Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, and J.K. Simmons
Directed by Alan Taylor
Run Time: 122 minutes
Opens July 1st
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Cheering for the villain is only called for in extreme cases, but here, with the woefully spelled Terminator Genisys, all I can say is: Go Skynet!
Yes, Skynet — the sentient robot army that becomes self aware, nukes mankind and then enslaves the survivors in futuristic death camps — deserves your cheers and untethered adoration if only because it’s the second best way to protest the existence of this clunky hunk of sequel. The best way is to not see it at all, but Terminator fans have taken abuse before (see Terminator 3) and they’ll do it again here.
Terminator Genisys is a big dumb movie. From its big dumb title all the way down — it’s dumb at a cellular level. It’s so dumb that one movie couldn’t contain all it’s stupidity, so it had to reach back into its own filmography to fondle with the earlier movies in an inebriated stupor. It plays this up like an endearing tribute or homage, but it feels more like grave robbing.
We begin with Kyle Reese, who you’ll recall is the future soldier sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, mother of the leader of the human rebellion, in 1984’s The Terminator. After infiltrating a Terminator time travel base in 2029, Reese is sent back a handful of decades to what should be James Cameron’s first movie, but instead he finds an alternate timeline that now is a convergence of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, including another blank-faced liquid metal T-1000. In the future, somewhere between “almost defeated” and “defeated” Skynet realizes that the humans had out-Back to the Future’d them, so they just start sending Terminators everywhere, or everywhen, which is how Genisys acknowledges its cinema roots and also exploits them.
The movie stars Jai Courtney, who opens the whole damn picture with the most unnecessary and heavy-handed exposition-filled narration — it makes Harrison Ford’s theatrical Blade Runner voiceover sound downright peppy. He plays Reese, rebel leader John Connor’s right-hand man, and also his younger father, which only makes sense in the Terminator universe. Sarah Connor, John’s soon-to-be mother (stay with me!), is played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clark, a feisty little robot killer with a gun taller than she is by at least a foot. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only returning actor, and here he plays several Terminators, including one fresh out of the Skynet bubble wrap (it’s a naked stunt double with a CGI Arnold mask). The main Terminator, called Pops, is showing his age, a point that is explained away by saying that Terminators age, which seems to go against canon, but whatever.
These three go tearing through 1984, and then time-travel to 2017, where Skynet is ready to launch Genisys, a computer system that gadget-hungry modern-dayers paw over in gleeful anticipation. I wasn’t really sure what the product does, and I’m assuming it’s some kind of Siri-like appointment scheduler — Genisys: “Today is your salon appointment. And tomorrow nuclear armageddon.” The subtext here is that Skynet is a lot like Apple, another company with a legion of devoted fans and enough hardware to link the world (nukes and all) in web of disharmony. But the joke falls dreadfully flat.
The film is largely a series of despondent chase sequences, each more mindless than the one that preceded it, including one that begins with a liquid Terminator materializing out of nowhere, and one that ends with a crashed helicopter arriving at the intended destination faster than a non-crashed helicopter. A school bus chase on the Golden Gate Bridge has both a school bus and a bridge of golden gates and yet has a climax so utterly boring that it has to end with the COPS theme song to jazz it up. The chases go nowhere and accomplish nothing, and they only serve as interludes to bigger set pieces in spark factories and generic server warehouses. Recall the build-up in the earlier films:Terminators doing their detective work, hunting for leads, killing other Sarah Connors, waving photos of John around at the mall dressed as a cop … all that nuance and prelude to action is gone. It’s traded in for lines like, “Oh no, he’s behind us,” and “faster, faster” and then 22 minutes of vehicular destruction. But how did the Terminator get there? Where did he come from? Where are you driving? What is even happening? I couldn’t hear an answer in the noise.
Say what you will about James Cameron and his well-documented eccentricities, but he was, and still is, a visual storyteller of the highest caliber. He knew how to edit his films, how to pace action, how to use film’s complex grammar to create visual coherence, and he knew how to make grand science fiction masterpieces out of very simple ideas. Genisys is not simple, and I’m not just talking about the time travel. It’s a sloppy mess all over, with plot holes, dead ends, choppy editing, characters of little significance, dialogue that is recited (never spoken), and it tinkers with the franchise in such a major way that it feels malignant and terminal. There is no coming back from what this film sets in motion.
Cameron’s T1 and T2 are action juggernauts, and nothing was going to touch them, so I’m not faulting Genisys for failing to top those classics. But it’s just as sloppy as Terminator 3, if not more so, and that says a lot because that movie was all over the place. And people like to dump on Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation, but despite their obvious faults both films made noteworthy deviations in Terminator lore: T3 showed us that the robot apocalypse was unavoidable, no matter how many Arnolds came back, and Salvation ditched the time travel elements completely to just focus on John Connor and what made him so important to the resistance. Genisys does its damndest to undo the whole franchise by reaching way back to fumble around with the very origins of what Cameron created. It’s so unfortunately ill-conceived it feels blasphemous. And if the franchise keeps degrading at this rate, we’re two movies away from late-night Terminator infomercial.
Now, to be fair, Cameron has come out in support of this movie, which seems odd, but I will take him at his word. Fans, though, don’t owe Genisys any lip service and I think they’ll see through the film’s wanton disregard for what made the franchise great to begin with — impressive visual storytelling and its straightforward science fiction plot, both of which are muddied here. Director Alan Taylor, so good with everything he directs on HBO, should stick to television, where plot and characters aren’t steamrolled into the landscape. He was dealt a hard blow when the marketing team revealed the plot twist (spoiler alert, sorta) that John Connor (Jason Clarke) had turned into a Terminator. But problems began long before that. They began when the film decided the rest of the franchise was fair game and then — and this is my key argument — didn’t even attempt to make a film that could match the power of the first two.
The last time I saw a franchise fall this hard it involved crystal skulls and Shia LaBeouf Tarzan swinging with monkeys. Franchises should stop while they’re ahead.
And, hail Skynet.