There’s something very déjà vu about all this.
Not long ago I was an excited 13-year-old playing and replaying VHS copies of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron’s wildly different but endlessly engaging tales of killer robot-assisted future nuclear apocalypse and the freedom fighters—some human, some cyborg—who try to stop it.
Since then, I’ve sat through two more film sequels (one better than you remember, one stilted and boring), a fine-enough-for-two-seasons TV show, and endless hope that someday this story will reach a satisfying conclusion. With the release of Terminator Genisys, I may either have to keep hoping or be thankful for what I’ve had.
Genisys’ premise is a wild bit of latter-day Star Trek revisionism that’s the smartest idea in the series’ post-Cameron phase. Future soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent to 1984 to stop The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from killing the mother of John Connor (Jason Clarke), the Resistance leader who helps the humans defeat the supercomputer Skynet. But the timeline Reese—and anyone who’s rewatched The Terminator a few dozen times—expects to land in is different. Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is well aware of her destiny, and is in the care of another Terminator (Schwarzenegger) to ensure the humans’ victory over the machines.
What follows for a good 40 minutes or so is a fascinating blend of modern action beats and frequent hat tips to Cameron’s first two Terminator flicks. The thrills are high and voluminous, and the special effects are the best this series has seen since T2’s T-1000 first changed shape. In a summer movie schedule littered with fun nostalgia trips (Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World standing atop the pack), Terminator Genisys offers us another adrenaline-pumping trip down memory lane, held up by the improbably entertaining sight of an older Arnold fighting his immaculately recreated 34-year-old self from the original film.
It’s when the movie jumps ahead in time into the relative present that the movie’s pistons start to buckle. Sarah, Kyle, and The Terminator must, once again, prevent the nuclear onslaught of Judgment Day, enduring surprisingly low-stakes action set pieces (blandly directed by Alan Taylor, who was at the helm of the most boring Marvel film of the last decade), time-travel mumbo jumbo and a new mechanical foe whose presence would have been more impactful had it not been spoiled in one of the film’s trailers. (If you’ve somehow missed this reveal, you deserve to keep the surprise.)
But it’s not spoiler culture that makes Terminator Genisys so frustratingly imperfect. In theory, Terminator flicks should only get better as society advances closer to the theoretical techno-terror posited by Cameron 31 years ago. They could be sounding boards for our anxieties about always being plugged in, or treatises on what it truly means to be human. When those concepts are dangled in front of audiences in Genisys, they’re almost as quickly discarded in favor of just above-average fights or incredible time-travel hokum.
The film is not without its highlights. Clarke, a familiar face to fans of Game of Thrones, shines as Sarah Connor, channeling both Linda Hamilton’s stunning portrayal as well as a bit of Edward Furlong’s rebellious John Connor in T2. She’s battle-ready and tough-as-nails, but is still uncomfortable with her destiny as mother to a human savior. She’s believable in scenes where she has to shoot up baddies and holds her own when the script occasionally calls for quiet reflection. Schwarzenegger, in his fourth starring go-round as the titular cyborg that affirmed his superstardom, is also particularly enjoyable. The Terminator is as comfortable as a suit to the Austrian Oak by now, but he, too, adds a small but noticeable layer of gravitas to what could have been an easy victory lap.
By comparison, Courtney as Reese trades Michael Biehn’s wiry energy for listless, dunderheaded action tropes, one of the movie’s most fatal flaws. By the end of the climactic battle and inevitable, improbable set-up for a sequel, even this Terminator die-hard was wondering how many more endoskeletons audiences want to see on-screen.
As Schwarzenegger’s seemingly deathless automaton reminds us throughout Terminator Genisys, he’s “old, not obsolete.” Despite some initial promise—and my own predispositions as a fan—it’s getting harder and harder to agree.
Terminator: Genisys hits theaters everywhere this weekend.