The fifth Terminator film is a bit of a return to form in that it doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. When the franchise has done so in the past, it’s wound up with messy concoctions that try to add gimmicks (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) or soulless reimaginings (Terminator Salvation). Terminator Genisys goes back to the basics of what made the first two films masterpieces of action and suspense. There may never be another installment in the series quite like T2, but Genisys is the first sequel to at least be a decent follow-up for all its winking and nodding to its predecessors. It’s at least attempting to do something ambitious, which hasn’t been seen from a Terminator film in decades.
Terminator Genisys exists as both a sequel and a remake. We begin the film with the usual exposition to catch everyone up: Skynet turns machine against man, the remains of humanity fight back against the Terminators—open with a sci-fi battle in a bleak future and then time travel is thrown into the equation. The plot disguises itself as a remake in that we follow Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), who must be sent back in time to stop the T-800 (reprised by Arnold Schwarzenegger with youth-enhancing computer graphics) from killing Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) in the year 1984. But he’s in for a big surprise when the timeline both changes and speeds up. The younger Schwarzenegger fights an older Schwarzenegger, Sarah Connor is now completely up to speed on Skynet in ’84, and the T-1000 even pops up ahead of schedule. Long story short, the timeline that we’re all familiar with has completely changed, from the doomsday date to the evil Terminators that ensure humanity’s end.
Similar to the reboot of Star Trek (2009), Genisys uses time travel to both continue its story and open up a new one. Its main flaw, however, is that it relies too heavily on this device. What made the original Terminator films so intense was that they maintained focus for setting up action. Skynet is bad, Terminators are bad, one Terminator may be good, the Connors have to survive. Set it up quick and let the chase begin. Genisys spends almost its entire first act explaining the whole timeline and then explaining how the timeline changes, never giving you a chance to piece it all together (if you’d actually want to). Subtlety in time travel is not present for this summer blockbuster. That’s a fair move for action-heavy entertainment, but considering the time-travel logic of the film, this is a pretty messy story even when it’s all clearly spelled out for the audience.
The good news is that once over the mountain of exposition, the movie manages to stage some enjoyable action set pieces. Cars fly through the air, bullets pierce metal, helicopters zip around skyscrapers, and robots smash each other through wall after wall—they’re all amazing sequences worth seeing on the big screen. The new antagonist Terminator chasing the heroes this time is rather unique, being a magnetic Terminator that can replicate and regenerate his form far faster than the liquid metal of the T-1000. Every scene with his mutating form constantly shifting into different phases is amazing to witness and follow. He makes for a striking presence that, though it may not be as iconic as the T-1000, is a big step up from just making a female Terminator or an amnesia Terminator.
The cast assembled is capable if not all that memorable. Jai Courtney and Emilia Clarke try their best to fit the roles of Kyle and Sarah, but they just don’t have much chemistry for the couple they’re supposed to be. Jason Clarke is decent as the hardened John Connor, but he is missing that soul of a character who has seen the past and the future. Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger steals the show as the only returning character of a Terminator turned good. This time, he’s portrayed as more of a father figure to Sarah (goofily referred to as “Pops”), attempting to blend in more smoothly with society—including greeting people with that freaky smile he used in T2. It’s not exactly a big change of pace, but it’s still pleasing to see him injecting some of his deadpan humor once more. J. K. Simmons has a brief role as a conspiracy theorist of an investigator, who’s a delight to watch, but I just wish he had more to do. Likewise, Matt Smith feels incredibly underused as another villain, skipped over too quickly to be worth noting.
Terminator Genisys works far better as an homage than a sequel. It doesn’t fix what isn’t broken by rehashing similar elements from the better Terminator films. Perhaps that’s about all you can do with a Terminator film at this point in order to jumpstart the franchise. The previous two films attempted to weave a much different narrative by giving the doom and gloom a darker angle; Genisys feels rather old-fashioned in its going back to the traditional formula of stopping the apocalypse before it happens in present time, iced with high-octane action and sprinkled with cheesy humor. As Arnold’s character describes himself in the movie, it’s an old model that has a lot of wrinkles, but it’s not obsolete—it still fits the criteria of sufficient popcorn entertainment.