Much like Skynet that will stop at nothing to survive, the modern day movie franchise is incautiously desperate to self-regenerate. As the by-any-means-necessary approach to persist ad infinitum dictates, you have to destroy everything in order to breathe in new life. With reboots and Hollywood revamps minutely slicing and dicing all existing brands as a way to keep old ideas fresh, rewriting history to paint yourself out of a narrative dead-end corner is not only the most viable option, but seems to be the most prevailing idea of the moment. “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” and 2009’s “Star Trek” both used time travel or wormholes to provide an existing timeline with a fresh start. So it’s apropos that “The Terminator” franchise—already founded upon the impossible quantum physics theories of time travel—would also deconstruct its own existing narrative as a means of rewriting a new future.
Playing loose with the mythology and subverting itself at every turn, “Terminator Genisys” arguably razes the foundational concepts of the series to an undue extreme and delivers a radical reinvention of the James Cameron-created franchise. And while this makes for a rather ambitious and daring self-implosion of the canon in order to retcon the series with familiar characters, younger actors and a new narrative timeline, the fifth installment of the ‘Terminator’ series cannot overcome the weight of its convoluted time travel leaps, its strained attempts at injecting twists everywhere, a clunky opening, and a painfully clumsy finish. And yet for all its aggressive reinvention, ‘Genisys’ is still overloaded with franchise callbacks, nostalgia and incessant winks to the past.
Directed by Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World,” “Game Of Thrones”) and written by Laeta Kalogridis (“Avatar”) and Patrick Lussier (“Drive Angry”), ‘Genisys’ begins in the future with Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) retelling the story of judgment day, and how the Skynet apocalypse came to pass. It’s an overlong, exposition-heavy voiceover and montage about the halcyon days: a world once filled with hope that was destroyed when Skynet went online and crushed most of mankind. It recounts a story you already know with slight tweaks: civilization lived in the shadows clinging to survival, but a great white hope named John Connor (Jason Clarke) emerged as a potential savior for the human race. ‘Genisys’ then connects itself to the basic storyline presented in James Cameron’s 1984 “The Terminator” only from the reverse end of time. Skynet is toppled by the Connor-lead freedom fighters, but as a fail safe measure, the singularity sends back the original T-800 (young Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a time displacement machine to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) so John, the leader of the resistance, will never be born and history will be irrevocably changed.
As per the history of “The Terminator” series, it’s the younger Kyle Reese who volunteers to go back in time and save Sarah from the Terminator programmed to kill her. But just as Reese is sent back in time, ‘Genisys’ begins to veer off into a new narrative: John Connor is attacked by a mole resistance member who is actually an advanced Terminator (Matt Smith) and as he travels back in time, Reese, having only been reared in the hostile post-apocalypse, begins to experience youthful memories from a tranquil coming of age he never actually lived through.
When Reese arrives in 1984, much is like it was in Cameron’s “The Terminator”—right down to a do-over of the film’s opening, now iconic scenes. But the timeline of history has somehow changed (something about nexus particles that disrupted the time stream when Reese was sent back or some such nonsense—don’t bother trying to figure it out). There’s even more, so stay focused.
In this alternate timeline, the T-800 came to protect, rather than kill, a nine-year-old Sarah Connor in 1973. Thus the frightened and unsuspecting Sarah Connor from the original series is substituted by a much more aggressive version who is raised and trained by “Pops,” the aged T-800 played by a graying Schwarzenegger (really, and we learn the exterior of his body was made of human issue, hence his ability to “grow old”).
And so, when 1984 rolls around in this movie, Sarah Connor and a now-aged T-800 are expecting the younger model and thus audiences are treated to the face off of the old Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. young CGI- Schwarzenegger you never knew you wanted.
If it all sounds ridiculous, it is, but credit ‘Genisys’ a little with a momentum that forces you to quickly accept these turns in the name of keeping up with the story.
Mired in exposition, ‘Genisys’ then collects the motley crew of Connor, “Pops” and Reese to travel ahead to 2017, evidently the new date of the apocalypse in this alternate timeline, to stop Skynet from going live (if you’re confused, wait until you see the movie).
In this regard, ‘Genisys’ sometimes feels like it simply exists as a way to recalibrate the Skynet mythology as a commentary on our tablet-obsessed iGeneration. Genisys itself in the movie is essentially a “killer app,” with Skynet acting as an iCloud of nearly-formed sentient intelligence ready to scoop everything society is willing to share, with the world completely ignorant of the calamity that’s about to strike by syncing their lives to Skynet’s Trojan Horse.
For all its unwieldy narrative, “Terminator Genisys” has some admittedly well-orchestrated action sequences. There’s even a middle section—once the intricacies of the plot have been dealt with—that races forward with taut energy and lean suspense sequences. This portion of the story is largely entertaining because it doesn’t ask you to grapple with headache-inducing time travel holes. But it’s also one unrelenting and noisy chase scene after another. And unfortunately, this mindless part of the movie is bookended by a story that is so preoccupied with clever renovation of the series lore it loses sight of just how muddled it may appear to an outsider (God help the audience member who has never seen a ‘Terminator’ film).
The layman may need to use charts and graphs to understand what the hell is going on if they’re not at least somewhat “Terminator”-conversant. ‘Genisys’ features at least four time periods—1973, 1984, 2017 and the post-apocalyptic future—and at least two timelines: the one accepted as canon presented in “Terminator” and ‘Judgment Day’ and the new one that emerges in this fresh narrative (‘Rise Of The Machines’ and ‘Salvation’ are kicked to the curb).
Already overstuffed, ‘Genisys’ also tries to squeeze in a father/daughter story and an emotional dysfunctional family triangle as Reese and Pops both vie for Sarah’s affections and it mostly contributes to cheeky, out of place humor. The film’s sense of comic relief is already awkward, but some of these clashes over Sarah are hilariously dumb, needlessly goofy and not really in keeping with the movie’s already slippery grasp of tone.
Much has been made about the egregious marketing spoilers, but with or without them, ‘Genisys’ tips its hand far too often. The messianic qualities of John Connor are too overwrought and dubious reaction shots telegraph the character intentions. And the movie strains itself to incessantly add surprises and twists to nearly every element of the “Terminator” folklore. Some of the riffs on the “Terminator” mythos are admittedly crafty, but more often than not it feels overcooked.
Acting wise, no one is going to win any awards, but it’s largely mystifying how the charmless Jai Courtney continues to get leading man work. Far less wooden is Emilia Clarke who does a much more convincing job as the new Sarah Connor despite being a bit more pint-sized than the character would like.
As the movie lumbers to its finale, its transparent sequel intentions become clear. If ‘Genisys’ occasionally accrues some good will with some entertaining set pieces, it carelessly throws all of it away in the name of franchising: a noble sacrifice is conveniently undone seconds later, and a supposed vanquishing is recanted and largely ruined in a misguided post credits tease. If there are no consequences to any actions in a movie, what’s the point? And how satisfying is a movie that feels engineered simply to set up further installments? “Terminator: Genisys” could be used for future film students as a paradigm of what not to do in your film’s final moments.
“Old, but not obsolete,” is the recurring, self-aware, self-deprecating line Schwarzenegger’s T-800 delivers one too many times. And certainly, Paramount hopes their franchise has lots more life in it. However, in completely demolishing what has come before, and unsatisfyingly laying the foundation for the future, it’s unclear whom this film is actually for. Longtime fans will walk away feeling the series is obsolete, while newcomers will be puzzled by the upgrade. [C]