Much of the brilliance of The Terminator comes from its simplicity. Director James Cameron took what was essentially a horror plot and made it into a tense action film with great effects on what, even at that time, was a modest budget. Rather than overly convolute the story with pseudo-science mumbo jumbo that weighs heavily on even the strongest suspension of disbelief, the film’s very basic premise offered a greater emphasis on character and tension, elements which built the connection audiences have with Sarah Connor. Years later, despite effectively rendering the ending of the original film pointless, Terminator 2: Judgment Day came along with its even better effects, wicked action sequences, strong character work, and sly humor, and became an absolute landmark of action cinema, the effect of which some of us carry to this very day. Sadly, the franchise didn’t end at that point. Instead, like the Terminator models themselves, they just keep coming. Yet, unlike the titular machines, no improvements have been made.
The funny thing about the Terminator franchise is every new entry means that whatever happened in the previous movies was pointless. This is especially true for Terminator: Genisys, which attempts to justify its existence by completely nullifying both of the original films (in the process ignoring the Rise of the Machines and Salvation, the two films it much more closely resembles in terms of quality) while also making constant references and unflattering comparisons to the first two movies. One scene in Genisys even argues that big events in time will always find a way to happen, i.e. Judgment Day can’t be stopped. In this way, Genisys attempts to set-up a whole new string of possible Terminator movies, yet by using this same logic it’s easy to conclude that Sarah and John Connor are not at all important. After all, big events will always find a way to happen. If John Connor doesn’t lead the resistance, someone else will. It’s this type of self-contradictory nonsense, the lengthy attempts to explain such nonsense, and the accumulated volume of nonsense, which causes the once sturdy, stripped down Terminator skeleton to bend and crack under its own bloating husk. In fact, even when Genisys tries to fill its plot holes, it does so in ways that only create more holes. This is especially bad when those particular points are completely unnecessary.
To be fair, there are a couple of decent subplots buried under Genisys‘s avalanche of bland, unconvincing garbage. Efforts to contemporize Skynet and Cyberdyne offer a few nice opportunities for observation and relevance, however fleeting and inconsistent as they may be (at one point a character comments that people are always on their phones, yet when an explosion blasts through the top of a mountain, not one person is recording the aftermath). It’s hard not to consider whether the original story contained within Genisys wouldn’t have been better served without having to be shoe-horned into the Terminator franchise. Rather than spend half its running time making excuses for various turns in the story, a non-Terminator Genisys, or even one which serves as a reboot rather than a quasi-sequel, could use that time on building the character and tension which are all but absent from the film’s pile of increasingly convoluted lore.
The near constant references back to previous films hurts Genisys much more than it helps. Sure, audiences may get a kick out of Schwarzenegger spouting his famous lines, complete with a wry little smirk that says he knows exactly how much fun we’re supposed to be having, but nostalgia can only cover so much before we’re reminded how superior the earlier films were to the one we’re watching. Sarah Connor is particularly diminished. Where Linda Hamilton created a tough-as-nails, do-whatever-is-necessary general-before-the war, and a suitable companion to Alien‘s Ellen Ripley, Emilia Clarke is simply too small and too soft to be believable as a woman prepared for the apocalypse. Shotguns look odd kicking back in her little hands. She’s a fine actress, but her presence is too small to fit this role, especially when the film wants to keep reminding us of the previous Sarah Connor.
Worst of all, the complete lack of sense actually distracts from what Genisys does well. A few sequences, particularly toward the beginning when stakes are still being established, channel the tension and urgency which made Terminator and T2 so successful. The effects are often (though not always) spectacular, especially in the Terminator models both new and old with the digital 1984 Schwarzenegger model being remarkably lifelike most of the time. It’s telling that the most convincing explanation in the entire film, that of why a robot would age, is also the simplest. Yet as good as the effects or the action sequences may be, it’s difficult to completely enjoy them given the baffling word salad which was cut off by a punch or a gunshot. Personally, I found myself less blown away by the explosions than by the latest batch of blatherskite. Further, the action sequences quickly fall into a pattern predictable enough that you know exactly how every single encounter is going to end. After half a dozen repetitions the audience may start hoping some characters would die simply to break the monotony.
For a film clearly meant to reboot the franchise, Genisys is less an open door than a coffin lid. On-screen the events of Genisys may leave the possibility of infinitely more stories within the same universe, but it also cancels everything which came before it, even more so than every other entry in the franchise after the first one. There’s no question the Terminator will be back. But at this point, after Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and now Genisys, and with everything great about Terminator and T2 long, long gone, the question is why should we care?