“Old, not obsolete,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s aged T-800 cyborg says on more than one occasion in Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the time-traveling, fear-the-machines action franchise kicked off by James Cameron’s innovative low-budget The Terminator (1984) more than three decades ago. There is more than a hint of desperation in that line that outstrips any sense of meta wink-wink humor, as if Schwarzenegger is imploring us to continue taking him seriously as an action star against our better judgment. Luckily, Terminator Genisys is just good enough to avoid any outright embarrassment, and writers Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry) should be commended for finding clever ways to integrate Schwarzenegger’s advancing years into the plot, an issue with which Terminator 3 writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris had had to contend back in 2003.
Unlike the last installment in the franchise, 2009’s Terminator Salvation, which took place entirely in the near future after Cyberdine’s sentient machines had waged war against humanity with nuclear weapons, Terminator Genisys hop-skips all over the temporal map, hitting just about every point in time previously touched by the earlier films. We begin in the near-distant future, after the machine-led nuclear holocaust, where we find human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) marshaling a major offensive against Cyberdine. He isn’t entirely successful, and he must send back in time his right-hand man, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, A Good Day to Die Hard), to save his mother from a Terminator assassin in the year 1984 (the plot of Cameron’s original film).
When Kyle arrives in the middle of the Reagan years (which director Alan Taylor stages as a shot-for-shot recreation of the opening moments of Cameron’s film), nothing is as he (and we) expected. Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, looking and sounding very Linda Hamilton-esque) is not an unassuming waitress with no idea that she will someday give birth to the savior of the human race, but is rather already a black-clad, hardened warrior with a good-programmed Terminator (Schwarzenegger) nicknamed “Pops” by her side. How that came to be is best left for the movie to explain, but suffice it to say that all the time travelling by various characters has altered the events with which we are already familiar, which necessitates Sarah and Kyle travelling forward to the year 2017 where they will take out Cyberdine just as it is about to launch Genisys, a new integrative app that connects everyone’s computers, smart phones, and tablets, thus enabling the machines to turn against us. It’s a savvy 21st-century twist on familiar material, as it uses our current technological tendencies against us in a way that Cameron simply could not have envisioned three—or even two—decades ago.
Unfortunately, too much of Terminator Genisys is simply too familiar to work. Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) does all he can to punch up the action within the limits of the PG-13 umbrella, and he should be commended for utilizing a decent amount of practical effects in the biggest sequences. However, like most contemporary action movies, the allure of manipulated pixels is simply too much, and a number of potentially good scenes are derailed by over-the-top exercises in defying the laws of physics. There is certainly a unique thrill in watching the very short sequence in which the current Schwarzenegger goes to battle with his younger self (played by Australian bodybuilder Brett Azar with a digitally recreated circa-1984 Schwarzenegger face), and fans of the series will get a kick out of watching familiar scenarios play out with much different results (it’s a shame that they couldn’t digitally insert Bill Paxton as one of the young punks the Terminator first encounters) and appropriations of familiar lines of dialogue (“I’ll be back,” “Come with me if you want to live,” “On your feet, soldier!”).
Other points of interest include recent Oscar winner and Farmers Insurance spokesman J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) as a police detective who encounters Kyle, Sarah, and a morphing Terminator in 1984 and is still jabbering about it to deaf ears in 2017 and a major mid-narrative twist that finds one of the good characters turned into a villain. There is also a clear attempt to give the film some pathos, particularly in the surrogate father-daughter relationship between Sarah and Pops, something that both Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation studiously lacked. And, while you can’t say that effort wasn’t expended on Terminator Genisys, after five movies, a major theme-park ride, several video games, and two seasons of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, this particular franchise is feeling, if not quite obsolete, at least played out.
Copyright ©2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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