Review: ‘Terminator Genisys’ Is An Insult To All Time-Travelling Robots Everywhere

Worst of all -- and most inexplicably considering it’s a film ABOUT GODDAMNED TIME-TRAVELLING ROBOTS -- it’s boring.

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If Jurassic World provided 2015’s most searing indictment of franchise filmmaking, then Terminator Genisys does the same for retcon-happy reboots. The problem is that while I’m fairly certain the effect was intentional in Jurassic World’s case, Genisys seems to have unwittingly positioned itself as Exhibit ‘A’ in the case against dimwitted “alternate timeline” reboots.

It didn’t have to be like this. The film, directed by Game Of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World alum Alan Taylor, tries to wangle its way into the James Cameron canon by pretending the two films that were released after he parted ways with the franchise — Terminator: Salvation and Rise Of The Machines — don’t exist. This captured the heart of Cameron himself, and seemed like a promising place to begin.

Having seen it, however, I’m not merely surprised that Cameron enthusiastically endorsed the film (as were plenty of others, to the point that producer David Ellison had to publicly state that no money had changed hands); I’m amazed he didn’t burst through a wall at Paramount and tear the print to shreds with his own bare hands. Terminator Genisys is a big pile of hooey.

Come With Me If You Want To Zzzzz…

It’s 2029, and John Connor (Jason Clarke) is busy leading the human resistance against Skynet. He’s tailed everywhere by wide-eyed idealist Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), who likes to pull Connor aside into dreary corridors to talk about the good old days that he, being born after Judgement Day, never got to experience.

Connor’s plan is two-pronged: an assault on Skynet’s defense grid, as well as a mission to destroy their main weapon, a time-travel device. The first goes well, but the second, not so much. When it becomes clear that Skynet has sent a T-800 (Bret Azar doubling, care of CGI makeup, for young Arnie) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), Reese volunteers to go back to 1984 and stop it.

John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) star in a Terminator Genisys reaction video.

He’s not alone: a T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) has also turned up to cause mischief. There’s a mildly exciting cat-and-mouse chase through a downtown L.A clothing store, during which Reese manages to pluck items of clothing from shelves that leave him looking exactly like his Terminator incarnation as played by Michael Biehn in 1984: grey shirt, denim trousers, Nike Blazers, and that shitty-ass grey overcoat. It’s not the last conspicuous wink Genisys will shoot at the original films.

Soon enough Sarah Connor drives an ambulance through the front window and bellows “COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT TO LIVE!” at Reese, who is alarmed to find an ageing Arnold Schwarzenegger riding along with Sarah. Turns out that another Terminator, reprogrammed as a “Guardian”, was sent back to 1973 to protect Sarah from the other Terminator.

They figure out — based on snippets of false memories that Reese experienced right before time travelling — that the timeline has been altered. So instead of travelling forward to 1997 to nuke Skynet, they’ll need to instead hop to 2017, because there’s a new operating system in town, and “Genisys is Skynet”. Guess who’s waiting for them in 2017? Why, it’s John Connor!

From there, everything gets complicated in a way that is both simple enough for your average time-travel movie fan to grasp, but convoluted enough that Reese at one point whines, “Ugh, time travel makes my head hurt”. You and me both, buddy.

It’s In Your Nature To Destroy Yourselves

It would be tempting to ask “How can you get a Terminator film so wrong?” if we didn’t already have two other outstanding examples in that department; the answer (“By not involving James Cameron”) is by now patently obvious.

But the ways in which Genisys get the Terminator ‘universe’ wrong are so uniquely stupid that they almost beggar belief.

Chief among its failings is that, in sending the “Guardian” Terminator back to protect Sarah Connor, Genisys reimagines Sarah as effectively a young woman under the watchful eye of an authoritarian father figure (“Pops”, as she calls him). It’s not quite Ariel battling with her pastor father in Footloose, but it’s close. When Clarke occasionally gets to break free, she’s great, but it doesn’t happen often.

And, no matter how many times the muddled script has Sarah bark things like “I don’t need saving!”, she seems to spend a lot of time, you know, being saved — by either Reese or the Guardian or a combination of all of the above. This is not to say that the role needs to be a Strong Female Character, since Sarah Connor’s appeal, in the hands of Linda Hamilton, was always her blend of vulnerability and battle-worn toughness, but Genisys gets the recipe wrong.

(As for the scene in which Connor is undressing and her naked form is silhouetted in dodgy CGI against the wall in a manner that suggests Jessica Rabbit was employed as the petite Clarke’s “shadow double”, the less said the better.)

Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) pouts after being grounded and called “young lady” by the Terminator.

The charisma-challenged Courtney is mostly on hand to provide irritating exposition, or ask questions that the filmmakers must think the audience is stupid enough to be asking in their heads. Of all the recent Antipodean acting success stories, his is the most perplexing: he brings little to the film other than an impressive physique, and spends most of the time looking as confused as Steve Guttenberg in Can’t Stop The Music.

As the alternately heroic and sinister John Connor, Jason Clarke fares a little better, committing to the material with gusto; his wiry “ordinary dude” looks a nice counterpoint to the jacked-up, walking mountains around him. Arnie’s surprisingly subtle performance, with T-1000’s repeated references to being “Old, not obsolete”, has an affectingly poignant quality. And J.K Simmons manages to deliver the line “Goddamned time-travelling robots” without committing hara kiri out of embarrassment, so kudos to him.

Genisys does itself in most egregiously in trying to one-up Dennis Muren and ILM’s still-astounding “liquid metal” effects. Its newfangled T-3000 technology is cool in theory (instead of “poly-alloy”, the beings bristle with millions of metallic particles), but in reality it looks like someone took Robbie Williams’ Rock DJ meat-suit and rolled it in iron filings.

I Need A Vacation

In the end, Terminator Genisys doesn’t really have a point, both literally (in terms of the ‘End Of Ideas’ climate that led to its creation) and figuratively (in terms of its themes, or lack thereof). Where Terminator and T2 were, in effect, very violent anti-war movies, Genisys can’t seem to work out if it’s a treatise against “screen culture”, or consumerism, or dads, or god knows what.

It also goes without saying that Taylor & Co, like most modern action filmmakers save George Miller, lack Cameron’s progressive gender politics. With its shoehorned romance and “Pops” storyline, Genisys might have been more accurately titled 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Revolutionary Daughter. At least there’s a good “” joke.

Worst of all — and most inexplicably considering it’s a film ABOUT GODDAMNED TIME-TRAVELLING ROBOTS — it’s boring.

As we filed out of the preview screening, surrounded by hundreds of discarded cartons of Terminator Genisys-branded flavoured milk, it suddenly dawned on me: maybe Cameron’s endorsement of the film is a long game. Maybe he’s amping up the chances of another equally dismal Terminator film or two being made before the North American rights to the franchise revert to him in 2019, and he can swoop in and save the day.

Or, he can get in a time machine and go back to make sure that Terminator Genisys never happens.

Terminator Genisys opens tomorrow in cinemas around Australia.

Clem Bastow is an award-winning writer and critic with a focus on popular culture, gender politics, mental health, and weird internet humour. She’s on Twitter at @clembastow