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Terminator Genisys isn't good, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is great in it

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Melinda Sue Gordon

That big scene at the start of Terminator Genisys, when Old Arnold Schwarzenegger fights Young Arnold Schwarzenegger? Not as cool as you might think. Some filmmaker somewhere could’ve teased out the resonance of a moment like that: A battle across time, the young man at his absolute apex of art-model-gone-jacked nudity and the old man wearing a fitted leather-jacket hoodie. 

James Cameron liked to steadily wear Schwarzenegger down over the course of the movie; the running time marked his wear and tear, as the skin across Teutonic cheekbones gave way to red robo-eyes and endoskeletonic metal. But Genisys director Alan Taylor shoots the fight scene between Young Digital Arnold and Old Flesh Arnold the same way he shoots every other fight scene—just two invincible robots fighting for a few pointless minutes. It feels like brand confusion: Genisys could’ve been a decent reboot for Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

The moment at the end, though, is perfect. The camera keeps cutting away to somebody assembling a cool-looking sniper rifle. This unseen person—Sarah Connor, duh—looks through the scope, gets Young Arnold in her sights right as he’s about to deliver The Punch That Will Really Count to Old Arnold, and pulls the trigger. It goes straight through Young Arnold’s robot-heart: He topples over, de-activated. We’re still looking through the sniper scope as Old Arnold stands up. He looks straight at us. His face doesn’t shift, not even a little bit. A long eternal moment passes. And then the former Governor of California flashes us a thumbs up.

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Not much works in Terminator Genisys, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is pretty great. This is the fourth time he’s played a Terminator onscreen—that thumbs-up is a callback to the second one, when he was a good guy. In the first movie, he was a bad guy; in the third movie, he was a legacy star heisting one last big score out of pre-franchise Hollywood before transitioning into long years on a gubernatorial salary. You maybe have to see Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3 to know how good he is in Terminator 5Rise of the Machines was a tail-end ’90s movie pretending towards Matrix-era digital spectacle; Schwarzenegger looks bored, is boring.

And maybe you also have to see Terminator Salvation to appreciate what Schwarzenegger brings to these movies—what Schwarzenegger brings to movies, period. Terminator Salvation stars Christian Bale. I’m not sure there is anyone on Earth who would argue that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a better actor than Christian Bale. Certainly, nobody was arguing that in 2009: Not one year after Dark Knight, not one year before that Oscar for The Fighter. Bale in Terminator 4 does what every actor besides Chris Pratt does in action movies now: He overthinks. His John Connor is a tortured Messiah and a trench chieftain and a father and a hero and at least six weeks of Christian Bale studying the psychology of Insurgency.

I didn’t count, but it feels like Schwarzenegger has less screen time in Genisys than in any Terminator since the original. He makes the most of it, though. We learn that this Terminator raised Sarah Connor after saving her, that she calls him Pops. This is helplessly goofy—in the context of the dark romantic melancholy of the original Terminator franchise, she might as well call him Bing Bong—but removes any need for Schwarzenegger to pretend towards virility. This isn’t Stallone doing his last few Stallone movies, where he’s just doing an ‘80s Stallone cover band. This is Schwarzenegger doing the Terminator as a square ‘50s dad—no-nonsense, struggling to smile, doesn’t like daughter’s new guy one bit.

When you watch Terminator Genisys, you remember how Schwarzenegger was maybe miscast in The Terminator. Cameron’s whole original idea was the Cyborg Infiltrator, an enemy agent who could hide in plain sight. “Hide in plain sight” isn’t what you think of when you think of Schwarzenegger: Not now, certainly not circa Nineteen Eighty-Anything. But Cameron knew a vision when he saw one. Terminator Genisys has none of Cameron’s gift for visuals, but Cameron’s influence is there every time Schwarzenegger nonchalantly rips open a door. It’s there whenever the camera accidentally catches the fundamental joke of Schwarzenegger’s size vs. Emilia Clarke’s size: It’s not quite this, but it’s close.

Schwarzenegger in Genisys reminds you that big blockbuster movies don’t always understand physical presence: Maybe it’s all the greenscreen. I heard yelps in my theater every time Schwarzenegger casually walked through a wall, or tackled some digital robot through a wall. You can have Christian Bale monologuing: I want two hours of Schwarzenegger destroying destructible environments.

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“Old, not obsolete.” That’s Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase in Terminator Genisys. He says it for the first time early in the movie, explaining that he might be an old model, but he can still roll with those cool CGI Terminators. Later in the movie, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is older. His hair is gray-white: A good look, even better because he wears it a bit crazy, like he finally doesn’t have time for hair styling. His robo-joints are starting to fall out of robo-joint.

We know this because of one well-constructed scene, perhaps the best scene in the movie. Schwarzenegger’s in an ammo-dump safehouse, getting ready to go to war. He’s loading up clips for his machine gun. Across the table, Kyle Reese (played by Jai Courtney) is also loading up clips: Slower, because he’s a human. Schwarzenegger looks across the room at his surrogate daughter, Sarah Connor (played by Khaleesi) who’s listening to an old tape of “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones. He looks back at Kyle. The challenge is on: Me Angry Dad, You Untrustworthy Boyfriend Who Must Prove Himself. They load up clips, faster, faster, in competition, the music builds… and then the Terminator stumbles, his robotics failing after all these years.

He looks at Kyle Reese. “Old,” he admits.

“But not obsolete,” Kyle insists.

The movie proves Kyle too right. Again, a missed opportunity: You want to see the Terminator movie where Schwarzenegger’s model actually is obsolete, where the big plan can’t just be “punch the other evil robot until I can’t punch him anymore.” (Maybe we already got that movie, in Terminator 2.) The movie can’t really own any of its ideas about what Schwarzenegger is anymore.

But there’s an actual undercurrent to what Schwarzenegger is doing now. In 2013’s very fun The Last Stand, he’s explicitly old and can’t fight the bad guys without help from his friends. (Friends like LUIS GUZMAN AND JOHNNY KNOXVILLE.) In 2014’s totally weird Sabotage, he’s either the worst good guy or the saddest bad guy in his IMDB—and it’s worth watching Sabotage just for the last scene, which isn’t quite Schwarzenegger’s Unforgiven but could be his The Shootist. It helps, I think, that Schwarzenegger now isn’t trying to be Schwarzenegger then. Again, cross-reference Stallone, who insists on shooting his shirtless ripped 68-year-old torso with maximum glitter-oil. None of that anxiety is there with Schwarzenegger: He knows we know he’s not this guy anymore, because nobody ever can be again.

Every Terminator movie builds up to some kind of self-sacrifice. Genisys does, too, and it doesn’t bungle the big moment. Schwarzenegger the Robot turns to his human friends. His voice never wavers from the monotone. His face doesn’t shift, not even a little bit. He issues a last command: “Kyle Reese. Take care of my Sarah.” Nothing in the movie really prepares you for this—any attempt to turn Genisys into Terminator: Daddy-Daughter Day gets lost in the time-travel muddle. But it chokes you up.

Maybe there’s some filmmaker out there who can harness that energy. Or maybe it’s all just Jai Courtneys from here on out. Schwarzenegger is old. Maybe he’s obsolete: Maybe that’s what makes him more interesting now.

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