Film Review: ‘Terminator Genisys’

terminator-genisys-arnold-schwarzenegger
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back (again) in this time-shuffling reboot of a series whose best days are long behind it.

“I’m old, not obsolete,” mutters Arnold Schwarzenegger’s aging android in “Terminator Genisys,” and his words could be a wishful mantra for this nervy, silly, almost admirably misguided attempt to give the 31-year-old franchise a massive cybernetic facelift. More or less rewriting everything we thought we knew about the Connor genealogy, the properties of liquid metal, and the rules of post-1984 time travel, this f/x-encrusted reboot feels at once back-to-basics and confoundingly revisionist, teeming with alternate timelines and rejiggered character histories (the most perplexing of which finds Sarah Connor now continually referring to Schwarzenegger’s Terminator as “Pops”). Consider it the 3D blockbuster equivalent of disruptive technology, and while online fans have already voiced their displeasure, the movie’s willingness to veer crazily off-course feels less objectionable than the monotony and sense of self-parody that kick in long before the whimper of a finish.

The return of a top-billed Schwarzenegger (here playing three different versions of his most iconic role) should lend Paramount’s July 1 release a bit more box office oomph than Warner Bros. managed with “Terminator Salvation” (2009), which the actor skipped while finishing the second term of his political career. Still, a mere six years after that poorly received mediocrity (the movie, not the political career), it’s safe to say the “Terminator” movies weren’t exactly crying out for this sort of extreme overhaul. And in a season when the studios have been busy updating their pre-millennial action-cinema touchstones, it’s unlikely that this new film will find itself in the same commercial league as “Jurassic World” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” let alone the next chapter of “Star Wars.” That Paramount has positioned “Genisys” as the start of a new “Terminator” trilogy can’t help but smack of undue optimism.

Fan uproar aside, the series’ underlying mythology is hardly an inviolable one, and for a while it’s easy to admire the daring with which screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier shake things up and reframe the events of the earlier films from a bizarre new perspective. Exploiting the narrative possibilities of time travel on a more vigorous and elaborate scale than its relatively self-enclosed predecessors, “Genisys” effectively returns us to the events of James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), stirs in the buddy-Arnold dynamics of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), borrows the man-machine-hybrid plot device from McG’s “Terminator Salvation,” and more or less pretends that Jonathan Mostow’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2004) never happened (“never happened” being an admittedly unstable concept in this particular universe).

Accompanied by a familiar blast of Brad Fiedel’s original “Terminator” theme, a prologue solemnly announces that 3 billion people died in the nuclear conflagration of Judgment Day on Oct. 29, 1997. Some 30 years later, the malevolent machines of Skynet are losing the war with a surviving remnant of humanity, led by an impassioned revolutionary named John Connor (Jason Clarke, his face marked with scars). So far, so familiar — except that when Kyle Reese (Australian actor Jai Courtney) gets zapped back in time to rescue John’s mother, Sarah, a last-minute twist suddenly alters his trajectory: When Kyle lands in a dark Los Angeles alley in May 1984, the machines are already waiting for him in the form of a lethal T-1000 who possesses blades for hands, reconstitutes himself at will, and is played by Korean star Byung-hun Lee. (Clearly, this version of Skynet isn’t just self-aware, but also hip to the realities of the all-important Asian movie market.)

Working with a crew that includes production designer Neil Spisak and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, director Alan Taylor fastidiously re-creates individual shots and scenes from Cameron’s 1984 movie — right down to the appearance of the evil T-800, achieved with a massive silicone replica of a nude, bulked-up, 37-year-old Schwarzenegger. But before the T-800 can do any real damage, he’s ambushed by Schwarzenegger’s slightly older, leaner good-guy Terminator, treating us to the brief spectacle of an Arnold-vs.-Arnold faceoff before Sarah Connor (English actress Emilia Clarke, “Game of Thrones”) steps in to finish the job. Turns out Sarah has been under the protection of her Austrian-accented guardian since she was 9 years old, and she knows full well that Kyle has come back in time to save her life and inadvertently father her child. She even gets to bring some gender parity to the proceedings by uttering the signature line “Come with me if you want to live!”

All this unfolds in an unusually cheeky, self-conscious register, and “Terminator Genisys” proves most diverting (or, depending on the viewer, infuriating) when the characters are trying to make sense of who they are, what they’re doing and what will or won’t happen as a result — none of which will mean much to a viewer coming in with no prior knowledge of the series. The movie does give us an enjoyably dumb crash course in time-travel specifics that explains how a “nexus point” can give rise to parallel timelines and alternate memories, opening a narrative wormhole that’s intended to justify the movie’s wholesale reimagination of its material. (It’s roughly the same gambit J.J. Abrams pulled off, albeit much more cleverly, in his 2009 “Star Trek” relaunch.)

In the refurbished “Genisys” timeline, Judgment Day has been postponed from 1997 to 2017, the same year that Skynet plans to seize control via a spiffy new worldwide operating system called Genisys — a twist that neatly updates the series’ techno-paranoia for the smartphone era. And so Kyle and Sarah make their way to San Francisco circa 2017, where Pops is now played by a conspicuously older and grayer-looking Schwarzenegger (as the film helpfully notes, the hardware is willing but the flesh is weak). Amid this web of Silicon Valley intrigue, they also run straight into John Connor himself, who welcomes Mom and Dad with open arms — and not in an altogether reassuring way.

To summarize the plot further would risk inflaming the reader’s outrage and probably give all of us a massive headache. Suffice to say that, in arranging this vaguely Oedipal family reunion, “Terminator Genisys” aims to reset the entire franchise by eliminating John Connor’s revolutionary heroism as the narrative constant around which everything else must revolve. In eliminating this premise, however, the filmmakers don’t offer much in the way of compensation: The what-the-hell invention of the first half gives way to a growing sense of desperation in the second, as our heroes find themselves running from one skirmish to the next, while the baddies keep showing up and finding new ways to say “You can’t win!” before going up in flames. For his part, Taylor orchestrates the action sequences with the same stolid proficiency he brought to “Thor: The Dark World,” whether he’s staging a massive vehicular smash-up on the Golden Gate Bridge, or filming the gleaming puddles of CGI that ooze from the Terminators’ rapidly mutating bodies.

For all its initial playfulness, the script never rises to the level of surreal, cortex-tickling pleasure it seems to be aiming for, and for all its self-awareness it’s weirdly devoid of humor. Even the possibilities of naked coed time travel — and the potentially world-altering consequences of whether or not Sarah and Kyle hook up — seem to evince more embarrassment here than amusement or pleasure. (The nudity, like the violence, is strictly PG-13.) What comedy there is unfortunately comes mostly from Schwarzenegger, straining as ever to turn his utter humorlessness into a source of humor, and at one point trying to add “Bite me” to the immortal “Terminator” lexicon. Still, the star does what he’s here to do — namely, imitate a lethal slab of granite and ensure a measure of continuity with the rest of the series — even as he largely cedes the spotlight to Courtney’s hunky earnestness, Jason Clarke’s unsettling intensity, and Emilia Clarke’s semi-successful attempt to channel the fire and grit of Linda Hamilton.

It is, on the face of it, a ludicrous and faintly depressing spectacle, like watching a “Terminator” highlights reel stiffly enacted by Hollywood’s latest bright young things (which makes the appearance of J.K. Simmons all the more welcome in the minor role of a police detective). Yet while “Terminator Genesis” is far from a perfect movie, it may well be a perfect product of its time and place, one that ably reflects the ruthless economy of the industry in general and the thematic logic of this series in particular. The “Terminator” franchise, by now, has become its own worst Skynet — a monument to self-regeneration that endlessly repackages the same old thrills in ever sleeker, sexier models, and that gladly screws with its own past to ensure its future survival. You can’t quite call it obsolete, perhaps, but damned if it doesn’t feel awfully futile.

Film Review: 'Terminator Genisys'

Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, June 22, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 126 MIN.

Production

A Paramount release presented with Skydance Prods. of a Skydance production. Produced by David Ellison, Dana Goldberg. Executive producers, Bill Carraro, Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier, Megan Ellison, Robert Cort.

Crew

Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay, Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier. Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen, Arri Alexa digital, 3D), Kramer Morgenthau; editor, Roger Barton; music, Lorne Balfe; executive music producer, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Neil Spisak; supervising art director, Aaron Haye; set decorator, Jay Hart; costume designer, Susan Matheson; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Pud Cusak; sound designer, Jason W. Jennings; supervising sound editors, Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl; co-supervising sound editor/sound designer, Tobias Poppe; re-recording mixers, Scott Milan, Greg P. Russell; supervising special effects coordinator, Mark Hawker; special effects coordinators, Craig Barnett, Andrew Weder; special prosthetic makeup design and live-action T-800 effects, Legacy Effects; visual effects supervisor, Janek Sirrs; visual effects producer, Shari Hanson; visual effects, Double Negative, MPC, Lola, Stewart VFX, One of Us, Method Studios; visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; stunt coordinator, John Stoneham Jr.; co-stunt coordinator, Melissa R. Stubbs; 3D conversion, Stereo D, Prime Focus; associate producer, Hanson; assistant directors, Phil Patterson, David Sardi; second unit director, Alexander Witt; casting, Ronna Kress.

With

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matthew Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Michael Gladis, Sandrine Holt, Byung-hun Lee.

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  1. Frank Smith says:

    I suppose I’m an exception to the rule as I NEVER liked T2. The franchise jumped the shark the second the Terminator became a good guy. And started cracking jokes. And that screeching kid?

    Imagine if the shark in ‘Jaws’ started cracking jokes in the sequel. By so radically changing the story, the films lost the core of menace so masterfully written in the first film and sent the scripts down a convoluted, confusing rabbit hole trying to regain the plot and sense of tension that made the first film so successful.

    Now there’s a trail of loud, confusing and failed films left in the wake of what had to happen after T2.

    A funny good guy Terminator?

    Audiences overlooked the central theme being upended amidst the special effects, metallic bad guy, jokes and loud music.

    Now, twenty four years later, the writers are still trying to piece together a cohesive, interesting storyline lost after T2.

  2. maria says:

    Ignored your review and watched it twice. Seriously lighten up!

  3. Rodolfo Cabrera says:

    Terminator Genesis is a great movie. It is brilliant how Arnold Schwarzenegger made his come back to Terminator after being the California Governor. I was actually waiting for this come back. But I had doubts it was going to be this good. Here is what I like the most.. We all know how tough and one man show Arnold has been in the past movies.. Thus.. The great thing in Genesis is how Arnold humbles down himself to share the glory of his movie with Jai Courtney.. This is what I like the most. I like how Arnold acknowledge himself of being old already, but still can shine “ I am older but not obsolete” . To me this Arnold himself, the Real Arnold saying that he still can be good, but at the same time he understand that is time to let Jai contribute to the goodness of his movie. Arnold even plays funny, he humbles himself to be that old man with fake open smile, fake for the machine, but I believe real from the Real Arnold. This is great movie, I always admire Arnold, I connect myself to him because I am a US citizen burn abroad also, but I have been successful by studying and working hard, just like Arnold.

  4. Bobby says:

    Definitely disagree with this review. I thought it was an enjoyable summer movie. Even pretty funny at times. Jai didn’t work for me but Arnie and Emilia made up for it, they had good chemistry.

  5. failure says:

    There is NOTHING clever about JJ Abram’s Star Trek

  6. Taylor says:

    Glad to see the sequel to a classic movie series was left to the masterful hands of Alan Taylor who brought us the brilliant sequel Thor:Dark World… I’m not a genius but I can tell the production company isn’t exactly concerned here with giving us a worthy sequel or even a good movie. If you are going to make a sequel to a classic movie at least honor the prior work by giving the production team enough to work with to produce quality work. This is the problem with many sequels of course. Production companies don’t give sequels enough money to make good movies because they are relying on the success of the former movie to bring in crowds of people. Thus, high quality production isn’t a priority in securing financial success… The terminator series was given to us by the great James Cameron and has now been left in the hands of someone who has directed two prior movies that were aweful. My question is this: Why wouldn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger demand the best production for this movie before agreeing to do it? I mean why would someone at his stage of life and career attach his name to a movie he knows is not being given the A production team treatement? Money, plain and simple. And you as the consumer insure that movies like this will continue to get produced with untalented, unseasoned, uncreative, and unworthy production teams if you go see this crap.

  7. Wingsta says:

    I saw an early screening of Terminator Genisys and thoroughly enjoyed it. No, it wasn’t as good as the first two but I thought it was better than the 3 and Salvation. And I didn’t even mind Salvation. It seems more of the Summer Blockbuster the franchise used to be with it’s action and even bits of humor despites it’s kinks and all. Arnold did a little Q&A afterwards for the audience at the screening. I posted it in case anyone is interested. There is no spoilers in the video.

  8. Michael Cookson says:

    This is a great moment to see out front out evil (Hell’s Angels) run our world. Hippie outfit and drug culture Calif, S&M gay sex gay streetlights Vienna. World socialism Gestapo KGB, homeland security. Runs calif into ground as Gov got Calif drought, BP oil 1/3 human race ethanol, and now upcoming MidWest drought to make sure hell’s angels fallen ones really stop the upliftment of mankind. Should rename this ‘How Satan runs the world’. Feels like Kennedy with Camelot with Meyer Lansky and Jack Rubenstein when Kennedy tried to oust Mafia and wouldn’t support Israel. Got Allen Ginsburg gay sex Calif and Homeland Security.

  9. dan says:

    did I read that right? the writer saying the time travel divergence in star trek was better than this? Really? I am a trekkie but the newer films are hardly anything intellectual like voyager or next gen was whether this is good I will wait and see, I didn’t hold any torch for both JW and Max sequels but they both surprised me no end (in no way perfect but a good franchise addition). This as I read it seems more like picking on it than a review, yes I hated the early connor reveal, which i’m hopping is some kind of red herring but I will go watch this and make my OWN judgements

    • Bobby Hill says:

      Interestingly, they have learned nothing, because the T2 twist of Arnold being the good guy was also spoiled by the trailer.

  10. TrueTerminatorfan says:

    T1 and T2 are masterpieces, this looks like another crappy PG13 Terminator movie, not watching it.

  11. pm says:

    Just another Hollywood garbage to make a quick buck out of fools that buy into them.

  12. Shell says:

    Note to writer, you misspelled Genisys in the last paragraph of the article. You wrote, “Genesis”. Don’t know what to think about the actual movie but I can’t imagine it being any good without Cameron at the helm. The whole alternative timeline thing usually falls flat. On the fence about seeing it.

  13. I saw Alan Taylor’s short film back at NYU (“That Burning Question”) and never forgot it. I wish he’d create something personal and artistic again. He has so much talent and potential.

  14. Liran says:

    Why do you think that writing a review means telling us everything that happens in the movie?

  15. Rex says:

    Critics will never give a movie like this a good review because they’re too hung up on the age of Arnold. They do this with pretty much anyone who isn’t 40 or under. When it comes to Arnold, Stallone, etc, all they can talk about is the fact that they’re old. I can’t wait until these critics hit 50 or 60 and then see how much people will crap on them simply for their age. Difference is, at least Arnold and Stallone and actors like that made their mark and lived incredible lives. Old critics will just be left bitter and useless.

    • Johnny says:

      Last time I checked, Edge of Tomorrow was critically acclaimed, and Tom Cruise was 51 at the time, so your argument is BS.

  16. JOE S HILL says:

    Would’ve been great,had James Cameron directed his creation,because with his “touch”,that sure would’ve made a HUGE difference-but unfortunately,that’s water under the bridge now,since he’s locked with the second “AVATAR” movie,for which i seriously hope was worth the near five year wait! as for “TERMINATOR:GENISYS”,i sure hope Paramount and Skydance makes this latest effort worth while,because despite some of the fan support with “TERMINATOR SALVATION” in 2009,both that,and Jonathan Mostow’s “RISE OF THE MACHINES” in 2003,were serious disasters,and i hope that it doesn’t extend to this current version,,but without Cameron’s direction,i still don’t give good odds on this movie-but we’ll find out,next week!

  17. David Hanson says:

    I is confused….
    Shouldn’t Sarah Conner be about 60 years old by 2017?
    Also, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of the 2009 Trek referred to as “clever”. Not a word I would use.

    • Bill says:

      How about brilliant? 2009’s Trek was a spectacular and needed reboot of a franchise that had otherwise run its course.

      • David Hanson says:

        But it made no logical sense! A guy’s planet is destroyed, so he goes back in time NOT to stop it or warn people, but to get revenge on another guy who didn’t stop it in the first place?
        What?
        Also, the entire crew of the ship goes along with it. For twenty years. In all that time, no one on that ship thinks to skype their grandparents and maybe suggest a summer home in the Delta Quadrant?

        Suspension of disbelief is a curious beast. I had no problem with tech that could burn completely through a planet’s crust from a low orbit (think of the power requirements!), and I could even get past mysterious red goo (Macguffinium?) that’s so destructive a cubic centimeter can destroy a planet of greater-than-Earth mass, yet when they blow up a water cooler sized bottle of it, does not wreck everything around for 12 parsecs.
        As I said, no problem with all that, but AN ENTIRE CREW of miners who’ve just lost their homes, families, legacies, house pets, etc., have a chance to stop it, and….don’t. Sorry. Can’t hoist that with a forklift.
        Also, what the hell was that business with the water pipe?
        ‘S too bad, too, cause I like Eric Bana. Ever see Chopper? Good actor, but he hasn’t really had too many parts that let him shine.
        All this being said, this was far from the worst Star Trek movie; that title is obviously still held by Generations. They did really well with casting, and aside from overuse of lens flare and Dutch angles, it looked pretty good. You could see the budget on the screen.
        And of course, Into Darkness was pretty damn spectacular.

      • JackBurton says:

        Spectacular at turning Star TREK into Star WARS. Both Abrams films were not exactly intellectually challenging or interesting as may of the TOS series episodes were. It wasn’t Star Trek. Sorry. But many of the films were not either. Some very bad films with the label Star Trek were made. Abrams is a hack, he hijacks others works because he is not capable of truly original creations.

  18. filmsharks says:

    I’ll go see it simply because Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor is a brilliant casting decision.

    • Johnny says:

      This is how the casting process for Terminator Genisys went:
      Producer. I want that British green-eyed brunette that wears a blonde wig in Game of Thrones.
      *casting director casts Emilia Clarke*
      Producer: No, you dummy. I meant the one that already has experience playing Sarah Connor. I thought that goes without saying…

  19. Rox Hart says:

    I enjoyed your review of this film only because you gave spoilers to a film franchise that has been one of my life’s greatest influences. I greatly look forward to this film and not expecting it to be a box office smash like the equally influential success of Jurassic World and Mad Max: Fury Road. As a huge fan of all mentioned films and even bigger fan of The Terminator I assure you my 3D ticket is already purchased. Hollywood will continue to get my money no matter how confusing are lack luster they throw together these films as long as they in some way are giving us more to the story and keep them coming.

  20. J-Day is August 29th, not October 29th. I guess this error just proves you have an unbiased opinion by not being a fan of the predecessors, if nothing else. I just wish your article had a conclusion and less of a wishy-washy tone.

  21. bijinius says:

    bummer, dude.

  22. Bob says:

    I read a lot of criticism of Terminator Salvation. I think it was the best one yet. I wish they had made Genisys like that one. Anyone else think that Salvation was the best one ?

    • You must be some kind of special if you think Salvation is the best one..

    • Raven says:

      Ya know in one of reviews they say opening future war scenes of John Connor & Kyle Reese going in battle with Terminators is actually better than entire Terminator Salvation simply because it was much more closer to Cameron’s future war scenes in T1 & T2.

    • pauliborn says:

      no never, judgement day was the best one :) man I was ten by that time and alI I wanted was to be john connor, riding a bike, stealing easy money and a terminator that does what I want as new forsterdad… frack yeah!

      But I give you that, salvation wasn’t bad at all and the mid movie twist was nearly haunting. I just didn’t like batman as connor , well but terminator 3s connor was only ok at best and the new one? well we will see… kind of funny that the best john connor turned out to be such a dork that they had to recast him for every movie since than… although he always had the right age at the time they did a new movie.

  23. nerdrage says:

    Another played out franchise. Hope it goes down in flames as a lesson to Hollywood: if you must resurrect old franchises, focus on ones like Blade Runner that have some juice left in them.

    Leave Alien alone, too.

  24. nathan says:

    Why do people keep saying this timeline reboot was done first by 2009’s Star Trek?…. The Terminator TV show pulled this off before star trek but yet ignorant writers who aren’t fans of the universe keep acting like star trek was the first movie to rewrite a time line (the very first terminator movie was about rewriting time)…. just irks me…. if I’m supposed to believe that you know what you’re writing about

  25. warnerbrown says:

    I read a bunch of reviews from the leaked script. All horrible. This seems to verify..and 3 sequels after T2. The idiots (ie: producers/screenwriters) have done a fine job of butchering this to fucking death.

  26. Todd S. says:

    Regarding Terminator Genisys: “If you like the Terminator films — you’re going to love this movie.” — James Cameron

    Enough for me. I can’t wait to see it!

    • chitown34 says:

      A quick Google search will tell you he said that T3 was great too. His word means nothing because he’s obviously trying to help Arnold promote the film since they are very good friends. This movie is going to be just as bad as the desperate trailers say they are. Any movie that would give away a twist as big as John Conner being a terminator in the trailers is obviously terrible, and will do anything to get an audience into theaters before the bad word of mouth kills it at the box office.

    • Al Swearengen says:

      You do known that Paramount probably paid James to do that clip.

    • LOL says:

      Yes, the CGI Cameron in this clip is very convincing.

  27. Confused says:

    So, how was the movie?

  28. Penguin says:

    Ok so how many stars you give this movie?

  29. will wait for it on netflix

  30. JackBurton says:

    Meh. What’s the point then? Not going. Better to see Fury Road again.

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