Arnold Schwarzenegger once again declares, “I’ll be back,” in this fifth installment of the Terminator franchise, but enough already. Spending half its time showing unkillable cyborg characters getting shot up only to quickly heal themselves, and the other half trying to explain a plot that rewrites the entire series, Terminator: Genisys will serve as a good litmus test of how keen the public is to see basically the same old thing in a new (but very similar) bottle.
At one point, Schwarzenegger’s lifelike robot tells his cohorts, “I’m old, not obsolete,” but that will be up to audiences to decide; the sorry track record of the star’s six post-gubernatorial features means that a lot is riding on the box-office of this continuation of his most popular franchise. Thanks to the visual effects equivalent of expert plastic surgery, the actor, who was 37 when the first series entry was released in 1984 and is now 67, more or less convincingly spans that time frame in terms of looks as he helps Sarah Connor and her son John try to save humankind — and themselves — from the victory of the machines.
How many times have we seen the Golden Gate Bridge destroyed in a big budget movie in past years? Has there been time to rebuild it since San Andreas a few weeks ago? And let’s not forget Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, Godzilla and Rise of the Planet of the Apes before that. Well, it happens again here as part of the nuke attack that’s part of the back-story that must be altered if humanity is be given another chance.
Laboring with the problem of how to return to a well that many fans justifiably thought ran dry with McG‘s Arnold-free Terminator: Salvation in 2009, screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier have worked out an elaborately rigged scenario in which John Connor (Jason Clarke), son of Sarah, by 2029, has led the human resistance to nearly total victory over the world’s Skynet oppressors. But when he learns that, at the last second, the enemy has been able to transport another indestructible killer (basically an Asian version of Robert Patrick‘s T-1000) back to 1984 to kill his mother to ensure that he, John, would never be born, he hurriedly sends the buff and capable Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to protect Sarah and block the remaking of history.
Series fans will relish the care with which director Alan Taylor and his team recreate in the flashback the feel of James Cameron‘s original; Reese arrives, naked, in the same dark and grungy downtown Los Angeles alley to be greeted by a homeless derelict. Assaulted by the sleek and determined new terminator (Byung-hun Lee), Reese in short order is joined by the original edition (you know who, looking very young), giving Sarah (Emilia Clarke) the protection she needs until they all make the jump back to the future, in which son John looks older than Mom.
This time-jumping contrivance plays well enough, but what actually goes on in the scenes set 14 years hence feels rote and unimaginative. Action scenes are accumulated as if mandated by a stop-watch and almost invariably seem like warmed-over versions of stuff we’ve seen before in Terminator entries and elsewhere. The first three films in the series were R-rated and viscerally benefited from it; this one is rated PG-13 and its action scenes feel like diluted rehashes, obligatory and devoid of visual creativity in the same way the violence feel staged and photographed.
With Taylor coming aboard as director and Clarke assuming the role played a generation ago by Linda Hamilton, the series is clearly aiming to benefit by association with the ultra-violent Game of Thrones. But while she can be feisty at moments, Clarke can’t do much to give dimension to the very one-note character of Sarah, and that goes double for Courtney as Reese, a role even more devoid of depth or wrinkles, physical or otherwise.
That leaves it to Arnold to save the day, but age has given him a vocal in addition to physical stiffness; he’s still imposing and amusing up to a point, but he can’t dominate the way he did thirty years ago.
And so the film just lumbers along, often tediously; there’s no sense that the scenario has been carefully kneaded, structured and shaped by attentive dramatists. Visually, we’ve seen these images — or many like them — so many times before, and the score accentuates the retread feel with its monotonous thudding.
A little surprise insert during the end titles suggests that a follow-up to Terminator: Genisys is already intended by its makers. But if Arnold really wants not only to come back but to be welcomed back, he’ll one day need to unterminate.
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Smith, Byung-jun Lee
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriters: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg
Executive producers: Bill Carraro, Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier, Megan Ellison, Robert Cort
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Neil Spisak
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Music: Lorne Balfe
Casting: Ronna Kress
PG-13 rating, 125 minutes