A serviceable thrill machine that pays homage to the past and makes way for the future.
The problem with reboots and remakes of great movie franchises is that, about 90 percent of the time, they get caught up in paying homage to their predecessors, recalling the original’s most iconic scenes and doing them half as well. Terminator: Genisys falls neatly into this category of uninspired fan service cash grabs, but to its credit, it’s the cream of the crop when it comes to Hollywood schlock. It’s a well-oiled, inoffensive thrill machine that doesn’t approximate T1 and T2‘s entertainment value by a zillion miles, but is by and large a painless, easily-digestible summer action movie starring the former king of summer action movies.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (I will from this point forward only refer to him as “Ahnold,” because I must) has reinvented his career in recent years by shedding all self-seriousness and making movies (as far as we can tell) for the fun of it. He acknowledges that he’s 67 years old and no longer pilots his career with a macho-bullshit attitude, and that’s really, really endearing. This newly acquired “old guy” appeal is the best thing about this fifth installment of the long-running Terminator franchise, in which he reprises his role as the T-800, though this time with a paternal twist (as strange as that sounds). Will hearing Ahnold say “I’ll be back” ever get old? His new catchphrase, “Old. Not obsolete,” might be the best answer to that question. Ahnold isn’t as badass or relevant as he was twenty years ago, but heaven knows he’s still fun to watch.
Director Alan Taylor’s picture begins with the series’ most familiar scenario. We start in a machine-ravaged 2029 and find human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) sending his right-hand man, Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), back in time to protect (and knock up) his mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). History gets skewed, however, as Kyle arrives in an already-altered 1984 in which Miss Connor is a far-from-fragile machine killer who’s been protected since childhood by a T-800 she calls “Pops” (Ahnold). From this point forward the film becomes both a continuation of the original mythology and a reboot of sorts, a la JJ Abrams’ 2009 stab at Star Trek. It sees Sarah and Kyle launched forward to 2017 to destroy Skynet, which has taken the form of a popular life-management operating system called “Genisys,” before the world-wiping “judgment day” ever happens.
It comes as no surprise the movie is packed wall-to-wall with time-travel explication, mostly administered by the socially ill-equipped Pops (in Ahnold’s iconic Austrian monotone, of course). Kyle hurtles from 2029, to 1984, to 2017, where he finds himself in the awkward situation of learning that his mentor is actually his son, whose mother is the girl he’s been manipulated to fall in love with for years, but just met yesterday. There are alternate timelines, memories from impossible pasts, flashbacks to the future—the mind boggles! But not too much. Taylor actually does a great job of making the time-travel loopiness easy to follow, though the humor mined from it is pretty lame; watching Kyle agonize over timeline logistics is grating, especially when he makes the obligatory “Say it in English!” joke.
The movie never gets stopped dead by the bullets of exposition because the action is piled on so relentlessly. It’s all pretty standard fare: big, meaty explosions; buses doing somersaults in slow motion; San Francisco getting brutally demolished (seriously, what’s with Hollywood’s current obsession with wiping out SF?). The action, like the plot, is comprehensible and well presented, but doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table in terms of artistry or innovation. (An effect that sees the newest terminator incarnation leaving shadows of itself behind while breaking free from an MRI is the sole exception.) Taylor simply doesn’t have the knack for over-the-top action Cameron does, though fans will be happy with some of the movie’s shameless recalls to the originals (“old” Ahnold throwing fists with CGI young Ahnold is awesome).
The father-daughter-new boyfriend dynamic between the three leads is amusing, but it fails to launch emotionally. It’s good for laughs from time to time (Kyle and Pops exchanging impudent glares as they race to fill ammo clips in an unspoken “best guardian” competition), but the movie’s dramatic climax is a stinker that goes nowhere fast. The actors are serviceable (Courtney is a much better villain than hero, as seen in the Divergent series), with Ahnold’s robot-failing-at-acting-human schtick being the most memorable character impression we’re left with. There’s a levity to the material that may infuriate those who hoped for a grittier kind of doomsday movie, though I found it welcome.
Terminator: Genisys is a bridge to the future in that it captures the feel (not the greatness) of T1 and T2 while laying the groundwork for a full departure from the old mythology in forthcoming installments. J.K. Simmons makes an appearance as the only surprise in a mostly unsurprising movie, playing a ruffled cop who’s spent decades obsessing over a life-changing experience he had with a deadly robot in 1984. He’s a warm representation of the legions of fans who’ve been in love with the Terminator series since 1984’s The Terminator; the childlike smile on his face while in the presence of Sarah Connor, John Connor, Kyle Reese and the T-800 says it all.