Time travel paradoxes are secondary in the Terminator films. While the central conceit is a warrior and/or killer robot who travels from to the past, James Cameron was shrewd to make them a “one way ticket.” The decision meant that Terminator was of the present, and chronologically simple. Terminator Genisys, the latest in the now-lumbering franchise, does away with this simplicity. It is set in three time periods, and like the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Genisys abandons what came before it. Director Alan Taylor has smart callbacks to the original films, yet he cannot capture what made them so important in the first place.
The opening of Genisys is set moments before the first Terminator, at least in fifth dimensional terms. It’s 2029, and John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a human army against the Machines, who are operated by the computer network Skynet. We see just how Skynet sends a T800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 in order to kill John’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke). There’s some dramatic irony when John settles on Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) as Sarah’s lone protector, since Kyle is also John’s father. The 1984 sequence is a retread of the original film, complete with Nike product placement, except there’s now an alternate timeline. Sarah is expecting Kyle, and she has an older T800 with her (she nicknamed him “Pops”). For reasons too complicated to explain, she and Kyle decide to travel forward to 2017, whereupon they reunite with Pops and John, who are not quite what they seem.
Genisys is a direct “sequel” to the first two Terminator films, insofar that it can be one. Rise of the Machines and Salvation were mediocre, so it’s brazen and almost refreshing to see Taylor ignore them. His crucial misstep, however, is that he forgets what made the franchise so compelling. The Terminators are relentless and inexorable: they’re not scary because they’re killer robots, they’re scary because no matter you do, they just keep coming. Cameron used that villain to create a palpable sense of dread, and that dread is utterly absent from Genisys. There are certainly a lot action sequences, with varying degrees of success, but the bad Terminator is not relentless, or even scary. In fact, Taylor and his screenwriters turned the villain into the tedious sort who talks too much, which is the exact opposite of Schwarzenegger’s brilliant original performance.
That overabundance of dialogue bleeds into the action, too. Cameron is a shrewd visual storyteller: in Judgment Day, for instance, he manages to turn a single grenade into a crucial plot point, even though it’s total nonsense. With Genisys, we know the ammo is about to run out because, well, characters keep telling us. The action sequences are frequent, yet there are also oddly brief. There is no grand spectacle, nor chase that has a clean, well-defined sense of space. Taylor’s approach has more in common with “chaos cinema,” a term used for Michael Bay and ilk, although Taylor’s nowhere near as egregious. There is an exciting helicopter chase, plus some dramatic danger on the Golden Gate bridge. Yet they never amount to a feature-length, sustained chase with moments of rest in between. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two filmmakers, yet the callbacks to the first two films are so frequent that they’re inevitable. Taylor didn’t do himself any favors.
Oddly enough, the character moments are more successful than the action or the alternate timeline idea. Sarah knows she must fall in love with Kyle, and Kyle has an immediate distrust of Pops. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussie milk this situation for maximum humor and dramatic irony, and Courtney/Clarke underplay their roles by looking back to the fierce competence of Biehn/Hamilton. Schwarzenegger is the common thread, except here lazy jokes and meta-commentary hurt his career-defining role (Pops remarks that he’s, “Old, not obsolete,” which is meant to comfort longtime fans). Of all the main characters, Jason Clarke has the most trouble. John Connor is an utterly thankless role – Clarke seems to specialize in those – and since the script tries to imbue John with menace and charisma, it fails at both.
I know said time travel paradoxes are unimportant to the Terminator movies, but they’re still fun to think about, anyway. Let’s talk about the scene where Kyle and Reese run into John in 2017. Based on the logic of the franchise, it makes no sense: Sarah does not give birth to John at all, let alone in 1984, so he could he possibly be born? Come to think of it, who sent Pops into the past anyway? Genisys has no answers, and the “alternate timeline” idea is a middle-finger to the temporal implications of the first two movies. The one smart idea of the 2017 section is that it’s a chance for Taylor to observe that ubiquitous smartphones are just as sinister as Skynet. It is a fun, prescient riff on our current relationship with technology, at least until Taylor ignores it in favor of – you guessed it – another computer factory that gets blown up real good. By rewriting the past, Terminator Genisys obliterates its connection with the present.