The nasty reviews for the fifth Terminator film, Terminator Genisys, are well earned — but as lousy as the movie is, I must speak up for its makers’ valiant attempt to make something old look new and also old … and new. It’s a vexing problem for a system that relies on sequels, “franchises,” “tentpoles,” etc. You see, studios haven’t had much luck remaking sci-fi blockbusters like Total Recall and RoboCop from scratch, but at the same time, they know it won’t work simply to exhume long-in-the-tooth original casts and try to squeeze juice from premises wrung dry. So they’ve pushed filmmakers to do something genuinely (if inadvertently) postmodern: invent “alternate timelines” that mix old and new — with winks to the millions of moviegoers who get the in-jokes. The current ultra-blah Star Trek cycle arrived in the form of a dialogue with the original, the characters’ destinies (and, in some cases, their very characters) having been changed by a wayward time-traveler. The new X-Men saga is a mishmash of resurrected oldsters and hot young’uns. Now Terminator Genisys takes an already-convoluted premise and convolutes it even further, to the point where even Marty McFly and Doc would cry, “Stop! No more twists!”
Terminator Genisys begins with the event that initiated James Cameron’s 1984 The Terminator but that the audience only heard about: After humans under the command of rebel leader John Connor (played here by Jason Clarke) finally defeat the machines that have exterminated much of humankind, the machines decide — it’s their Hail Mary pass — to send a robot in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to kill John’s waitress mother, Sarah (now Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones), so that John won’t be born. John in turn gets ahold of the time machine and sends his pal Kyle (now Jai Courtney) back to save Sarah as well as get her pregnant with … him.
Think how hard it must have been for the screenwriters (Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier are credited) to build on something already so wobbly — and then keep piling on the absurdities. In Terminator Genisys, Kyle arrives in ’84 to find that Sarah is already a hardened warrior and that an old terminator played by Schwarzenegger is protecting her from the original terminator, played by a digital facsimile of Schwarzenegger. (The digitizers have nailed the young Arnold’s Teutonic smirk so well that I felt sorry for the old Arnold.) The past having been changed, the future becomes a proverbial open book. Why, in this timeline John himself could be a terminator in league with the machines, and Sarah could regard the old terminator as a father figure and call him Pops. Ha, I’m just kidding. Or maybe I’m not. You should hope I am.
There is one clever modern angle, concocted for a film in which “judgment day” is set for 2017. The machines that seek to vanquish humans have an easier time when humans are already virtual slaves to their cell phones, tablets, and other forms of cyberconnection. But don’t expect Her-level satire: Terminator Genisys is mostly CGI-heavy car chases and scenes of terminators (several levels of them) getting disintegrated, putting themselves back together, and getting disintegrated again, the physics so wobbly that it’s tough to know when a machine is truly dead and gone.
The re-castings don’t help. Pretty and feisty as Emilia Clarke is, no one can replace — be still my heart — Linda Hamilton, and certainly not with dialogue this clunky. The Terminator’s Kyle, Michael Biehn, was skinny, bright-eyed, and very sweet, so it’s a shock to see him played as a dull-witted meathead. I don’t blame Courtney, though: He didn’t cast himself. And I don’t think even Biehn could have sold these terrible quips, variations of, “I didn’t sign up for this!” or barbs aimed at the terminator for getting too techie about techie stuff. In a typical exchange, Sarah says not to insult Pops because he has feelings; Kyle says he can’t have feelings, he’s a machine; and “Pops” stares stupidly ahead in a way that makes you think, He does so have feelings! I wish Schwarzenegger’s performance was a notch above listless camp, but he certainly does make you feel his sadness at aging. This terminator’s big line (apart from “I’ll be back”) is that he’s “old, not obsolete,” but we’re pretty close to replacing him altogether with CGI. Though his haggard visage is explained by the revelation that terminator skin ages just like human skin, no one mentions its ability to settle into a paunch.
Among the odder things about Terminator Genisys is the public seal of approval it got from James Cameron, who lost control of these characters after Terminator 2: Judgment Day — and the judgment day that was his first divorce settlement. But it’s easy to see why this installment floated his boat. It’s sentimental in a way that the chilly third and fourth Terminator movies weren’t. Even if the filmmakers rewrite “the future,” they genuflect towards the past.
It doesn’t jell, though, and the movie’s philosophical message is especially grating. The theme of Terminator Genisys is fate (as dictated by the killer machines) versus the freedom to choose the life one wants (the rallying cry for Sarah Connor). But all I could think as I watched was that this weird old-new Terminator movie was not the upshot of an artist’s free will but of the Hollywood Machine that dictates all. Cry freedom all you want, Sarah, but your fate is to face more terminators. The future is all sequels.