“Old, not obsolete.” These three words are repeated often throughout Terminator Genisys, Alan Taylor’s contribution to the iconic ’80s/’90s action series, and they apply perfectly to the film’s biggest name: Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, reprising his role as an unstoppable cyborg for the umpteenth time in the Terminator saga’s lifespan. If any production in the latter day of Schwarzenegger’s storied career as a big screen tough guy validates his star power, it’s this one, though don’t take that as endorsement of Terminator Genisys’s better merits. Movies can do worse than be merely watchable. For example, they can be willfully obscure and smugly self-promotional.
Just as their characters do in the movie’s finale, Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney manage to stave off climactic disaster by about ten minutes. That’s all that they can do, though—which is a pretty polite way of saying that Terminator Genisys’s mediocrity seeps from its bones. Taylor, a TV veteran of Game of Thrones, Mad Men and Deadwood fame, has respectable directing chops, but he isn’t a magician. His work on Thor: The Dark World didn’t adequately prepare him for architecting a movie that cares as little about temporal continuity as casting continuity. The messiness of the script, penned by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, matches the messiness of Taylor’s staging and execution. When Terminator Genisys approaches conflict on personal terms, it works. When the film devotes its energy toward blowing up all the things, so too does it explode our patience.
But Taylor’s commitment to fan service is more frustrating by far. Genisys winks and nudges so much it’ll bruise your ribs. As a nod to the five remaining people on Earth who haven’t seen James Cameron’s 1984 original and his 1991 follow-up, Taylor squeezes both pictures into a two-hour retcon. We start off with Terminator, as future resistance fighter John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends his top advisor and comrade at arms, Kyle Reese (Courtney), back in time to defend Sarah “Mama” Connor (the other Clarke) from mechanoid assassins. Then, we commence with a condensed version of Terminator II: Judgment Day, where Lee Byung-hun thanklessly imitates Robert Patrick with his trademark placid magnetism for about twenty minutes. It would be insulting if it wasn’t so brief.
From there, the film introduces its own chronological jiggery-pokery to spice things up. Sarah isn’t the helpless damsel Kyle expects her to be, for one thing, and in the best example of bad movie science since Superman turned back time, his 1980s sojourn shakes loose errant memories of a childhood he never had. (What’s better than one timeline? Two timelines!)
As Kyle Reese finds his bearings in this upside down world where women don’t want his protection, Courtney bumbles about in abject confusion, which he happens to be preternaturally good at portraying. (Dear Hollywood: Please stop trying to make Jai Courtney happen. Please.) Sarah, perfectly capable of fending for herself, finds Kyle’s macho bewilderment tiresome. So does Schwarzenegger, playing her reprogrammed terminator bodyguard. Ah-nuld and Clarke have a ball playing off of each other, often at Courtney’s expense—they bristle at his insistence on shielding her. Terminator Genisys almost succeeds at gender role reversal, but it’s too aware of the commentary and too lazy to carry it through. Sarah doesn’t need a man to save her, except that she does: Whenever trouble rears its ugly head, Ah-nuld is there to introduce it to oblivion in several dozen pieces.
There’s another wrinkle involving the agency of John Connor, which trailers have helpfully spoiled, and a plot that sends Sarah and Kyle to 2017 to stop the apocalypse before it starts. But even if there’s a narrative throughline, there’s rarely a point, particularly since the film’s marketing team decided to give away the cybernetic cow for free. Taylor levels San Francisco across multiple eras, but Terminator Genisys’s brand of destruction feels samey without being coherent or tangible. Buildings collapse; school buses flip on the Golden Gate Bridge; hospital waiting rooms are reduced to rubble; Green screens are abused—but the film never demolishes property in any original way. Taylor either borrows from the passive savagery of previous Terminator flicks, or lifts shots from competing products. We’ve seen it all before, but with higher stakes and stronger craft. Now That’s What I Call Blockbusting!
Clarke and Schwarzenegger are Taylor’s saving graces. She blends the indecisions of Daenerys Targaryen with the ass-kicking prowess of Linda Hamilton, whom Clarke impersonates quite handily. Ah-nuld, meanwhile, is Ah-nuld: He is legend. Schwarzenegger has long been one of our most vital action heroes, and Terminator Genisys is proof of his jawsome charisma. The film desperately needs him. When he’s in the frame, he elevates everyone around him. Even gifted thesps like the dueling Clarkes and J.K. Simmons look better when they’re interacting with Schwarzenegger. Such is the power of his brawny, monotone charm: He can carry worn down, old-but-obsolete franchises on his shoulders as easily as a rocket launcher.
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Lee Byung-hun, Matt Smith
Release Date: July 1, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.