REVIEW SUMMARY: Sluggish and slogging, the fifth entry in the Terminator series returns Schwarzenegger to his most famous role at the expense of an even modestly entertaining movie.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Human resistance leader John Connor sends Kyle Reese from the year 2029 to 1984 in order to protect his mother Sarah Connor, where Reese finds a relentless machine programmed to kill her…and one to protect her.
PROS: The occasional nostalgia of once again seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger reprising his role as the Terminator…
CONS: …drowned in ridiculous and pointless action sequences jammed into a nonsensical script and routine direction; Schwarzenegger’s aging Terminator remind how old the series is, while the leads never make us forget those who initially played the roles.
“I’ll be back,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator promised in James Cameron’s The Terminator, the deadpan, mechanical delivery also serving as a threat when uttered to a police officer refusing him access to Sarah Connor, mother to the human race’s savior John. It’s been more than 30 years since that line leadenly dropped from his lips, and when the Terminator, once again played by Schwarzenegger, says it again (this time before leaping from one helicopter into the blades of another) to Sarah Conner (Emilia Clarke), he means it as a promise; for audience members whose jaws dropped at the 1984 release of the first movie, it must sound like a threat aimed at said audience. Perhaps producers thought the return of the Governator would play well for those nostalgic for the days when the first movie’s outlaw energy and relentless pace made moviegoing enjoyable instead of a chore; if so, the tactic appears as misguided as almost everything about Terminator Genisys, not least of which because Schwarzenegger looks every one of his 68 years. Regardless of how screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier attempt to explain why gray streaks this killing machine hair and why crows plant their feet next to its eyes (at times the tag line ought to read, “You will believe a robot can age”), it strains credulity in a franchise possessing little left to strain.
We know most of the setup: John Connor (Jason Clarke), the man who saves the human race from the robot uprising led by Skynet, sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to protect his mother Sarah from a Terminator also sent back to kill her. As the time machine slingshots Reese to 1984, he sees a resistance fighter (Matt Smith, now joining the ranks of actors permanently aligned with second-rate skiffy actioners) attack Connor as he is plucked from the timestream. Suddenly Reese is in Los Angeles in 1984, initially maneuvering through the same territory as Michael Biehn’s Reese in the first movie, before being confronted by a police officer…who in reality reveals himself as a liquid metal Terminator, similar to the one in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Meanwhile, the Terminator sent to kill Sarah meets the same punk rockers as in the first movie, but with drastically different results: a Guardian of the same make and model (Schwarzenegger, with the years digitally removed) attacks, distracting it long enough for Sarah to destroy it and search for Reese. When the frantic action (efficiently but unremarkably filmed by director Alan Taylor) finally slows down long enough, Sarah and the Guardian explain that something has altered the timestream, with a 2017 operating system named Genisys somehow involved. (This from a series of flashback Reese’s possible self has as he becomes unstuck in time.) So, in order to stop the robot uprising from occurring once and for all, Sarah and Reese travel to 2017, while the Guardian stays behind to wait for them, its endoskeleton disallowing him from entering a makeshift time machine (and allowing Schwarzenegger to actually age). John Connor arrives as rescuer in 2017, but does so at a price: the attack caused him to meld with Skynet, transforming him into a nanomachine cyborg who will assist in ushering in an age of very pissed-off machines.
Terminator Genisys crams a lot into its first 40 minutes, all in an effort to lay groundwork that eliminates the events of the previous movies from the timeline, but cannot eliminate them from our minds. Sending Reese back to 1984 allows for that J.J. Abrams Star Trek–style rewrite, but it reminds us both how good The Terminator and Terminator 2 were, and how forgettable the current movie is. The Governator’s graying never convinces, even with a throwaway line, seems silly, while neither Courtney nor Emilia Clarke ever dispel memories of Michael Biehn or Linda Hamilton. Courtney’s Reese bumbles dumbly from set piece to set piece, never generating any of the desperation or haunted psyche witnessed in the first outing, while Emilia Clarke, always in fine form on A Game of Thrones, delivers flat lines and widens eyes with none of the bewilderment Hamilton brought, though she wears the same hair tint. We long for these very human characters and their B-picture plight, but receive A-picture empty cinematic calories. The problems extend to Jason Clarke’s John Connor, who puts a new face on machine terror but who never lets his inner bad guy fly, as if he chewed the scenery and found it particularly unpalatable. Humor comes in the form of J.K. Simmons, a police officer saved by Connor in 1984 and who subsequently assists Sarah and Reese, but who receives far too little screen time—a pity, because he breathes life into an otherwise mechanical picture. (Schwarzenegger tries hard, very hard, to offer comic relief, as when he attempts a smile and a joke, but his delivery induces a winces rather than laughter.) Director Taylor puts everything he can into the chases (cars, a school bus, helicopters), causing as much property damage as Skynet’s impending go-live date, but never making us care what happens.
The most telling moment comes when Reese, fairly early in Terminator Genisys, remarks at how old the Guardian looks. “Old,” the Guardian states, “but not obsolete.” Yet the movie, for all of the explosions and destruction, disagrees. With Schwarzenegger returning, Terminator Genisys strives to recapture the glory of the original picture, but his presence and persona cannot compete with the personality-free modern-day action movie. It’s not just old and obsolete, but irrelevant.