Summer at the movies is a time of lowered expectations. Each year it’s the same thing: same complaints, same questions, same answers. We pretend not to be insulted by yet another helping of capes and costumes, or by one more reboot of old, tired IP, and we pretend each sequel and relaunch is as valuable and necessary as the last. 2015 was hardly immune to concerns of originality or the absence of exciting young stars, but the first half of the summer at least made a case for itself. Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s long-awaited reunion with his most important contribution to cinema, ended up more resoundingly imaginative than any other action movie of the last decade. Furious 7 single-handedly disproved the myth about Hollywood sequels (they just keep getting better). San Andreas hit a dumb-fun sweet spot, along with Jurassic World, and Paul Feig’s Spy, unlike most summer comedies, was actually funnier and smarter than it thought it was. Even Marvel’s obligatory superheroics, the one-two punch of Avengers: Age of Ultron in April and Ant-Man in July, seemed designed to prove that the cultural colossus can do small (literally, in this case) even better than it does big.
Terminator Genisys, then, couldn’t have arrived at a worse time, marching a tired series into 2015 on the whirring legs of a soulless corporate machine, belching toxic smog into an otherwise bright summer sky. This is the nadir of shameless franchise-filmmaking, the kind that cares about profit margins and rights preservation far more than making an interesting or even interestingly bad movie. Were Genisys (crikey, that title) content just to desecrate two science-fiction classics, maybe that would have been forgivable. But it doesn’t stop there. The movie wants to overwrite and replace everything that came before it, including the stuff people actually liked, but without ambition or intelligence, or even an understanding of what made the initial idea so compelling in the first place.
I’m not sure if Genisys is objectively the worst movie in the franchise – there’s a lot of stiff competition from Terminator Salvation and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, both of which were terrible in a way that begs an obvious question: Who wanted this movie? I suspect hardly anyone, and still fewer who wanted this version of it, which is essentially a reimagining of James Cameron’s grimy, menacing 1984 original, often shot-for-shot, only spliced with various iconic elements from its 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. There have been five of these movies, and four of them, including Genisys, have followed the same basic template: Skynet, the gestalt, self-aware artificial intelligence, has sent an android hurtling back through time to terminate Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of mankind’s saviour, John (Jason Clarke), who has dispatched an agent of his own (Jai Courtney) to protect her and ensure the timeline remains unchanged. But because Genisys wants to play the series’ greatest hits, this slim, copy-pasted concept is being constantly warped to accommodate characters, ideas and plot beats which make no sense and that the movie can’t even begin to explain.
Take, for example, the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cuddly T-800 is already hanging around with Sarah Connor. In meta terms we know he’s there because people enjoyed that father-figure dynamic in T2; narratively, though, it can’t be explained, and so Genisys doesn’t bother trying. How about this: As John’s lieutenant, Kyle Reese, is disappearing through Skynet’s time machine, a new terminator shows up to interfere with the process which somehow completely rewrites history – and Reese knows this because he gets to see flashbacks of his own life that another version of himself has lived. An unintended consequence of this is that the date of Judgement Day – which, in the Terminator mythos, is when Skynet gained sentience and engineered a worldwide nuclear exchange – gets shuffled around; Sarah and Pops (Schwarzenegger) believe it’s going to happen in 1997, and they want to build a time machine of their own to travel there from 1984, apparently unaware that time already works that way. But it doesn’t matter because in the new, jumbled-up parallel timeline, Judgement Day actually happens in 2017, so they have to use the time machine to go there instead. But wait! When they arrive, they learn that Skynet’s programming is actually disguised in an operating system known as Genisys, and that the obligatory enigmatic Steve Jobs-alike who created it is John Connor. What, you want more? Okay. Would you believe that John’s now a newer new terminator made of horrifically cheap-looking buzzing nanites? Well, he is.
You can see the issue, I’m sure. There’s nothing inherently wrong with complexity in storytelling, particularly not in science-fiction, where if it isn’t necessarily expected it’s at least more readily tolerated. But the plot of Genisys isn’t intentionally ambiguous or skilfully obfuscated; it’s complicated for no good reason, and I suspect as a symptom of the filmmakers’ ineptitude. This isn’t so much a Terminator movie as a sequence of ideas for a Terminator movie. None of the post-Cameron instalments in this franchise have truly understood what worked about his movies. Genisys doesn’t understand what works about movies, full stop, so it’s trying to coast along solely on callbacks, nods, winks and “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” scenes, strung haphazardly together without a single thought spared for internal logic, coherence or consistency. It’s nonsensical.
Even more baffling is the casting, which reimagines these old characters with new, less charismatic actors. In the original, Michael Biehn played Reese as a weary, PTSD-afflicted man of war; in the hands of Jai Courtney, he lacks not only those admirable soldierly qualities, but a personality on which to hang them. Instead of those haunting skull-faced flashbacks, the script, which is credited to Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, burdens the character with inane wisecracks. Courtney’s purpose in the movies continues to elude me. He’d have perhaps been better suited to a role as an actual terminator – everything about him already seems scientifically designed to pass by unnoticed.
Emilia Clarke is, somehow, even worse, partially because she’s too dainty to fill the shoes of Linda Hamilton, who, in T2, secured Sarah Connor’s place in the pantheon of action-movie goddesses. Clarke has an edgeless version of Hamilton’s steel. Separated from the platinum-blonde wig, the dragons and the terrifying royal lineage of her Game of Thrones character, she’s too damp and demure, too young and pretty for this kind of role. You don’t buy Clarke as being able to save the world, and there’s no real joy in watching her try to. Jason Clarke (who shares a surname and a badly-faked American accent with his co-star, but no relation) is having more fun destroying it, but his enjoyment isn’t proportionate to the audience’s.
Aside from the midpoint arrival of J.K. Simmons as a funny, washed-up, conspiracy-theorist detective, the only actor who really lends something tangible to Genisys is Arnie. He’s leaning against the same shtick he was in T2, though mercifully free of Edward Furlong and his dopey catchphrases. But there’s a twinkle in his eye here that isn’t just the tell-tale red gleam of a Terminator’s robotic peepers; it’s the glimmer of an enduring star quality. This is his first post-political performance which has recaptured some of what made him an icon (and an elected official). He’s 67 now, a little wider around the waist than he was at the peak of his stardom, but that imposing physicality is still there. When he turns it on, so is the charisma. In something like the dour zombie drama Maggie, or David Ayer’s messy, drugged-up heist thriller Sabotage, he’s searching for a new lane to stomp along in. But he isn’t fun in those roles the same way he is in these iconic ones, which might explain his inability to let them go. It isn’t quite the same thing as what Stallone has tried to achieve in his three increasingly belaboured Expendables movies; Arnie starred in those, and he seemed to sneer at them the way grandpa might a retirement village. He doesn’t want to fence off that idea of himself. There’s a whole generation of moviegoers who aren’t acquainted with it yet. Genisys isn’t just him getting back to a time when he was good, but a time when everyone knew he was.
Even the captain goes down with a sinking ship though, and Genisys is so leaky that it starts taking on water from its opening scenes. I’ve been turning it over in my mind during the week or so since I saw the movie, trying to figure out whether it was the script or the casting that made it such a lousy experience. Really, who cares? They’re both bad in such a way that one can’t elevate the other. There was a chance Genisys could have worked, either by expanding outwards to incorporate the movies it conveniently erases, or turning inwards on itself, as a commentary or a joke. Genisys has a vague idea of what humour is. Whenever its characters aren’t painstakingly explaining who they are, why they’re in a particular scene or what the movie is about, they’re trying to be funny, and it’s difficult to overstate how much they aren’t.
Other movies in the summer of 2015 were as guilty as Genisys when it came to leveraging the curb appeal of old IP or having characters speak solely in mouthfuls of exposition and quips. But none felt so cynical, and the laborious explication here seems designed to orient the filmmakers as much as the audience. Nobody in, around or opposite this movie has any idea what to make of such nonsense, so it’s all just repeated, often, or hidden behind murky Los Angeles nightscapes in the hope nobody will notice. And I’m sure certain people won’t notice or care and I’m honestly happy for them; I’m happy that someone can enjoy Genisys the way I enjoyed Jurassic World or San Andreas. But most people will, quite rightly, not allow this movie to get away with the same bullshit. How can they when it feels this phony; when the cast seem so ambivalent towards the words on the page; when longtime TV director Alan Taylor is so content to tie the whole thing in knots and drench it in murk; when it looks so cheap? The trailers promised a highlight of two slabs of Schwarzenegger, past and present, duking it out with each other. One is Arnie’s horrendously de-aged face slapped atop a body double. It makes no contextual sense, it’s over in five minutes and you wonder immediately whether it was worth the price of admission. It wasn’t. But as the movie goes on you realize the trailers were being honest about one thing: that was the highlight after all.
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