Terminator Genisys (2015)

★★ / 👎

Terminator Genisys tries to smuggle a reboot inside the skin of a sequel, and compromises both functions as a result. As a reboot, it fails to perform efficiently due to reliance on antiquated designs from an earlier era. As a fan-service sequel, it’s about as convincing as the rubber skin on the 600-series Terminators.

Viewers whose attention spans survive the film’s opening salvo of flashbacks and droning exposition are promptly targeted by an interminable dialogue scene that feels like a pick-up or reshoot. Seemingly shot in an unlit hallway, and exemplifying everything wrong with the flat, on-the-nose dialogue that permeates this film, the scene consists of Jason Clarke and Jai Courtney’s characters having a tête-à-tête about what they plan to do When This Cruel War Is Over. (This isn’t the only scene between these two actors in which the “comrades in arms” dynamic could be read as having a queer undertone. In a just universe, Terminator Genisys’s only lasting impact on the world would be a dramatic uptick in the number of John/Kyle fanfics in the Terminator fandom.)

Having declined to provide a fully-realized vision of the post-apocalyptic future, Terminator Genisis jumps back into the past, and fully off the rails. A significant chunk of this section of the film is taken up by tweaked reenactments of scenes from the first Terminator that add no value for new viewers and compare poorly with the originals. Yes, the original scene with the newly-arrived naked T-800 encountering some literal punks is goofy as hell, but the new version doesn’t fix that problem: it only recreates it, badly.

And, well, the film just sort of tools along from there, without any particular sense of urgency, for another 90 minutes or so. As Terminator Genisys putters down the freeway, you can occasionally catch a glimpse in the rearview mirror of a leaner, smarter, modern sci-fi thriller about time travel in the vein of Looper. Every time that happens, though, the film immediately does its best to distract the viewer by shouting nonsense at the top of its lungs, and veering directly into oncoming traffic. The ensuing crash inevitably turns out to be awkwardly framed and poorly rendered, consisting of inconsequential digital fireballs and a meaningless series of thuds on the soundtrack.

This is one of those movies where the supporting actors and bit players fare rather better than the leads. Byung-hun Lee out-Robert-Patricks Robert Patrick as a liquid metal T-1000 whose cheekbones are at least as sharp as his arm-blades. J. K. Simmons more than earns his paycheck in a comic relief role whose antics actually feel less obtrusive than most of the clunkers the the main cast is forced to deliver.

Of the main, “franchise character” roles in Terminator Genisys, Emilia Clarke is the only actor who manages to give a performance that rises above the level of mere cosplay. The script smartly retains a core element of the Sarah Connor character: a woman actively fighting to reclaim agency over her own life, refusing to be a damsel defined solely by her biological functions.

By contrast, the new version of Kyle Reese is a dud. Partly, of course, because Jai Courtney is no Michael Biehn. (Hell, Jai Courtney is no Sam Worthington.) But I don’t think the blame lies entirely with casting, either; it’s a fundamental script problem. Turning Kyle Reese from an archetype into an everyman proves disastrous for the character. Every new piece of information we learn about this version of Kyle Reese is designed to make him more relatable, but actually makes his character less interesting, or less plausible. The same could be said of Jason Clarke or Arnold Schwarzenegger here: they are performing at the top of their (vastly differing) abilities, but what they’re being asked to do simply isn’t very interesting.