Release Date: July 1st, 2015 (US); July 2nd, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Every once in a while, Terminator Genisys springs a countdown clock on us. Bad things will happen, we’re told, when it hits zero. If you are in any way familiar with how films work, you will know that countdowns often hit zero at the end of movies, and that is true again here. Suddenly those bad things look more appealing. For an hour and a half, Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor’s reboot is robotic in all the wrong ways. It’s frustrating, because the final act somewhat harkens back to the great action of past instalments. But by then it’s too late — time’s up.
In getting under way, we retread a backstory recognisable to viewers who have visited the franchise before. It goes on for ages, but Kyle Reese’s (Jai Courtney) words are at least visually supplemented by some advanced Star Wars-meets-Transformers combat. We’re then introduced to future John Connor (or current, semantics pending), played fairly well by Jason Clarke. Trying his best to conclude the exposition heavy prelude, Connor makes a big deal out of why it should be Reese he sends back in time to stop an evil Terminator, as opposed to any other schmuck. But his interrogation follows a scene in which the pair cement their infallible trust and comradeship. Why wouldn’t it be Reese?
This unnecessary friction exemplifies what soon becomes a full on screenplay pandemic — the creation of narrative falsehoods and conveniences lazily employed in order to move the plot forward (or sideways, or backwards, depending on which time zone or dreamscape we’re lost in). And it’s not just us who are confused. The characters do their fair share of head-scratching too: “That’s the kind of guy your son was… is… will be. Jesus!” bellows Reese as he attempts to tell Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) about her son who both has, and has not, been born yet.
The story is all over the place but it essentially boils down to Sarah, Reese and classic Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) trying to save the world. Co-writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier seem hell-bent on expunging the franchise’s mythology entirely, though their efforts ultimately produce a convoluted product. The former had better luck penning the evasive Shutter Island, but the layers of plot are excessive here and the film misses seemingly obvious details as a result. For example, there are four different Skynet bots at large: two Arnies — one good, one bad — a T-1000 policeman whose existence in 1984 is never fully explained (though his sword-like arm is at least a nifty nod to Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and John Connor, sort of. Maybe.
Caught up in the myriad of goings-on are infrequent thematic throwbacks to classic Terminator lore; the increasingly intrusive threat posed by machines, humanity’s greed for untested technological advancement. However not enough time is afforded to any of this meaty material. It is possible that scenes containing Dayo Okeniyi’s Genisys-creating Danny Dyson, son of Judgment Day’s Miles Dyson who also appears, were cut. As things stand his lack of on screen engagement is quite embarrassing. We never really find out about the character’s mindset, or his motives for developing the technology. Apparently the answer to everything is ‘sequel’.
Resultantly, the Genisys program presents itself as nothing more than an iffy iCloud. “This is the world now. Plugged in. Logged on.” That’s as incisive as it gets. The dumbing down of this once prescient franchise is something we probably should have expected given Paramount’s willingness to trade middle act surprises for better marketing traction. If you’ve seen the trailer — and we all have, it has been everywhere — the John Connor revelation is no longer a shocker. Connor is involved in a shocking moment though: his declaration that it probably won’t matter if Sarah Connor dies essentially undermines the entire franchise. If Jurassic World was overly respectful towards its elders, Terminator Genisys couldn’t really give a toss.
Taylor’s direction puts more emphasis on comedy than before. The move is misjudged, but not without merit. You get the sense the film is trying to be too Marvel-esque, too witty, when both The Terminator and Judgment Day both succeeded by being rooted in apocalyptic reality. Snappy lines detract from weighty stakes. It can be quite funny — Clarke and Schwarzenegger have amusing chemistry — but the missed gags do occasionally stick out like a mechanical limb. These characters, unlike the Avengers, haven’t yet earned the right to be funny in a life or death situation.
Unfortunately, the characters simply don’t get by via their iconography. Arnie does because it’s the same actor playing the same role, and he’s actually good fun. The others wear iconic names but they carry unrecognisable attributes. We’re told this is a different Sarah Connor and it’s true. Just not a better one. She is too outgoing, too friendly, too accessible. Though Emilia Clarke makes a decent stab at invoking the steely-eyed persistence of Linda Hamilton, the character is generic. Very little of everything and nothing in particular.
At one point Reese informs Sarah, “Me unlocking your cuffs doesn’t make you less capable,” but neither of them are all that capable to begin with. Both Clarke and Jai Courtney are given virtually impossible tasks. Courtney in particular struggles to overcome the shoddiness of his bland action man. It would be nice to see him in something other than one of these wafer-thin gun-toting roles (Suicide Squad is a dice throw at present). Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons is good as the alcoholic, downtrodden detective, rising above another of the movie’s stock personas.
Despite this plethora of misgivings, Terminator Genisys does conjure up an entertaining final thirty minutes. The action never quite reaches the pulpy, adrenaline-fuelled antics of James Cameron’s outings, but there are welcome pockets of grit. Calling upon Speed — a single-decker bus, female driver, large bridge, inability to slow down — the film switches up the intensity with visual flair. By the final scenes, we are reluctantly along for the ride and the humour subsequently works, acting as a refreshing blast of energy between the hard and heavy battles. A Bad Boys mugshot sequence is inspired.
People applauded as the credits rolled in my screening, so somebody must have done something right. Maybe this is a super-smart critique of sluggish blockbuster reboots. T-3000 John Connor talks about the Sarah he remembers, and maybe he is referring to the Sarah of Judgment Day. Maybe this film is set in an alternate reality where all the characters are diluted on purpose, and the plot points are nonsensical by design. Probably not. Terminator Genisys is as messy as its calamitous title suggests.
Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures