Low-Caliber Silliness Abounds In "Terminator Genisys"

The folks behind “Terminator Genisys” have sold their timeline-tweaking addition to the James Cameron-created series as an inventive fix for everything wrong with franchise filmmaking. Recreate events that have happened before, tinker with the specifics, jut off into alternate timelines, and voila! Franchise fatigue averted!

Except, it’s not that inventive.

From “Back To The Future Part II” to “Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban” to “Insidious: Chapter 2” – not to mention countless prequels and re-imaginings – this sort of temporal rejiggering has become commonplace. As a result, there’s nothing about “Genisys” that stands out other than how foolishly it hangs its hat on a trick audiences have seen before and how badly it squanders a pretty remarkable brand name.

“The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” remain genre staples out of sheer force, the former a superior horror-thriller, the latter a premium action movie blowout. They’re so good they’ve kept the franchise relevant through decades of middling Cameron-less sequels and endless merchandising. If “Genisys” is the price we have to pay, so be it, but it didn’t have to be this way.

Directed by Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”) and scripted by two Hollywood vets best known for things other than writing (producer Laeta Kalogridis and editor Patrick Lussier), the film admissibly uses Cameron’s original as a jumping-off point.

2029. We’ve been here before. In order to ensure his own existence, John Connor (Jason Clarke) – leader of the human resistance against the machines – sends soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to protect John’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) from a murderous T-800 (a CGI-enhanced young Arnold Schwarzenegger).

1984. We’ve been here before, too. But not like this. Instead of the fragile, young waitress Kyle is expecting, Sarah is already the badass survivalist she would become in “T2, effectively erasing that film. And most of the 1984 film, too. The script’s central wrinkle is that a T-800 was sent even further back in time to effectively raise Sarah, to the point that she lovingly refers to him as “Pops.”

With Arnold Schwarzenegger as the only returning cast member, the film is forced to explain away Pops’ advanced age as tissue degradation. “Old, but not obsolete,” he says. Over and over again, as if to remind us how weird it is that all but one role has been recast.

It turns out that the 1984 portion of the film – its first third – is its peak, loosely evoking pleasant memories of two much better films. While Jai Courtney is as stiff as a board and looks nothing like original Kyle Reese Michael Biehn, Emilia Clarke effortlessly captures the essence of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Clumsy line readings aside, she’s the lone bright spot in the cast. Schwarzenegger is willing but ineffectual, burdened with stale one-liners and following Kyle and Sarah around like a senile dog.

Act two is where the bottom drops out.

Sent forward in time to 2017, our heroes come face to face with an unlikely enemy and the screenplay doubles down on its spec-script-from-hell angle, as if raised from the depths of the web’s worst Terminator fan forum. Amidst downpours of bland shoot-em-up set pieces, the film appropriately spends the rest of its running time turning a gun on itself.

When it’s revealed that the eponymous Genisys is Skynet in operating system form, a character refers to it – with a straight face – as a “killer app,” a line of dialogue so impossibly bad that it stokes suspicions that no one involved in the film actually read the script before arriving on set.

Apart from Jason Clarke’s turn as the fifth and worst John Connor, the most awful thing about “Terminator Genisys” is that it isn’t more awful. Its slick visuals and easy callbacks to beloved Terminator moments are just smooth enough as to cast a spell of low-caliber watchability. It’s bad but not bad enough to be interesting, and occasionally passable. J.K. “great in everything” Simmons reliably lightens things up as a washed-up cop and Arnold shows a few flashes of what once made the title character so exciting.

But this is a cold, calculated exercise in snake oil, wrapping a couple decent ideas in a lot of terrible ones and selling a bullet-riddled screenplay as a “return to form.” In fact, it’s the most useless “Terminator” film to date, one that erases all “Terminator” films to date except the one it needed most to erase – itself.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 1, 2015
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriter: Laeta Kalorgridis, Patrick Lussier
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, J.K. Simmons, Matt Smith
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language)