A 31-year-old franchise returns with bold new upgrades, only some of which hit their mark. In Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the series, John Connor (now played by Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (played this time by Jai Courtney) to the past. Once Reese arrives in 1984, he finds his mission has changed, as Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones) is no damsel in distress but a ready, armed and capable soldier. She’s aware of Reese and, even more startling, has been protected by her loyal Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, the only returning cast member), who she refers to as “Pops.”
Genisys suffers from comparison to what came before it. The first half in particular is a collection of images and ideas recycled from the franchise. We should be stunned by the return of a liquid metal killer but the character is no longer novel and the actor playing him has none of the presence that made Robert Patrick so scary in T2.
There’s lots of spectacular action, particularly a climactic robot throw down that delivers. There’s also too much CGI, in a series that showcases state of the art special effects but never before has been so swamped in digital trickery (an irony, since the story involves a pixilated threat). There’s also more warmth here than in previous entries. Yet, I prefer the previous installments to this one, including the cold, grim but exciting Terminator Salvation and the fun, dynamic Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. A real problem with the latest installment is the lack of a great villain or a feeling of urgency.
Oddly enough, this feels less like a nod to James Cameron and more an effort to turn this franchise into a Marvel movie, right down to a cliffhanger in the middle of the end-credits. The wild new twists to the original story and established time line can be fun but this is still over-plotted. Matt Smith, a former Doctor Who, plays a character so ill-defined, he barely registers. Recent Oscar winner J.K. Simmons has a funny supporting role and his scenes feel like they’re going somewhere, but they never do. The inevitable suggestion that his and Smith’s roles will “all make sense” in a hinted sequel doesn’t help, either.
Once the second act kicks in, with Sarah and Kyle in San Francisco of 2017, the story becomes less inevitable and more playful. However, there’s a crucial misstep in the change of motivation and identity for a central character. This drastic alteration is bold but doesn’t work. Ms. Clarke is especially winning and there is detectable chemistry between her and Courtney but the three young leads lack the essential intensity Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Christian Bale brought to Sarah, Kyle and John in previous entries. Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia) is oddly lacking gravitas here, which wasn’t the case with his electrifying turn in Zero Dark Thirty. The fresh-faced leads don’t convey humans on the edge of sanity, knowing that they are literally the last hope for humankind.
As for Schwarzenegger, he’s always fun to watch and nails the moments that bring welcome humor to his iconic role. His recent role in Maggie, one of my favorite films of 2015, demonstrated he could act, movingly, in a risk-taking independent film. But here he’s playing it safe, relying on the quirks, self-conscious delivery and mannerisms that he’s established years ago.
It’s worth noting that the introductory scenes, in which the humans vs. machines war is in its late stages, suggest this could be taken as a direct sequel to Terminator Salvation. Once the big narrative detour in the second act is unveiled, the willingness to take a chance and shake things up for longtime fans results in unsatisfying narrative risks. I suspect Schwarzenegger will always be back but it’s this franchise that has yet to fully return to form.