In the wake of Judgment Day, a nuclear apocalypse engineered by rogue defense mainframe Skynet, the human resistance is led by John Connor (Jason Clarke). John seems to possess uncanny knowledge of enemy Terminators’ weaknesses, in fact given to him by his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke). When the resistance finds Skynet’s time machine (intended to send a Terminator back in time to assassinate Sarah before she can give birth to John), resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time to 1984 to protect Sarah. But Sarah and a reprogrammed T-800 Terminator model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) have got a head start in fighting Skynet’s other agents. The question in the movie is, can Judgment Day be prevented? And the question out of the movie is, with the Terminator franchise being given a “new beginning” with Genisys, does it have legs?
The short answer is no. The biggest threat in Terminator Genisys is not a souped-up Terminator, but the screenplay, written by Laeta Kalogridis and B-movie director Patrick Lussier. The dialogue is full of boring declarative sentences, the most stock place-holding character scenes, and a plot that at the end of the day isn’t worth all the trouble required to explain it. Another part of what keeps the film from feeling fresh is the fact that a large part of it is a nostalgia-fest, literally re-staging scenes from the first Terminator. I don’t object to the idea as such, and indeed this kind of overdriven nostalgia is done after the First Act, it’s just that this is a film (more than even June’s Jurassic World; that one’s looking pretty good by comparison) selling a dull pastiche of what was beloved about a franchise back in the day. Terminator Genisys inspires nostalgia for 20-30 years-past earlier films while not bothering to create in itself something people might be nostalgic for in 20 years.
And as expected, tribute is paid to many of the stylistic tics and catchphrases that have become the series’ signatures. Okay, sure. You can have your “I’ll be back”, “Come with me if you want to live” and all that. But don’t you dare trivialize the T-800’s thumbs-up from the end of T2: Judgment Day – that is going too far. And they do, they put it in there early on as a cute little callback. This is the one reference I object to. Recapitulating the most emotional moment of the entire franchise into a throwaway in-joke does not endear me to you, Genisys!
Let’s talk about the cast. Schwarzenegger is one of the best things about the film, but it’s not like he’s given particularly good material to work with. It’s just nice to see him having fun in his iconic role, and while his is a “huggable” Terminator, his role avoids self-parody. Emilia Clarke is decent in the role of eminent screen badass Sarah, and in one or two moments does embody the spirit as well as the letter of Linda Hamilton’s earlier performances. But on the whole Clarke is a bit too obviously trying to throw her weight around and some of the edge of the character feels a little forced. Jai Courtney is miscast as Kyle Reese for a variety of reasons; he’s charmless, bland as Wonder Bread, with none of the antic disposition that made Michael Biehn’s Kyle so unbalanced and yet likable in 1984’s The Terminator. And Kyle’s our main character, god help us… Finally among the key players, Jason Clarke plays John Connor with a strange creepy edge but is at least a marked improvement over Christian Bale in previous sequel Salvation – Jason Clarke is capable of cracking a smile.
Refreshing the film in the Second Act is a brief but very fun role for J.K. Simmons as an obsessed and hapless detective. As a side note here: you know, when thinking about what makes a really good supporting performance, there are two kinds to watch out for. Firstly, and the type that I give awards credibility, are those that complement the main action and draw out the colors of the world the film is creating, or those that power a film with the right kind of energy. On one level this is Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction; on another this is John Leguizamo in Chef. And secondly, there are performances that come out of nowhere in an otherwise milquetoast film and make you sit up and pay attention. This is J.K. Simmons in Terminator Genisys. But there’s only so much you can do to reflect well on the movie you’re in when your performance is just sort of like a square peg of interest unable to fit into the round hole of a potboiler film.
I don’t want to come across as if I think this film is like a train wreck, because it really isn’t and that’s not the point I’m making. It lacks ambition, but it has some good moments. Certainly my favorite action scene is a tension-filled bit wherein a “skeleton” Terminator cornering Kyle Reese in a warehouse. The visual spectacle of the first 10 minutes, briefly chronicling the fall of human civilization, is pretty well done. But the overall structure of the film reminds me of a second-rate theme park ride. Action scenes are overwhelmingly competent, have a numbing effect over the course of the runtime, and are strung together by uninspired scenes of character “development” as if plugging elements into a formula.
If you just want to be entertained for 2 hours, but not retain any sense of a film’s identity, then Genisys is functional. You walk out of the theater saying, “Well, it could have been worse”, then the film is forgotten in a matter of days. Is this really the mark of a good film? No. It’s the mark of a diversion. A previous “hated” sequel like Terminator Salvation at least feels like a film to me; its lows might be lower, but its highs are certainly higher. It’s an interesting piece, whereas Genisys feels like a franchise mix tape. Now, Terminator creator James Cameron himself is in Genisys‘ corner, praising it as “reinvigorating” the franchise, “like a renaissance”. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t understand how navel-gazing and trading on nostalgia for better Terminator films is a way to reinvigorate the franchise.
The filmmakers, with the intent to kick off a new Terminator trilogy, give us something that sets such an unimaginative benchmark that if Genisys flops and the sequels get canned, they have none but themselves to blame. After all, like the series says, “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves”. As for Genisys itself, my recommendations would entail more J.K. Simmons, more Matt Smith (The Doctor of Doctor Who himself, a man with a mountain of geek cred, has about a minute of screen time), a better actor as Kyle Reese, and above all a sharper script; we might have had something. Terminator Genisys gets by on the fun of seeing Schwarzenegger as the T-800, on serviceable action, and on serviceable actors, but doesn’t get any deeper than that. 4/10.