As for why he was sent or who sent him, your guess is as good as mine, even after watching.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much plot happens. It appears that the writers decided to use theoretical science as a means of making sense of all of their madness, but isn’t that not enough of an excuse for lazy writing? The script is attributed to four individuals, each of whom probably convinced the other that their story made sense if the audience made general assumptions about practically everything happening in the cinematic universe. The concept of “fractured timelines” plays a vital role in allowing all of the characters to interact, but it also doesn’t make a lick of sense in terms of how characters know about certain things. The story explains plot points in reverse circular reasoning, which may sound inventive, but it’s really a manipulative way of making audiences feel rewarded for understanding something. Besides rarely making a lick of sense, the narrative borrows many of the core story beats from the Cameron entries in the franchise: the T-1000 isn’t original anymore so it’s not nearly as exciting (but he’s Asian!), the idea of Arnold spewing out catchphrases and acting mechanical isn’t particularly funny, and the underlying thematic pull of technology being omnipresent feels worn out even if it should feel more relevant nowadays. It’s disappointing in that regard.
That being said…well, I can’t say I was thoroughly riveted by much of the film, but I didn’t find it to be a ghastly mess like many have touted. I think Emilia Clarke is a damn good Sarah Connor, even if her story becomes delegated to romantic melodrama levels at times. Jai Courtney is one of those actors who is completely serviceable and economical as an action star but entirely one-dimensional, like an off-brand potato chip. And Arnold is Ah-nuld, slurring his words as if it’s going out of style and proving to be a perfect actor for this type of robotic role. One of the film’s main marketing points has been James Cameron touting that Terminator fans will love this film. I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of “reseting” and dismissing of previous plot points as the series attempts to restart in the aftermath of the disastrous two entries before this one, in addition to the plans for a new trilogy extending through 2018. I think those long-term goals have shrouded the promise of this entry, as the story admittedly goes down exciting paths but doesn’t make enough of them here. Instead, there’s so much left for future installments. In that regard, Terminator Genisys isn’t as much its own film as it is a misspelled entry in the troubled franchise.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)