Though the character is now part of the pop-cultural firmament and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature role, anyone who could travel back in time to just before the release of “The Terminator” in 1984 would know it as a modestly budgeted, little anticipated sci-fi action film. The film was driven to heights of greatness by the cyber-punk imagination of writer-director James Cameron, his growing skills and confidence as a filmmaker, and the near-perfect coalescing of performer and role with Schwarzenegger as a time-traveling killer cyborg.
Cameron’s 1991 “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” had a bigger budget, more ambitious storytelling and cutting-edge computer-generated visual effects that made it an idealized template to this day for what a summer movie can be: outsized, surprising and fun.
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With Cameron no longer involved, the rights to the franchise — we call them franchises now — have recently landed with a new production team that is operating as if the more recent third and fourth films in the series do not exist. (If only audiences had the same luxury.) Or, within the story logic of the new “Terminator Genisys,” those other films exist only on their own discrete, alternate timelines.
In smashing together elements from the first two “Terminator” movies with Digital Age anxiety over connectivity and privacy, the new movie is kind of like a wedding DJ remixing period hits with a modern beat. Which is to say, “Terminator Genisys” is no fresh start — it’s a mess.
In the year 2029, a resistance led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) is on the brink of destroying the evil anti-human operating system of Skynet when he discovers a lone assassin has been sent back in time to kill his mother to prevent his birth. Soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back to 1984 to protect Sarah (Emilia Clarke) only to discover she has been expecting him. Much is different from what Reese thought he would find, including the aging Terminator (Schwarzenegger), who has been protecting Sarah since childhood.
The trio of Sarah, Reese and the guardian Terminator eventually move forward in time to 2017 in an attempt to stop the consumer system known as Genisys from going online before its ability to connect all technology creates a humans-vs.-machines battle to overthrow humanity. In perhaps the sharpest idea in the film, we will be sold, and happily buy, our own destruction.
“Terminator Genisys” could be Exhibit A in why the current line of thinking in Hollywood regarding sequels/reboots/remakes often leads to terrible decisions and worse films. The movie, produced by David Ellison and Dana Goldberg (Ellison’s sister, Megan Ellison, gets an executive producer credit) and written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, is part sequel, part starting over. The popular term is “reimagining,” taking some things and not others, which in this case apparently really means not entirely thinking things through.
Director Alan Taylor is best known for his work on prestige cable dramas like “Game of Thrones” and “The Sopranos” and the lesser Marvel entry “Thor: The Dark World.” And while there are plenty of action sequences in “Terminator Genisys,” none is especially memorable or rousing.
One effect in particular, in which a character disintegrates into a digitally created particulate storm, seems designed specifically to re-create the wow factor of the liquid-metal Terminator in “T2.” Alas, the new effect seems more like something out of a tech ad than a techno-nightmare parallel realm of existence. And thankfully there is still a difference.
The story requires a lot of explaining as to who is where, in what time period and why and whether certain characters are on this side or that. There’s one big character twist revealed in the film’s marketing materials that isn’t worth the bother of giving away here. It feels less like a surprise and more like the filmmakers just throwing up their hands and admitting they don’t know how to get their way out of all this either.
J.K. Simmons has a supporting role as a man who has spent decades trying to explain to people what he saw in an alley one night in 1984. Trying to describe the movie’s plot can leave one similarly feeling like an incoherent babbler.
In the second “Terminator” film Linda Hamilton’s intense, driven performance as Sarah Connor, along with her muscular arms, became defining, peak ‘90s imagery. The first two films set a high bar for female characterization, and in “Genisys” Emilia Clarke simply isn’t given the same kind of material to work with.
She is not a damsel in distress exactly, but giving the character a lifelong protector does dial back her self-sufficiency by more than a few degrees. As part of a squad, she often feels lost in the shuffle. In her part on “Game of Thrones,” Clarke brings a coiled energy to the screen, ready to strike, and unfortunately, this Sarah Connor is no Mother of Dragons.
At one point Clarke explains why the protector Terminator she calls “Pops” has aged — the living tissue around his robot skeleton ages like a human — and the line feels like a studio note in the margins written into a screenplay, meant to answer a restless audience’s questions. As the story becomes increasingly convoluted, eventually Schwarzenegger’s friendly Terminator blurts out that alternate timelines are not complicated with essentially the same level of exasperation as when he exclaimed “It’s not a tumor” in “Kindergarten Cop.”
Rather than a counter-argument to the recent emphasis on practical effects in films such as “Furious 7" or “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the intensive computer-generated imagery in “Terminator Genisys” proves the point that there is often an additional emotional and psychological heft to films with reality-sourced imagery. As digital helicopters bounce around the sky, bridges are demolished, mountain lairs exploded, molecules scrambled and characters moved back and forth in time, it is as if the filmmakers’ level of engagement is diminishing right alongside the audience.
Bigger is not better, complicated is not the same as complex. And it shouldn’t take a time-traveling cyborg to explain why.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In wide release