★ ★ ★ ½
The Terminator franchise found a winning structure and framework throughout its first two movies thanks to director/co-writer James Cameron, and the filmmakers behind Terminator Genisys do their very best to stick to that formula in the fifth installment. For viewers looking for unique cinema fare, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the characters’ surroundings have remained the same. After a familiar opening that sees John Connor’s trusted lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) travel back to 1984, this incarnation takes a sledgehammer to the timeline that fans are familiar with. The beginning of Genisys shows the decisive battle between the humans and cyborgs that forces the latter to attempt to kill John’s mother, Sarah (previously played by Linda Hamilton), before she can give birth to her son. Reese volunteers to leap back in time to stop the cyborg due to his love for Sarah (his destiny is to meet her and become John’s father), but as he is leaving, he sees John (Jason Clarke) attacked from behind by a robot who infiltrated the human army.
After this happens, Reese goes back to a past in which Sarah (portrayed this time around by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) has been protected since childhood by her guardian T-1000, played by the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first appearance in the franchise since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. With the timeline altered, Reese convinces Sarah that rather than go to 1997 to stop Judgment Day, they instead need to go to 2017, which is when Skynet, the artificial-intelligence system that will give rise to the deadly cyborgs, will upload itself onto the new Genisys phone application (spearheaded by both Connor and Danny Dyson, the son of original Skynet creator Miles Dyson). But when John Connor shows up in the present, Reese, Sarah, and the T-1000 realize that he has been corrupted by the robots and is now their enemy, further complicating their attempts to blow up the prototype time machine and stop Genisys from launching in order to save humanity.
The film sticks to the same type of action scenes that made the franchise’s most impressive effort, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, an enduring thriller hailed as not only a great popcorn flick, but one of the classics of its era. Genisys sneaks in several neat homages to the earlier movies, such as a scene in which Reese hides out in a 1984 department store that’s a shot-for-shot reenactment of a similar moment from the original Terminator. Present-day Arnold fights a CGI version of himself from the 1984 film, and viewers can count on Ahnold uttering his T-1000’s catchphrase at least once.
The plot heats up after Reese departs for 1984, as it become clear that Sarah is already the tough, jaded warrior she was eventually destined to become. In addition to fighting a T-3000 on their way to preventing billions of human lives from perishing in an electronic Judgment Day, Sarah must wrestle with her belief that Kyle is destined to die fighting the robots as the T-1000 ponders his own mortality and aging. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to see where the remainder of the story will go after Connor shows up in 2017 and Sarah spots Reese as a kid (both Kyles have the same fingerprints). The dialogue sounds like fan fiction written by a sci-fi enthusiast; there is a ton of action involving the principal characters, but apparently nobody was worried about the quality of the dialogue or fostering believable character development. Besides that, the film also could have used more of J.K. Simmons as O’Brien, the friendly cop considered crazy by his more pragmatic partners for believing in time travel. Even more frustratingly, the story line involving Danny Dyson (Dayo Okeniyi) is dropped after one scene of exposition between him and the T-3000. For a character who has essentially grown up with the audience, it would have been a nice touch to see him enjoy his own subplot (as he did in the short-lived TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles).
Emilia Clarke does the best she can with a character who vacillates wildly between an assured fighter and a wounded human still suffering from a traumatic childhood. Courtney’s acting as Reese is fairly wooden and uninspiring, but Schwarzenegger steals the entire movie by imbuing the T-1000 with more humanity and believable emotion than any actual human character. As the T-1000 has become more acquainted with people throughout the series, Arnold has been able to provide a seemingly one-note character with as much humor and pathos possible for a cyborg whose voice doesn’t change in tone. Formerly the biggest movie star on Earth, Schwarzenegger is clearly hoping that a return to his most iconic role will prove the key to his comeback.
Jason Clarke, a veteran actor whose credits include Zero Dark Thirty and the TV series Brotherhood, does high-quality work as a character whose role switches from hero to villain in the span of a single scene. This movie is no classic: Even when it tries to make a statement (humans are so infatuated with interactive technology that we are losing our ability to truly communicate), it doesn’t do so with any serious conviction or new perspective. However, it is sure to please any fan of the previous Terminator flicks. Genisys provides a legitimate shot in the cybernetic arm of the franchise, without completely alienating any young viewers watching Arnold and company for the first time. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel can keep the torch aflame for Cameron’s return.