Terminator Genisys is a complex stew of nightmares, nonsense, horror, arbitration, and foolishness. It breeds many senses, thoughts, and reminders. But mostly, it just makes you think Arnold Schwarzenegger needs a good beer can to smash over his head. He spends most of the movie pitting that head against the world, destroying everything in its path. It destroys Terminators, helicopters, concrete, respectability for the human cranium. It leaves nothing in its wake. The best word for his skull-busting habits is, I don’t know, “cute” maybe? But it is the sort of cute you just hate yourself for liking. You just want him to rest a little. But then, there’s something to be said for any actor willing to get that much mileage out of his brain, in one form or another.
The film that supports that cranium, however, is a little too short on nerve endings to make it worth the trip. The early moments recollect the first film in the series, James Cameron’s The Terminator, and its scowling, tombstone-hewn nihilism. More than that, the early moments of this film play with the idea of a Terminator film and indicate a well-intentioned rereading of the original film. This time, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) goes back in time to 1984 to rescue Sarah Conner (Emilia Clarke) from the evil Arnold Schwarzenegger-looking T-800 so that she (with Reese, in a bit of Oedipal sci-fi shenanigans) can birth John Connor (Jason Clarke), who will eventually lead the human resistance against a machine uprising in the future. Nominally, this is the plot of the original Terminator film. Complicated enough, but that original film unfolded with a breathless last-gasp of night time shrieks and horror-cinema wails, sparing no time for exposition so that it could approximate a hurtling film noir from the ’50s.
Genisys is at its best when it occupies this same mode. It has wrenches of its own to throw into the formula, the first and best being the fact that when Reese arrives in 1984, a T-800 (Ahnuld) has already ventured back in time to rescue and raise a young Sarah Connor from a preemptory attack in 1973. When the new T-800 and Kyle arrive in 1984, Sarah and the original T-800, now aged, are waiting for them. Another evil bot, recalling the harshly-calibrated ice of Robert Patrick in T2, shows up to best the rescue, and he is played by startling South Korean actor Lee Byung-hun. This first 45 minutes, which entail Sarah, Kyle, and the elder T-800 running from this newly minted metallic foe, has ideas to spare, and genuinely explores them to some notable effect. In particular, the father-daughter relationship between Sarah and poppa T-800 (a neat subversion of the mother-daughter and father-son relationships prominent in Cameron’s early films) is effective in a low-key way.
But the film survives in its early stages not by virtue of its craving ambition, but by director Alan Taylor’s surprisingly pinpoint craft at reassembling the action-heavy first film for a new chase fit for the 2010s. Nothing in Genisys even hints at the forward-thinking, revolutionary skill on display in Mad Max: Fury Road, to name a recent film that breathed life into the husky corpse of an old franchise. But the early goings of Genisys are both pleasantly light on exposition and ruthless in their clarity of focus on the chase.
The trouble, and it is trouble, is that the film soon crosses the streams of densely packed action and Big Ideas about the state of the world, and the melding of the two cram up the works. There is simply too much going on in Genisys for its later half to function at all as stable cinema. With its habit of dislodging the idea of parenting already in tow, the screenplay just doesn’t know when to say when, and a further twist (spoiled in the trailers) where John himself is captured by the machines, sent back in time, and forced to fight his mother and father, is one convulsion too many. That last convulsion, by the way, is sponsored by Mountain Dew.
The film plainly wants to explore time travel as an intellectual treatise on the serious consequences of messing with the rules of the universe, but, being that it is a summer blockbuster, it also wants to smash things real good. The impulses gnaw at each other’s throats, and the screenplay devolves into a mess of endangered character motivations and arbitrary coincidences (the “technology ruling the world” cautionary tale, in particular, is a waste of screen time). The action, meanwhile, suffers from some horrendous editing and framing choices later on, and eventually everything seems to rush forward at a relentless pace not for the sake of nerve or excitement, but because the film desperately wishes to be over with itself. Jason Clarke is underused, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney stutter and glaze-over with a certain passive competence, and Arnold is left holding the film up. He does a spirited job of it too, clearly reveling and deriving venomous intoxicants from mocking his image and using his odd self-awareness to his benefit.
Still, the strengths of Genisys are, if pleasing, also compromised. They force the film into an uncomfortable region, and they are undercut by a fatal reminder of one of the great axioms about movie making, and movie watching: if you are making a movie, do not continually remind us of a better movie, let alone a masterpiece, in the worse movie you are actually making. A nagging problem, sure, but a problem nonetheless, and Terminator Genisys doesn’t accomplish nearly enough to move beyond the continual reminder that we might as well be watching the 1984 original. The film is so busy using Arnold’s head to do so much, and yet amidst all the head-usage, the film forgets to use its own. It isn’t an altogether bad film, but it is a scentless one.