Not unlike X-Men: Days of Future Past or J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, the big idea for this latest attempt at restarting the Terminator franchise is to use time travel to reboot the universe in-story, by changing the fictional past. It’s ambitious, more so than any Terminator film since the second one, but it’s unfortunately a bit of a convoluted mess as well.
We start out in familiar territory, with John Connor and the human resistance preparing their final attack on Skynet in 2029. After their victory, they learn that a Terminator has been sent back in time to 1984 to kill John’s mother Sarah, so they send Kyle Reese back to protect her. And that’s where things get weird: Sarah has had a Terminator guardian since 1973, a new T-1000 is on the loose, and the plot only gets more wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey from there.
Where the first and second films (the other two are more or less ignored) used time travel to get the pieces into place and then stuck to fairly straightforward stories, there’s lots of travelling between time periods and at least three different, mutually contradictory timelines this time around. The original films, the first one especially, were models of clean, uncluttered storytelling with very little need for exposition, but the structure of Genisys often feels like action-infodump-action-infodump in a frantic attempt to keep the audience vaguely in the loop as to what’s going on.
It’s a difficult film to review because an awful lot of its problems require spoiling the plot to discuss, but suffice it to say there are so many time paradoxes that it’s a wonder the entire Terminator universe hasn’t collapsed into a singularity by the end. But of course, it’s not the end, is it? Despite this being a largely self-contained story, required knowledge of the previous films notwithstanding, it ends with a Marvel-esque credits stinger which both sets up a sequel and completely undermines almost everything that happened in this one.
One spoiler we are free to discuss, however, is the villain, since he was given away in the trailer in the grand tradition of the Terminator franchise. The twist is very well-done, and would have had a lot of impact if we didn’t already know it was coming, and represents an admirable attempt to shake up the formula. Unfortunately, Jason Clarke never manages to be as indimidating as the original Terminator or Robert Patrick’s T-1000, and there’s little of the feeling of desperately fighting against absolutely overwhelming odds which so characterised the first two films.
Regardless, it’s good to have Arnold back after his conspicuous absence from Salvation. He’s clearly relishing the opportunity to play the character who made him a star again, and almost all of the laughs in the film are due to him. He’s always been underrated as a comedian and gets a great chance to show off his comic timing here; while the harmlessness of this T-800 is a little odd, he still serves as an admirable anchor for all the time travel craziness going on around him. Emilia Clarke is impressive as Sarah Connor, despite lacking Linda Hamilton’s screen presence and not being quite as believable in a fight. Jai Courtney is technically present but very forgettable, as usual.
There’s nothing here that’s the equal of the chase through L.A.’s storm drains or the showdown at Cyberdyne, but there are, thankfully, plenty of entertaining action sequences. The new T-1000 is a significant highlight, sadly underused, and the fights against him in 1984 are some of the best in the film. The much-publicised chase on the Golden Gate Bridge is well-executed, with what must surely be a deliberate attempt to one-up the famous truck flip from The Dark Knight. It says a lot about the action that the questions about the plot don’t really set in until after the film is over.