The first “Terminator” was this new and different sci-fi horror masterpiece. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” more or less ditched the horror and was this insanely large action film with incredibly good effects surrounding a new and unbelievable villain. Then the diminishing returns moment set in. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” had some good things but wasn’t new or different in any way except in the philosophical direction it took the franchise. “Terminator: Salvation,” well, yeah, if you’ve seen it, you know.

The point is this – those first two movies were special, they were extraordinary. They were just crazy in a way that few expected and played to people’s fears beautifully. The next two were more generic action fare. So, now, after a hiatus of a few years and with Arnold Schwarzenegger back in a lead role after sitting out the last one, we get a new “Terminator” movie and the question is this: is “Terminator: Genisys” like the first two films or more like one of the last two (not that the last two are in any way the same except for the generic action)?

I apologize for disappointing you (no matter what you want to read next), but “Genisys” is solidly somewhere in the middle. “Judgment Day” may be the greatest action movie ever made, so asking “Genisys” to live up to that is kind of a tall order, even if you’re a 6’2″ former bodybuilder. “Genisys” is something closer to generic action than “Judgment Day,” but feels more a part of the franchise certainly than “Salvation.”

But, enough comparisons. For now anyway.

“Terminator: Genisys” is the first movie in what could be a new “Terminator” trilogy depending on how the box office receives this one. Directed by Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”), “Genisys” sees Arnold back as a T-800 and casts Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor, Jason Clarke as John Connor, and Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese.

As for what takes place in this movie, that’s a little harder to describe. I wish I could offer up some easy sort of an explanation of it. When I was on set for the movie last year, they were all very tight-lipped about the plot. We were told it featured three time periods: 1984 (the period of the first film), 2017, and 2029 (the end of the war against the machines, when John sends Kyle back in time). They went so far as to tell us that in “Genisys” we would see John send Kyle back to a very different 1984, one where a good T-800 would already be there and already have been watching Sarah for years.

From there, things spin slightly out of control in rather convoluted fashion. Questions are asked, few answers are given, and the movie is propelled forward to its climactic action scenes.

That last sentence offers up a hint about the weakest part of the movie. All four previous “Terminator” movies feel pretty self-contained. They have beginnings, they have endings, and even if you know that the story continues after the credits roll, you don’t feel as though the story you have been given is incomplete. With “Genisys,” you very much do feel it is incomplete.

One doesn’t get the sense that answers aren’t given because they don’t exist, but rather because they are being held back for the next movie, or even the movie after that one. “Genisys” even features a sequence during the end credits which further lends the sense that the “Terminator” films is just part of the pack of franchises that we’ll see over and over again rather than the leader—the game-changer—it had been.

To some extent even the plot we are given feels that way – as others will undoubtedly also point out, the alternate version of 1984 offered here serves as a way to destroy the universe of the films as we know it and allows the producers to go off in any direction they want rather than being beholden to already established canon. That is to say, in this way, it’s incredibly reminiscent of the “Star Trek” reboot.

In terms of the acting, we have seen John Connor recast over and over and over again, and Kyle Reese portrayed both by Michael Biehn and Anton Yelchin, though Biehn is the iconic version. We have even seen Sarah Connor played by two actresses – Linda Hamilton in the first two films and Lena Headey in the “Sarah Connor Chronicles.” Put another way, there is certainly precedent for recasting these roles, and something that most viewers will able to quickly accept.

Most importantly for a “Terminator” movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger has lost none of his charisma nor any of his charm. He is a joy to watch on screen and he slips back into the persona perfectly. Emilia Clarke delivers a great performance as well. She is something between the Sarah Connor we got in the original film and the one in “Judgment Day” – she knows how the world stands, what the future holds, but she hasn’t given up on humanity quite yet.

Jason Clarke gives us a very different sort of John Connor than what we’ve seen before, no matter which version of John you’re looking to. Clarke, as with Schwarzenegger, is compelling, but there’s something that rubs me the wrong way about what they have done with the character. If you have seen the trailers (and now posters, too), you know what’s coming, but it isn’t something I’ll discuss here except to say that without some of the plot that is presumably destined for the next two movies I’m just not sure overall what to make of it.

As for Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese, that’s easier. He feels too inexperienced, too young, too unable to cope with new information. This Reese is unprepared for anything that he hasn’t been spoon fed by a Connor. That is less Courtney’s fault than the way the role is written, by even so, Courtney is the least compelling of the actors involved.

For all that doesn’t work, however (we haven’t even talked about the wonkiness of the alternate timeline and how that, maybe, should change things in ways it doesn’t), “Genisys” still has a whole lot going for it. Much of the action is great fun to watch unfold. The effects look outstandingly good as well. Plus, and perhaps it will be played up in future films, the notion that’s touched on here that humanity has, essentially, been begging for Skynet (minus Judgment Day) is really quite smart. Would that the concept had been delivered in stronger fashion.

You are going to find a lot of negative reviews for this movie, and I think the very act of making the movie in the first place opened it to criticism. Certainly, “Terminator: Genisys” doesn’t define, or redefine, things in the way that “The Terminator” or “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” managed to, but it’s an entertaining two hours that show that maybe the franchise isn’t quite as dead as it looked when the credits rolled on “Salvation.” I want it to be more self-contained than it is, but it is still manages to be better than so many other options.

 

 



Photo credit: Paramount Pictures