It’s hard to screw up a Terminatormovie. The rules are simple: At least one robot must travel into the past to kill a member of the Connor bloodline, a last-ditch attempt by sentient computer network SkyNet to ensure its own survival against the human Resistance fighting for survival in a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. A human agent, either flesh-and-blood or a reprogrammed Terminator, travels back in time to stop it. The story must be a time-travel yarn at its core, a meditation on fate and destiny in a battle waged on two fronts, the future and the past. Lastly, each films’ cybernetic antagonists must become increasingly more deadly, from chrome endoskeleton to liquid metal nightmare. There are exceptions to these rules (Terminator Salvation), but as long as things explode in spectacular fashion, this is the cinematic formula of the Terminator franchise.
Yet somehow, everything about the fifth installment of the epic franchise is a total clusterfuck. One would think that, with a dependence on firearms, flames and Arnold Schwarzenegger's ageless deadpan, the film's writers could take a hint and simply get out of their own way. Despite high-intensity direction from Alan Taylor and the return of Arnold to the franchise, the film’s overly-intricate time-travel storyline nearly sinks what should be a charbroiled, bullet-riddled summer popcorn flick.
Terminator Genisys opens at the close of the franchise's fictional timeline: Following (Maybe following? It’s unclear) the events of Terminator Salvation, John Connor (Jason Clarke) and trusted lieutenant/bro/future dad Kyle Reese (a perpetually confused Jai Courtney) find that the defeated SkyNet has sent a T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, obviously) back to 1984 to kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke), setting in motion the events of the original Terminator. Closing the franchise’s narrative loop (lol), Connor sends Reese back in time to protect and impregnate his mother, ensuring Connor's and humanity's survival. But Reese arrives to find a different past—a schism vaguely, but never fully, explained through horrible technobabble—to find a well-armed and well-prepared Sarah awaiting him, accompanied by another aging Terminator of also unexplained origin. After another (random) jaunt through time, they find themselves face-to-face with a SkyNet-infected John Connor, sent back to ensure the machine network’s survival.
If this sounds confusing, it should: I have had acid trips more coherent than Terminator Genisys.
The sad irony, however, is that Genisys delivers the robot carnage we’ve all been waiting for since Terminator Salvation gave us a close-up look at the post-Judgment Day wasteland. The film distils the most exhilarating thrills of its cinematic predecessors into a tornado of metallic chaos. The nude, shaggy Schwarzenegger juggernaut of Terminator? Check. The relentless liquid metal stabbing machine of Terminator 2: Judgment Day? Check. Buses flip, buildings explode, and grenades fly as Connor, Reese and Schwarzenegger's aging “Pops” find new and inventive ways to dispose of their cybernetic pursuers. Peppered with callbacks to the original films (a certain gang of punks and department store pursuit should seem familiar), the film promises to excite and tantalize from its opening minutes.
But as the movie drags on, the action seems empty and callow, bogged down by increasingly busy special effects, awkward dialogue, and the milquetoast romance blossoming between Reese and Connor. Schwarzenegger's role as android father figure and an unexpected assist from J.K. Simmons (who delivers the one and only original laugh line in the movie: “time-traveling robots always covering their tracks.” I cannot make this shit up) inject some levity between firefights, but gone is the gritty anxiety of John and Sarah Connor of the first two Terminator flicks, the morose meditation on fate and the long shadow of a looming apocalypse. Even the malevolent SkyNet gets a Millennial-oriented redesign as a “Trojan horse” inside a state-of-the-art new operating system for smartphones and tablets (but...why?). With a massive nudge and a wink, Terminator Genisys becomes a half-hearted cautionary tale about the “Internet of Things” with some forced Deep Thoughts On Time Travel sprinkled in. Even Schwarzenegger's trademark “I’ll be back” sounds painfully droll. Yawn.
Time travel is supposed to give writers a clean slate, the “alternate reality” conceit a space to experiment and construct new narratives with familiar characters in familiar settings (See: JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot). This was part of the plan, I suppose: Screenwriter Kalogridis Laeta has said that “because time travel is embedded in the DNA of the material, which gives rise to the possibility of alternate universes and different timelines without affecting the original material at all,” a theme explored in the short-lived Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series. But in the case of Genisys, the raison d’etat of the movie is more crutch than aid, yielding a near-incomprehensible morass of one-liners and deux ex machina visions that push the flailing plot forward. As a mindless action disaster, Genisys excels, but as a continuation of the struggle of the Resistance against the robot legions of SkyNet, brace yourself: It’s Terminators all the way down.