It’s one thing to reboot a computer program when it isn’t working like it should. It’s quite another to reset the whole operating system. The same holds true for film franchises, especially one like the Terminator series which relies so heavily on the idea of reshaping (or resetting if you prefer) the future by changing the past. The latest film, Terminator: Genisys, isn’t just a mere reboot for a 30-year franchise; it’s a hard reset with a big “you will lose all unsaved data” warning screen.
We all know the drill at this point, but a quick prologue voice-over sums it up: the artificial intelligence known as Skynet achieves sentience, wipes out most of humanity, and sends a Terminator robot back in time to kill the mother of human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke). Connor sends his right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back as well to stop the Terminator, but here is where the story changes. Reese travels back to 1984 to find that Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is not the timid, naive waitress he expected but is instead a combat-ready, well-armed bad-ass protected by another Terminator whom she calls “Pops” (Arnold Schwarzenegger). To discover why the timeline has changed and to stop Skynet from awakening, Reese and Sarah then travel forward in time to 2017 and…man…does anyone else have a headache yet?
Playing around with the time stream isn’t exactly a new way to reboot a creaky franchise. J. J. Abrams did it with 2009’s Star Trek, officially making his film series an alternate timeline and leaving the original continuity mostly untouched. Genisys goes one better and essentially erases the vast majority of the franchise from its canon, re-writing the entire series. Basically, everything that came before Genisys is null and void; it never happened. Or maybe it did. But it probably didn’t. It’s hard to tell, and the film doesn’t bother trying to explain its time-travel logic well enough to give up a straight answer (lip service is paid to the idea of alternate timelines, but that’s as far as it goes).
That’s not to say that Genisys doesn’t respect its forebears. Much of the first act takes place in 1984, and director Alan Taylor has taken great pains to use the same tonal palette and compositions that James Cameron did in the original film. The whole work also shares more than a little DNA with Judgement Day, filled as it is with epic, explosive set pieces and an extended battle with a robot made of liquid metal (here played by South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee). Even the beats of the script have a kind of retrofitted appeal to them, as if they came from a simpler film in a simpler time. The main characters are decidedly old-school in their methods (nobody carries a cell phone, tablet, or anything digital), and it’s honestly refreshing to see.
That’s both a good thing and a bad thing in equal measures. Like Taylor’s previous big-budget blockbuster, Thor: The Dark World, this is a film that’s as entertaining and fun as it is nonsensical and loud, and like that film, it has a poorly-defined antagonist and an internal logic that is shaky at best. It’s just self-aware enough to make that work most of the time, aside from a ridiculously stone-faced prologue that seems ripped from any number of self-serious, mega-hyped alien-invasion video games. It’s still better if you don’t even try to parse out the film’s tangled mess of a mythology and just give in to the spectacle. (But don’t bother splurging on the 3-D glasses…there’s virtually nothing here to warrant the upgrade.)
And speaking of spectacle, yes, Arnold is back and in top form. Schwarzenegger was never known for his acting ability, and it doesn’t even matter here that he can’t quite make the lines he’s given work to their full effect. He has enough charm and dedication to the character to compensate, and he’s so closely identified with the franchise that even just seeing him on screen again is like comfort food for the brain. The old Arnold versus well…the “old” Arnold fight promised in the trailers comes and goes too quickly, though, and it’s unfortunate that it has to happen so early in the film. The film justifies why Arnold’s Terminator — dubbed “The Guardian” in the credits — looks older despite being a robot, and the Guardian’s mantra of “old, not obsolete” seems like it’s really Arnold himself re-asserting his place in the action hero firmament.
The rest of the cast does well, aside from Jason Clarke, who comes off like he’s auditioning to be Julian McMahon’s stand-in for the first Fantastic Four film. Emilia Clarke (no relation) bears a striking resemblance to Linda Hamilton, albeit with some of the edges rounded off, and that along with Arnold’s presence really helps make the reboot go down easier. Clarke’s Sarah Connor doesn’t have the Amazonian mother-rage that fueled Hamilton’s Sarah, though, and she’s slightly less sympathetic because of it (she just seems petulant instead of passionate). Jai Courtney is a good Kyle Reese, and he seems fully invested in his role even if he simultaneously realizes that any handsome, muscle-bound actor on the rise could have filled the part (had this been made 5 years ago, Sam Worthington would have been forced into this role for sure). The entire cast seems well-chosen and fine-tuned down to the smallest supporting roles, and Taylor has a real talent for making all the actors come together in a fluid, harmonious ensemble.
Even if the final results are a little uneven and absurd, respect has to be given to how committed Taylor and his crew are. This isn’t a soft, quiet reboot. This is a fist slamming down on the reset button with a sure, confident force. That in and of itself almost makes the film worth watching all on its own. Just try not to think about it too hard. Or really at all. You’ll get less headaches that way.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-