One would have to be feeling awfully generous to suggest that there's a good movie buried under all the molten pixels that comprise Terminator Genisys, but a fair argument could be made that there's a goofily fun and imaginatively ambitious one in there somewhere. If that counts for anything, then whatever the anything is owes its existence to this fifth Terminator movie's playful treatment of multiple timelines as narrative hopscotch.
The franchise’s fascination with the chronological trio of past, present, and future gets an attentive makeover here and the concept of boldly rewriting the series’ history is a novel one. For much of its running time, Genisys is kept semi-buoyant by its dogged determination to run roughshod over Terminator canon and generate a series of charmingly cheesy alternate pathways that involve both recreating scenes from James Cameron’s 1984 original pic and then adoringly subverting them.
But eventually things go lamely south and this latest instalment makes it all a little too clear that the ongoing tale of preventing an apocalyptic future by wrecking stuff in the past has finally waltzed itself into a dead end that it can’t smash its way out of. The generally maligned sequel Terminator 3 ended on a great note, coughing up the franchise's most interesting possible conclusion by stating that Judgment Day is actually inevitable and no amount of rejiggering on the part of the Connor clan can prevent the machine takeover.
Wrapping things up on such a downer note was a compelling and surprising way to achieve an alternative to the expected ending of blowing up some system core to cripple machine monster Skynet. After watching Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor take down Arnold Schwarzenegger’s menacing T-800 model in The Terminator and Robert Patrick’s oozing T-1000 model in Terminator 2, Hamilton-less Terminator 3’s understanding and admittance that it needed to explore other options than simply destroying Kristanna Loken’s underwhelming TX antagonist were admirable.
Such understanding has been replaced by stubborn stupidity in Genisys, though, so we get another plan to blow up a system core minus any imagination or attempt to amaze. There’s even a part where the system core building is loaded with bombs and the heroes have nearly won, being just the push of a button away from explosive victory, except the detonator gets destroyed in a scuffle. If there’s a more groan-inducing cliché available to dumbly kick start a sputtering engine of conflict than the conveniently destroyed detonator, well, writers Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis probably would have used that, too.
The brutal blandness of the third act hits the overall experience hard because the one thing the earlier chunk of the movie has going for it is that it actually appears to be trying. It’s not always successful since the cast is weak, the dialogue often embarrassing, the flashbacks used to tie things together silly, and the digital effects a mixed bag at best. Some reckless editing that falls far below the standard of most Hollywood blockbusters doesn’t help, either.
With so many problems, it’s a wonder that Genisys isn’t some heinous, hate-worthy piece of absolute excrement. It’s as drunk on nostalgia as the truly execrable Jurassic World and like that movie, its director is a far cry from the legendary filmmaker who helmed the first two entries in the series. But Genisys really does seem to be on to something interesting until it’s not because despite the thick layer of cheese that coats every scene, watching a warped version of The Terminator’s first act is actually kind of enjoyable.
The movie opens, as these flicks often do, in the future, where Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) uses the power of wooden voiceover to regale us with tales of his post-apocalyptic upbringing and how he was saved by series superhero John Connor (Jason Clarke, now the fifth actor to portray John). Kyle grew up to become quite the soldier alongside John and when the group gets hold of a time travel device in 2029, Kyle volunteers to take the risky ride back to 1984 to save John’s mom Sarah before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator gets to her.
Yes, the beginning of Genisys is a peek at the moments leading up to Cameron’s The Terminator, except that when Kyle gets to 80s L.A., he and we find that the expected timeline has been altered and Sarah (Emilia Clarke) is already a gun-toting warrior prepped for the original ‘84 events with an aged Arnie Terminator by her side. At times, the alterations are used to limply recall memorable moments from the earlier, much better movie (now it’s Sarah who utters the famous line “Come with me if you want to live” instead of Kyle), but even then, the grime of 80s L.A. is well recreated and seeing current Arnie face off against a semi-convincing digitally altered body double meant to look like 80s Arnie is quirkily memorable.
With the changes made to the timeline, Skynet is now poised to level the Earth at a later date and the script updates Skynet’s origins to match the times. Director Alan Taylor brings a workmanlike approach to the story, but manages to juggle the timelines without making too incoherent a mess of the whole thing. He doesn’t accomplish much of worth with the action sequences, though if one lowers their expectations for a franchise that has often boasted great action directing, Genisys’s action is at least mildly amusing. Unsurprisingly, Taylor is certainly no Cameron or even a Jonathan Mostow or McG, who both did respectable jobs with the set pieces in their Terminator sequels, but he gets the job done with a few comical clashes of CGI.
The performances are a less forgivable offence here, especially since it stinks to watch a talented actor like Jason Clarke be so hopelessly bad in a big role. Courtney is his usual charisma-challenged self, but at least benefits from having to merely fill the shoes of original Kyle Reese player Michael Biehn, a likable, but entirely unremarkable B-star. It’s Clarke who faces the steepest uphill battle here and, try as she might, she simply can’t capture the iconic awesomeness of Hamilton in her prime. She can’t even come close, although thank the camera for occasionally capturing a glimpse of an uncanny resemblance to Hamilton that Clarke doesn’t usually have. And Schwarzenegger still has presence and comic bravado, which definitely counts for something in the midst of this cast.
With so many callbacks to the Cameron Terminator movies, Genisys resurrects the once mind-blowing T-1000 effects, now updated to take on the recognizable sheen of overly obvious CGI that plagues many a current blockbuster. Digital effects have come a long way since 1991, but you wouldn’t know it when comparing the different takes on the liquid metal machine. Sensing that the ante needs to be upped, Lussier, Kalogridis, and Taylor come up with a new time traveling threat. The latest villain is a man/machine hybrid apparently made up of tiny gray magnetic filings, essentially making him a walking Etch-A-Sketch. Too bad his dastardly plan isn’t ultimately undone by a maddening inability to draw a remotely convincing circle.
The new mixes with the old rather clumsily, so while the attempt to do all that mixing is respectably intriguing, the positives are ultimately clobbered by the feeling that the magic has long since left this franchise and its stretched-thin premise. Terminator Genisys is a fresh start that tastes like a stale one. For a while, it's pleasant B-movie entertainment; later, it's just mouldy cheese. The future war-waging machines have proven capable of surviving dripping fromage before, but now the formula has curdled.