If there’s one thing certain about every sequel in the Terminator franchise that’s come down since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, it’s that they’ve all been consistently a letdown in one way, shape, or form. Sadly, Terminator Genisys continues that not-so-grand tradition: though its many nods to the original 1984 film as well as its very impressive CGI offerings make it easily the most enjoyable of the sequels made without series creator James Cameron at the helm, it still can’t escape the “been there, done that” feeling that’s dogged the franchise since T2 set the bar so impossibly high more than 30 years ago. It’s a worthy effort, but the results, even with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence and charisma powering them, don’t even come close.
In the seemingly-inescapable apocalyptic future where humans fight to reclaim their world from the technological tyrant they themselves created, Skynet, legendary human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) leads what he hopes will be the final push to end Skynet once and for all, his loyal lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) at his side. They arrive at a secret installation where John knows Skynet holds its final doomsday option in case its existence is compromised by humanity: a temporal displacement device (“time machine” in geek speak) meant to send one of its hulking, nearly unstoppable human infiltration units — Terminators — back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), John’s mother, before John can even be born.
Of course, they arrive too late, and though Skynet seemingly lies in ruins in the future, the past is in danger of being terminated. Reese volunteers to follow the Terminator back into the past to protect Sarah, just as he is supposed to, but when he arrives in 1984 ready to protect a helpless Sarah, he finds instead a situation far different than what John had led him to expect. Immediately he finds himself under attack by a model of Terminator he’s never seen before, one seemingly composed of liquid metal (Byung-hun Lee, playing one of the T-1000 models made infamous by Robert Patrick in T2), as well as being rescued by none other than the person he came expecting to save, Sarah Connor.
As a very confused Reese learns, not only is Sarah far from helpless in the face of the Terminator threat, she’s battle-trained, fully aware of how the future will play out and her role in the birth of the resistance, and being protected by an aging T-800 model Terminator she’s dubbed “Pops”(Schwarzenegger). He also learns that the timeline he knew, the one John told him about over their years together in the resistance, was wiped out when Skynet sent a different Terminator after Sarah at age 9, and someone else — not John — sent “Pops” back to save her and keep her alive in order for her to fulfill her destiny.
Still confused? Sorry, but things don’t get any easier to follow from there, as the trio are forced to come up with a new plan involving more time travel to avert Judgement Day coming at a different time and in a different form thanks to the alternate timeline, and find themselves against yet another new and even deadlier model of Terminator wearing a horrifyingly familiar face. (If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, you already know whose face it is, but just in case you don’t know yet, you’re not going to find out about it here. Sorry.)
If Terminator Genisys is proof of anything at all, it’s that the heart and soul of these movies is entirely bound and beholden to the big Austrian guy playing the supposedly-heartless robotic killing machine. Just about all of this new film’s most entertaining moments, both action and dialogue-driven, involve Schwarzenegger, and admittedly much of the little humor there is in the film revolves around Schwarzenegger’s T-800 model — the “Guardian”, as he’s billed in the credits — coming face to face in various ways with his age. No doubt, the most memorable of those confrontations is the most literal one, where he battles another T-800 wearing his face as it was in 1984 thanks to quite possibly the best job of CGI facial duplication we’ve seen yet in this series. (Schwarzenegger’s 1984 face was also duplicated via CGI in 2009’s Terminator Salvation, but it didn’t look anywhere as authentic as it does here.)
Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger is just about all that’s right about the casting of this film. Emilia Clarke, taking on the role made iconic by Linda Hamilton in the first two films and also once played by her “Game of Thrones” cast mate Lena Headey in the TV series “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles”, simply is never convincing as a Sarah Connor forged from childhood to be a fighter and the mother of a revolutionary. It’s not entirely her fault that this version of Sarah doesn’t work — the character’s story arc is woefully lacking in any subtlety or nuance — but also Clarke simply lacks the presence that even a young Linda Hamilton playing the original Sarah seemed to exude. Similarly, Jai Courtney lacks the piercing intensity of Michael Biehn, and he never really has any chemistry at all with Clarke. The film’s other “Clarke”, Jason, picking up a role last brought to life rather lifelessly by Christian Bale, brings a certain likability and believable charisma to John Connor that’s necessary in order to make the film’s second half really hit home, and thus is a second bright spot in terms of casting. But any positive effect of his presence is essentially muted by the fact that the film’s leading couple simply do not click.
Terminator Genisys is also sorely lacking compared to earlier Terminator entries in terms of scale and visual impact. That’s not to say that the special effects, chases, and fights aren’t impressive or entertaining to watch — they are, in their own limited, repetitive way. But if there’s one thing James Cameron can do that few other major Hollywood directing talents can do consistently well, it’s conceptualize and execute large-scale sci-fi action in a way that leaves audiences breathless and agape, and arguably he was near the height of his powers with T2. Following in his footsteps and consciously aping Cameron at all times in this film is director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World), and though the story throws new dangers and new Terminators with abilities unrivaled by what’s come before, there’s nothing in what Taylor delivers that feels new, dynamic or groundbreaking in any way. The early action with the T-1000? Ho-hum, seen it before. New model Terminator taking the Arnie-model apart piece by piece while it stoically finds creative ways to fight back? Seen that in two previous iterations now, so nothing new there, either.
Maybe in a stand-alone science fiction action vehicle or even a different film series what Taylor does deliver might be enough. But not here, not with a franchise that’s reached the heights that Terminator has thanks in part to the vision of a director considered to be among the most talented of his generation. Terminator and Terminator fans simply deserve better, because the bar was set that high.
Again, its important to reiterate that Terminator Genisys does represent a rebound from the depths of mediocrity that the series reached with Salvation, and the film’s structure leaves little doubt that more sequels are coming. Perhaps in one of those upcoming iterations the heights that the franchise once reached will be reached again, or even surpassed. Anything is possible — after all, if these film’s have preached anything, it’s that the future is not set.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Smith, and Byung-hun Lee. Directed by Alan Taylor.
Running Time: 125 minutes
Rated PG – 13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language.