Never before has the phrase “Everything old, is new again,” been more prevalent at the movies than it is right now. This year alone has seen the return of Mad Max and the latest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, while the Fantastic Four will be given another go and a new Vacation movie is in the offing. Throw in a remake of Poltergeist and the return of the Star Wars franchise in December, and you could convincingly make the argument that Hollywood is indeed out of fresh ideas. This is nothing new really, as sequels and remakes have been staples of studio's slates for decades, but this tendency to go back and revive long-dormant franchises is, and will likely gain steam what with the success of these new ventures.
So there’s more than a bit of irony at play to the Terminator series returning as it has survived on the premise that its characters, much like franchise-reviving film execs, are able to travel back in time in order to restart or change events in the hopes of creating a more positive (profitable?) future. Choosing to ignore the disaster that was Terminator Salvation, the powers-that-be at Paramount Pictures have made a film that tries to be all things for all viewers - a reboot, a prequel, a sequel and a homage all in one. With such a grand agenda, it’s no surprise that the movie is a flawed mechanism, a production that struggles to keep pace with all of the ideas it contains, a frustrating exercise that tantalizes fans with intriguing new ideas yet rarely comes to life as it’s hobbled by a having far too much on its plate and performers who struggle to fill the already established roles they’ve been handed.
To give an accurate summary of the plot would require charts, graphs and multiple, color-coded timelines. The action begins in Los Angeles, circa 2029. John Connor (Jason Clarke) has devoted his life to leading the human resistance against Skynet, a computer program that has achieved consciousness and has been intent on wiping out the human race using robots and other machines to do its dirty work. However, Connor’s army is about to deal their cyber-enemy a fatal blow, but not before it can send a terminator back in time to kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke), thus ensuring its foe will never be born. In an effort to stop this, Connor sends his brother-in-arms Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time as well to stop the killing machine, knowing full-well he is destined to become his father.
Anyone familiar with the franchise’s mythology will be aware of this premise (woe to the uninitiated who will be hopelessly lost) and director Alan Taylor dispenses with these particulars in an expedient manner. However, at the point Reese goes back in time, screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier start mucking with the works, taking the notion that one misstep in the past can have vast repercussions in the future to mind-bending extremes. Before the first hour is over, we’re dealing with nexus points, fractured pasts, alternate timelines and many different possible futures.
How much you enjoy the film will depend on your level of patience with scenes consisting of reams of exposition and your willingness to have your perceptions of the story rebooted time and time again. To be sure, there are no shortage of interesting ideas at play, many of them seeds planted in the last half hour as there are plans for two more films in the series. Determining whether they all hold narrative water would require multiple viewings.
Obviously, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s involvement as a 60-something Terminator, as well as a younger version due to some slick digital trickery, gives Genisys a validity that Salvation lacked. In many ways, he’s the best thing about the film, still able to deliver a performance that is at once stoic yet touching. Through a neat plot device, his Terminator has been around since the mid-1970’s and has struggled to acclimate himself as a human in a world he doesn’t understand. Schwarzenegger is able to convey a sense of innocence in the machine’s awkward attempts to fit in that suggest a child trapped in the mainframe of a killer. The character’s confusion about his purpose as well as his growing humanity, gained through observation and mimicry, grounds the film and delivers some much-needed and welcomed poignancy. It’s good to have him back.
As for the newcomers, they’re a mixed bag. Jason Clarke is the best of the bunch, given an opportunity to flesh out the messiah of the future in ways we cold never expect, thanks to a plot twist that, if you haven’t seen the latest trailer, you won’t see coming. The actor provides a degree of dramatic heft that’s beyond Courtney and Emilia Clarke. The former shows nothing here to dispense with the notion that his career is based on his imposing physical presence, while the latter lacks the edge Linda Hamilton brought to the role. Seeing these two together, I couldn’t shake the notion that I was watching two kids in grown-up clothes, running around their backyards playing Terminator.
Without question, Genisys ambition exceeds its grasp and while I can’t necessarily say its a bad film, I’d be lying if I said it was a success. It’s far too muddled, the rhythm of its action scenes are just a bit off and there’s far too much talk when there should be economic storytelling. Still, Schwarzenegger is fun to watch and there’s no denying the movie is very, very interesting and at times quite smart, things that can’t often be said of films of this nature. Whether we’ll get to see the many narrative seeds planted here come to fruition remains to be seen. To be sure, if these sequels are made, I’ll be back.