James Cameron’s Terminator films had a weird, similar fate. In 2019, the rights to the character revert back to Cameron, so producer David Elison fast-tracked a new trilogy, which might not even finish a third film before the rights return to its original creator. That’s good planning! Like with Spider-Man, what we’ve got here is a film that exists not so much because somebody had a really great take on the material, but because the clock on the contracts was ticking.
So, what we’ve got with the fifth film in the franchise is something made out of contractual obligation, just a need to get something (anything) made while they still held the rights. As you can imagine, that’s not exactly a winning formula for making anything that’s creatively inspired. The really weird thing is that Terminator Genisys is the best of the sequels made since Terminator 2 back in 1991, but like Jurassic World a couple of weeks ago, being the best of some terrible sequels is like being the skinniest kid at fat camp. I know I saw Terminator Salvation, the last film in the series, but the only thing I remember about it was Christian Bale’s on-set dust-up with the cinematographer. Suffice it to say, the bar isn’t very high.
I’ll throw out a spoiler warning now before I move forward. It’s going to be hard to talk about what’s gone wrong without revealing some major plot points, even though the trailers have already given away the movies biggest twist. If you want to go into this as cold as possible, don’t read on.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
As the film opens, the future war is nearly won, with the humans one victory away from defeating the machines. As we learned in the very first movie, the machines have a secret weapon, a time machine through which they will send a terminator back in time to murder the mother of resistance leader John Conner (this time played by Jason Clarke) before he can be born. Conner’s right-hand man Kyle Reese (now played by Australian charisma sinkhole Jai Courtney) volunteers to travel back and save her. But, the 1984 Reese finds himself in is not what it’s supposed to be. Upon arriving, he’s almost immediately accosted by one of those nasty liquid metal T-1000 jobs from Terminator 2. For some reason that model no longer looks like Robert Patrick. Meanwhile, up at the Griffith Park Observatory, the T-800 (that’s the model that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger) that’s arrived to 86 Sarah Conner is about to kill three very '80s punks for their clothes. A second, aged T-800 arrives on the scene and the two robots fight.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the older one says.
It turns out that another terminator was sent even further into the past to kill Sarah Conner as a young girl in the 1970s. The aged T-800 was sent back to protect her. Who sent that T-800 back in time? Those files have been erased from his memory. As the Church Lady used to say, “Well, isn’t that convenient.” I’m still not sure who sent the other one to kill Sarah, but it did manage to whack her parents, so the T-800 has essentially acted as her father. In fact, she calls it “Pops.”
Are you with me so far? It gets even more convoluted.
Sarah and Pops meet up with Kyle Reese to plot their next move. Of course, that involves even more time travel, this time to the year 2017, when the dreaded Skynet will go online in the guise of a new operating system called Genisys. I know what you’re asking. “Wait, how do Kyle and Sarah travel into the future from 1984?”
Good question! It turns out that Pops and Sarah built their own time machine. You heard that right. They built their own time machine in 1984. Meanwhile, Kyle Reese has memories from a childhood in an alternate timeline that are somehow providing information that aids them in the present.
So, Sarah and Kyle flash forward to 2017 while Pops just lives 33 years of life waiting for them to show up. The film’s big twist has already been spoiled in the trailers and that occurs in 2017 when John Connor turns up as the most advanced terminator yet. More than the liquid metal job from 1991, John Connor has had cyborg tech fused to his DNA, making him consist of millions of nanobytes. Not only is he the villain, he’s also taken a job as an engineer at Cyberdine, using his knowledge of the future to help build Skynet itself. (Since these films are increasingly built on the idea that visitors from various points in time help shape the reality of the shared present day, they’re going to eventually collapse under all that plot density.) Oh, and then everybody tries to blow up Skynet. Again.
Looking back over what I just described, I make it sound like this new film is terrible. It’s not terrible, it’s just wholly unnecessary and genuinely uninspired. And, a mess. I really liked the first third of it, when the characters were interacting with the altered 1984 timeline. It reminded me of Back to the Future II, where Marty McFly tries to fix the altered version of 1955. If they had stayed with that, they really might have been onto something. Instead, we get all these various timelines and exposition scenes that bring everything to a grinding halt just so somebody (oddly, that’s usually Arnold) can explain what the hell is going on. Even with that explaining, it still largely makes no sense. Like that T-1000 in the 1984 timeline? Who sent him back in time and when?
In a big-budget studio picture like this, you know the stunts and effects are going to be top notch and they are, but the story is perfunctory and none of the slickness really adds to anything that’s going on. When was the last time a big-budget studio picture didn’t have state-of-the-art production values? The big problem is this is a movie that was made because somebody was about to lose access to the IP rights. This is a passionless movie that feels exactly like a project nobody was excited to make. It’s “product” in the dullest possible way.
There’s a cool idea floating around in there, the idea that Kyle Reese and Sarah Conner are destined to fall in love, even though the original scenario they were to have met in has been torn to shreds and the 1984 Sarah in this movie is nothing like the helpless 1984 Sarah from the original film. It’s an interesting notion (Is love destined or do our circumstances get in the way?), but Game of Thrones’ Emelia Clarke and Courtney have so little romantic chemistry they come off like estranged brother and sister. Like Paul Giamatti in San Andreas, recently minted Oscar winner J.K. Simmons does a considerable job of classing up his scenes. He plays a cop in the 2017 timeline who encountered the robots back in 1984.
It’s possible this series has something in common with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, that the central idea really doesn’t support multiple stories being told from it. Jurassic World suffers from just being the same thing warmed over yet again, and the Terminator franchise appears to exist solely to send yet another robot back in time while the heroes try to blow up Skynet for the umpteenth time. They’ve essentially tried to do what JJ Abrams did while rebooting Star Trek: to take the known characters and spin them off into a completely different and new timeline. Abrams did it with great simplicity. Director Alan Taylor and his writers spend nearly the entire runtime of the film trying to set up this new reality, and it’s absurdly and unnecessarily complicated.
It’s not a complete disaster, but it certainly is uninspired.