Time travel movies are an act of faith between the filmmaker and the audience. The good ones lay out a set of rules that, as preposterous as they may seem, operate within their own air-tight logic. The heady puzzle pieces eventually snap neatly and satisfyingly into place. The bad ones, on the other hand, treat these rules as arbitrary and mutable, changing them to suit their story’s needs as they go along. The faith is broken. Terminator: Genisys is a bad time-travel movie.
Ever since its inception in 1984, James Cameron’s apocalyptic franchise has been battling an enemy more lethal than skeletal future-shock killing machines. The first two installments were both exquisitely engineered entertainments, wedding brainteasingly byzantine narratives and brawny action mayhem courtesy of the Austrian Oak, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since then, the series has been on a steady decline with 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and 2009’s Terminator Salvation—two sequels which had no real reason to exist other than as brand-awareness cash grabs. With the exception of Ahnuld’s return, I suppose there wasn’t any reason to expect more from Genisys other than the lure of watered-down nostalgia. But it barely even succeeds at that.
The film kicks off post-Judgment Day, after Skynet has become self-aware and has turned on its human creators, wiping out three billion people. The messianic leader of the resistance, John Connor (Jason Clarke), sends his lieutenant, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), back to 1984 to protect Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), safeguard the future, and wipe out Skynet before it turns bad. When he gets there, naked as a jaybird, Sarah is waiting for him, delivering the signature line, “Come with me if you want to live.” Also there: Schwarzenegger’s now-aged T-800 (whom Sarah lovingly calls “Pops”) and a liquid-metal T-1000 assassin, which is cool, but less so than it was in 1991’s Terminator 2. For a while, the sight of Schwarzenegger reprising what is arguably his most iconic role packs a retro thrill. But soon, director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) and writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier make a hash of the saga’s mythology, tweaking timelines and messing with its tenets for their own convenience. The story isn’t just confusing, it’s a betrayal to anyone who’s invested brain cells in the Terminatorverse over the past 31 years. There are thickets of exposition about “quantum fields”, “nexus points,” and a nefarious killer-app called Genisys, but it doesn’t add up. And the new cast—Courtney and both Clarkes —don’t offer enough charisma to cover up all the nonsense. They’re the definition of “serviceable.” Even the film’s Easter eggs for die-hard fans feel soft-boiled.
Like a lot of other 3-D extravaganzas released in recent summers, Genisys is a wildly expensive, decent-looking, mildly diverting mess that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Its connection to older, better movies cons us into believing it’s better than it is. It’s a movie made by humans (I’m assuming) that feels like it was programmed by machines—machines on the fritz. C-