“Terminator Genisys” follows an alternate timeline in which an aging terminator called “Pops” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) tries to smile a lot, and the primary villain is the iconic resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) who has been retooled by the machines as some sort of unstoppable human/robot hybrid to go back in time and — well, make time travel possible in the first place. The title refers to a sinister operating system with a ticking clock that, unbeknownst to the tech-hungry masses of 2017, marks the countdown to human extinction. I wish that I could go back and change the course of this franchise, which had many people pleading “please stop” back when Jonathan Mostow contributed to the series in 2003.
Yet even “Terminator 3″ apologists will find it difficult to get through “Genisys” without groaning in agony as Schwarzenegger’s once-menacing cyborg attempts to exchange pleasantries with his human counterparts, over and over. And over. And say what you will about 2009’s “Terminator Salvation” — at least it had conviction, thanks mainly to the ever-dedicated Christian Bale as Connor, even if the end result was a gargantuan disappointment.
Perhaps this new attempt at reinvigorating the series, directed by Alan Taylor of “Thor: The Dark World” (from a script by Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier), attempts to do too many things at once. It begins as somewhat of redux of 1984’s “The Terminator”, showing us how the film’s hero Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney occupying the role originally played by Michael Biehn), comes to arrive in 1984 Los Angeles in order to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from a terminator sent back by the machines to kill her.
Cleverly, “Genisys” starts by recreating scenes from the original film just about to the letter, and these familiar moments will bring plenty of nostalgic bliss to fans. There’s a scene in which Schwarzenegger — in his original birthday suit (an astounding recreation of his younger self, and undoubtedly the film’s most impressive visual feat) — materializes and approaches a group of punks, demanding their clothing; another finds Reese seeking refuge from the police in a thrift shop — right down to the a close-up on the ’80s velcro Nike high tops.
But as the movie begins to reveal that an event has altered the course of history — the arrival of this “friendly” terminator over a decade earlier when Sarah was nine, an anomaly that results in more questions than answers — things unravel pretty quickly. The terminator’s bloody assault on the punks that we witnessed in “The Terminator” is thwarted here by Pops, and Reese’s clothing store police chase ends up being an encounter with a shape-shifting T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), which sounds much cooler than it ends up being. So unfortunately, those opening moments are about as good as this film is going to get. (Even an appearance by the brilliant J.K. Simmons is stifled by the noisy, amorphous mess that this thing ends up becoming).
Time travel films are usually replete with spoilable moments by nature, but only those who haven’t seen “The Terminator″ and “T2: Judgement Day″ will actually be surprised by the few revelations in “Genisys”. What Reese finds, after showing up in his glowing, electrified orb from the future (a production that has become unnecessarily showy and elaborate with each upgrade in special effects), is not the somewhat innocent, bubblegum-chewing girl from “Terminator”, but a Sarah Conner who is closer to being the feral weapons and tactics expert we saw in “T2: Judgement Day”, minus all the sinew and psychotic rage. As the heroine, Clarke has the necessary chops to step in for Linda Hamilton (if you want to see how compelling she can be, just watch her in “Game of Thrones”), but the writers make little use of this talent, and seldom does her character evoke the tortured soul of the James Cameron pictures. Sarah’s first words (very predictably) are: “Come with me if you want to live”, as she pulls Reese out of harm’s way, poised to emulate Hamilton’s burgeoning badass. But the film just drones on, and she and Courtney find themselves somewhere between snoozer of a love story and a generic summer action flick. To make matter worse, the script falls back on James Cameron’s classic dialogue so often that the film’s self-awareness begins to feel a bit like a parody.
Action highlights include a bus doing cartwheels on the Golden Gate bridge and a helicopter chase that looks like it is 100% CGI, and neither sequence comes close to the thrill of the L.A. sewer chase in 1991’s “T2: Judgement Day”. Your high-speed stunt fix would be much better served by this year’s “Furious 7″ or “Mad Max: Fury Road”, anyway.
I wish I could say we’ve seen the red iris flickering out for the last time, but a Marvel-esque sequence embedded in the closing credits strongly suggests otherwise.
Area theaters July 1st.