The truth is, some movies are just franchise-resistant. The first Terminator was such a fantastic example of a closed loop time travel story that nobody should have ever messed with it. T2 only turned out to be such a wonderful filmgoing experience through some mystical combination of James Cameron’s estimable filmmaking prowess and Linda Hamilton’s undeniable awesomeness. Every other Terminator movie has been a farcical mess, a clumsy attempt to build a mythology that nobody asked for. T3 ended with a bummer of a nuclear apocalypse. The fourth Terminator movie, directed by the human punchline known as McG, is more memorable for Christian Bale’s tape-recorded temper tantrum than anything that happened onscreen. And Terminator: Genisys is a hackneyed attempt to build a franchise on top of the failed sequels that came before, a reboot-prequel-sequel hybrid that can’t justify its own existence.
Credit where it’s due: at least Genisys cleverly aspires to fiddle with the original Terminator’s timeline by reviving Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in the 1984 film via a body double and some very convincing CGI work. Early in the film, we’re presented with a cute Back to the Future-style moment where a scene in the original Terminator is disrupted by a new event, but the cleverness doesn’t go much further than that. Instead, Schwarzenegger spends way too much of the film dumping leaden sci-fi exposition on the audience’s heads—in one scene, he blathers on about something called a “nexus point” and in another he holds forth on magnetism. All this dry explaining is a shame, because late-stage Schwarzenegger has a pleasant sense of humor about himself that the filmmakers could have mined for a little more fun. Instead, he’s a familiar face to guide us through a stodgy mess of a screenplay.
Every other major role in the franchise has been recast. Only John Connor gets an upgrade, as Jason Clarke adds extra dimensions to a role that has previously been played as a cardboard post-apocalyptic messiah. (Clarke also brought a little bit of soul to last year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; he’s fast becoming a beacon of hope in the swamp of blockbuster excess.) Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is serviceable, but she doesn’t come close to Hamilton’s performance. Jai Courtney, the most mediocre acting talent in movies today, leeches all the charisma out of the already-bland role of Kyle Reese. And a brief turn by J.K. Simmons as a new character provides a much-needed gust of fresh air in the middle of the film; he doesn’t have much to do and his character isn’t that important, but damn if Simmons doesn’t run away with the movie anyhow.
These characters bounce around each other in a bunch of different ways, cocking shotguns and trying to figure out the plot. Ultimately they’re trying to stop Skynet, which has now taken the form of an app that promises to connect all your devices in the cloud. You can almost hear the writers patting themselves on the back for their topical flourish of tying Skynet to the age of the iPhone, but it really just helps to lessen the threat, to make it more banal. Rather than playing into nuclear-age paranoia, this new iteration of Skynet is based in frustration at our screen-obsessed culture. It’s a menace that’s small enough to fit into a tablet.
Director Alan Taylor—last seen trying to hold together the mess that was Thor: The Dark World—does a workmanlike job with what he’s been given. His action at least makes sense, but there’s no good cinematography here, no inventiveness to any of the set pieces. In an age where most directors allow editors to make hash out of their action sequences, it may seem ungrateful to complain about Taylor’s boring competence, but the end result of all his bland shots piled one on the other is that Genisys is a completely forgettable film, the kind of movie that erases itself from your brain the minute you stand up from your seat and make your way to the exits.
Genisys suffers from every type of blockbuster malaise you can imagine. The film is stuffed full of countdown clocks, but the danger couldn’t feel less urgent. The special effects are plentiful but, besides the impressive youthification of Arnold Schwarzenegger, nothing is very noteworthy. The movie sets up what could likely be a new trilogy of Terminator films, but doesn’t bother to explain why anyone should care. At this point, the only new Terminator movie I ever want to see is one where James Cameron and Linda Hamilton go back in time to prevent an anonymous crew of Hollywood hacks from making a Terminator sequel. I would watch that movie in a heartbeat.