Yet again the timeline turns loop-de-loops through the meddling of future warfare between robots and humans in Terminator Genisys, the fifth in the thirty-year-old franchise. We return to a distant future where the machines of the world have risen up and nearly exterminated us. John Connor, the leader of human resistance, sends soldier Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother, Sarah Connor, from an unstoppable robot Terminator tasked with killing her before she can give birth. The robots want the Connors dead before they can lead the human armies. Meanwhile, the future people would very much like to stop the tech company Cyberdyne from inventing the evil robo-consciousness Skynet program in the first place. What started as a way for writer-director James Cameron to stage an epic sci-fi conflict in a small actioner on the streets of 1984 has now ballooned into a complicated story of crisscrossing time travelers forever circling the same key events, attempting to stave off the future Judgment Day.
Once time travel is involved, the series has so many alternate possible futures and pasts that there’s a lot of freedom in recasting the roles and shifting the plot variables each time. But in this series, we’re invariably doomed to face the future conflict. The best the characters can do is push back the day the robots take over. Each film makes the path there increasingly complicated. No one ever prevents future doom in the way they’d hope. It is infinite repetition, an ouroboros of franchise storytelling. In Genisys, screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier make use of temporal flexibility to repeat, remake, remix, retcon, and recombine elements of every previous Terminator movie. It’s fun, but predigested, like watching the other four all at once.
We start in a dire apocalyptic future much like the one from fourth entry Terminator Salvation, which is otherwise mostly ignored here. John Connor (Jason Clarke this time) leads an army into the robot’s secret time travel bunker, where he sends Kyle Reese (now Jai Courtney) on the mission we saw in the first Terminator. Upon arrival, Reese quickly learns the 1984 that greets him is not the one he’s been prepped for. This Sarah Connor (a wonderful Emilia Clarke) is already the tough battle-ready woman of Terminator 2, having been rescued from certain death as a child by yet another time-hopping Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), this one programmed to protect her. They’re ready to fight back. In a satisfying stretch of clever franchise reflexivity, Genisys posits changes made by all the timeline tomfoolery in amusing and sometimes exciting sequences, including a clash between this new Terminator and the younger model with digitally modified footage from the original.
But other Terminators are on the hunt, including a T2-style liquid metal shape-shifter (Byung-hun Lee). So our trio is on the run, with Reese the one told to come along if he wants to live. What follows is functional big explosion-heavy summer entertainment with several car chases (a series staple), headache-inducing sci-fi paradox pondering (ditto), and, after another zap through a time portal, a scrambling fight to stop the nefarious Genysis program from going online. It’s a cloud-based program that’ll allow our cell phone addictions to awaken Skynet and hasten mankind’s destruction. It certainly sounds bad. It all ends in a gleaming tech factory showdown similar to Terminator 3’s, bringing our tour through the franchise’s greatest hits to a slam-bang sparks-and-booms conclusion.
Between loud clashes, blandly dour performances from the main men mix with the welcome sight of Schwarzenegger returning to his most iconic role. It’s fun to watch him as an aging battlebot – “Old, but not obsolete,” he says – even if his behavior is only riffing on what we’ve seen The Terminator do before. A more interesting twist is Clarke’s Sarah Connor. She carries youthful vitality and believable authority as the movie allows her an interesting new way to shoulder destiny’s burden. What if she doesn’t want to have a baby? If she can stop Skynet, she might not have to. Meanwhile, the best new character is played by J.K. Simmons, bringing a blast of real comic energy to a harried detective who pieces together the gist of the conflict and is given the best line, muttered with exasperation upon seeing a trail of destruction, “Goddamn time-travelin' robots!” That seems like a reasonable response.
Director Alan Taylor (of Thor: The Dark World) and crew do industrial-strength Hollywood spectacle brightly and briskly, finding moments for some nifty imagery. A robot melts into a gooey mess in a shower of acid. Another gets pulled apart by an electromagnet. That’s cool. Familiar action sequences (a police station siege, a hospital escape, a helicopter attack) reappear in new contexts, allowing fans recognition and surprise. There are some nice twists here and there (most spoiled by the ad campaign, another series tradition), but there’s a sense we’ve been here before. It’s blockbuster déjà vu. Genisys gains interest beyond the diverting surface only through ripples of Terminators past. The series narrative is impossibly knotted, but I bet if you had a lot of time on your hands you could get out some graph paper and figure it out.
The approach here leads to playful rearrangement of the basic puzzle pieces, but they don’t add back up. For a series about actions and their consequences, the connection between past and present is fuzzy here. Who sent our main Terminator? And why’s the new liquid one there? And what happens in the future to cause the Big Twists here? Maybe it had something to do with former Doctor Who star Matt Smith, who is in so little of the movie he’s presumably mostly on the cutting room floor. These questions leave the movie feeling like just another knot in the timeline when it plays like what should be an essential addition. But I enjoyed the setpieces for their slick thrills and empty echoes. It fits into the same pessimistic loop as the others, with the same characters fighting the same battles, hoping to push back inevitable war. Your enjoyment depends on how much you enjoy futility.