The Terminator should never have been a franchise. Two films was stretching it, but Terminator Genisys is the fifth film in the series and the central conceit has been worn thinner than co-star Jai Courteny’s charisma. Yet again we find ourselves in a time travel loop where our heroes (and our villains) are going back into the past to stop something from ever occurring. The villains are trying to end the Connor bloodline, this time going back to 1973 to kill Sarah Connor as a girl. Meanwhile the heroes are bouncing through time from 2029 to 1984 to 2017 in an attempt to kill Skynet as a child. And I mean as a child because in this film Skynet takes the ridiculous form of a holographic boy at the end.
Out of the five Terminator films four have used this basic plot, but none so poorly as Genisys. It is hard to describe how confoundingly stupid this movie is, but let’s use this as an example: in 1984 Sarah Connor has a time machine and wants to use it to travel to 1997 to stop Skynet from getting online at the last minute, instead of maybe spending the 13 intervening years stopping it at her leisure. And she’s in a rush to get through the time machine, almost like she doesn’t realize that we’re all time travelers headed inexorably towards the future one second at a time.
The big twist in Genisys is that when Kyle Reese comes back to 1984, as we saw in The Terminator, he doesn’t find a shrinking violet Sarah Connor but rather a warrior, raised by a good guy T-800 (at this point the default setting on the T-800 seems to be ‘cuddly.’ The first film feels like an anomaly). The timeline has been altered by Nero’s destruction of the USS Kelvin and… wait, wrong overly complicated reboot using time travel to maintain maximum fan service. It’s not clear why history has changed; this is one of the ‘mysteries’ this terrible film has left ambitiously open for the sequels to answer.
Anyway that’s the big twist, and it’s not bad as far as high concept pitches go. “What if Sarah Connor said ‘Come with me if you want to live’ to Kyle Reese?!” You can imagine the executives getting excited about this slight, slim concept that no one ever actually managed to make into a real story that is in any meaningful way different from the other three times we did this tango. And the opening bit, a recreation of the beginning of The Terminator with some SWITCHEROOS thrown in to keep us off balance, is almost enjoyable. But it’s enjoyable in that way where you hear a bum in an alley shout “Hey that guy stole my pants!” and it reminds you of the time that exact same thing happened in a vastly superior motion picture.
The script is the biggest problem with Terminator Genisys - it is stupid and it is riddled with cheap, lazy callbacks to movies that have technically never happened after this reboot - but the casting gives that shit script a run for its money as The Biggest Problem. Jai Courtney is a disaster as Kyle Reese; he’s wrong in every way, having none of the weary soldier qualities that Michael Biehn brought to the role. Courtney is the new Sam Worthington, who was the new Gretchen Mol, who was the new person whose name I forget because these are forgettable actors foisted upon us by the weird Hollywood hive mind. There are make-up techniques designed to baffle facial recognition software and Jai Courtney seems to have been designed with that in mind - he’s an actor who passes through your brain like a fart in a wind tunnel. Just poof, gone.
He would be simply bland if the script - that script again! - didn’t saddle him with a bunch of shit one-liners (they’re really half-liners, like “I didn’t sign up for this mission!”) and then, in a bravura bit of bad thinking, given him a bantering relationship with Pops, the T-800 that raised Sarah Connor. If you’ve ever watched The Terminator and thought “The only thing this movie is missing is Kyle and the Terminator trading soft barbs with each other in a relationship that casts the robot as her dad and Kyle as the new boyfriend” boy do I have good news for you. I mean, I have the best news possible.
In The Terminator there was a deeply felt love story where Kyle Reese traveled across time for Sarah Connor. In Terminator Genisys they have the kinds of biting back and forths you might expect from a writer who once heard the legend of the things they called Screwball Comedies. Their relationship sucks, and it’s made worse by the fact that Emilia Clarke is absolutely, one hundred percent terrible as Sarah Connor.
This is supposed to be warrior Sarah Connor, as seen in T2, but Clarke can’t sell that. The script doesn’t help her - this is a very wishy washy warrior Sarah Connor - but Clarke is missing the steel that Linda Hamilton brought to the role. She’s simply unconvincing, and her attempts to be commanding and decisive come across as shrill. They’re further undercut by the script’s decision to half-heartedly play with the original film’s damsel-in-distress plot by having Sarah say she’s not a damsel while being rescued/helped.
The only person doing good work in Genisys is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s just doing his T2 schtick again, but he’s at least having fun with it, and that fun comes across. Even when he’s doing his dead-eyed Terminator thing Arnie has a thousand times the charisma of Courtney, eclipsing him in every scene they share.
Most of the running time of Genisys is either callbacks to the first two films or set pieces inspired by/aping/reminding us of those movies. This time there are two helicopters - and they chase each other! And they act like space ships, by the way, doing moves that feel impossible. There’s an assault on a hospital, not a police station, but close enough! There’s another T-1000 to run away from while pointlessly pumping bullets into its liquid metal body! Have you been itching to return to Cyberdyne? Because we got an action scene there!
All of these scenes - many of which involve robots shoving each other around - are boring. But most egregiously almost all of these scenes also include terrible CGI, from the dismal de-aging on Schwarzenegger (Ant-Man, a cheaper film, beats the pants off this movie’s de-aging) to general shit composting and phony looking CGI creations. There’s a new kind of Terminator in this film (this is the only thing these movies change up - they throw in a new version of the Terminator. By my count there have been at least seven different robots sent back in time at this point, with there being four different models) and instead of liquid metal it’s made of buzzing nanites and it looks like crap. Even the T-1000 effects look somehow worse than the ones from 1991. I was continually distracted by how lousy the effects were in the film, sometimes laughing out loud.
I also laughed out loud when Kyle and Sarah and Pops get arrested and there’s a mug shot montage over which plays Bad Boys, the Cops theme song, but I was not laughing out loud WITH the movie.
The one positive thing about Terminator Genisys is that it’s always moving ahead breathlessly, so it’s never ponderous, just always stupid and bad… but quick. Stupid and bad in a quick way. Wait, I lied - the other positive thing is JK Simmons as a cop from 1984 who reappears in 2017 having had his life changed by his interaction with time travelers. He’s funny. There’s not enough of him, but he injects the only humor that works into the movie, which isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of humor. There’s a ton of humor, it’s just that none of it is funny.
The script for Genisys sags under the weight of its idiocy and lack of internal consistency until it gets to an ending where Sarah and Kyle are continuously menaced by a hologram of Skynet, and they keep shooting out the projectors… again and again, so many times in a row that it becomes completely a comedy beat. At the end of the movie, as Pops and the new Dust Terminator float in a CGI battle of meaninglessness, Terminator Genisys simply becomes a parody of itself, as if no one working on this turd could continue to take it seriously.
There is an audience that will eat this up - it’s fast and there are explosions and endless barrages of gunfire aimed at robots that cannot possibly be hurt by it and there are so many callbacks to the first two films that your average doofus could go “Hey, I understand what they’re referencing!” non-stop for most of the running time. But it’s bad, and I think it’s objectively bad. More than that, it’s a desecration of classic films, overwriting the first two Terminators and replacing them with this garbage, with a movie that doesn’t understand time travel but insists on talking about it all the time, a movie that ruins the iconic characters established in 1984. The film ends on a note that feels more appropriate for an episode of a TV cartoon than a Terminator movie.
Terminator Genisys might be the nadir of franchise filmmaking, a soulless exercise in keeping an IP going (and maintaining rights) at any cost. Nobody was ever able to take that initial twisteroo pitch and figure out why it makes a compelling movie. Nobody was ever able to come up with a story that was doing anything but rehashing the exact same plot beats as the previous films, chasing all the exact same goals that have been accomplished in previous films. All anyone came up with were profit projections, especially overseas profits, and that was all they needed to make this movie.