“Old, but not obsolete.” That phrase is invoked several times during Terminator Genisys (rated PG-13), initially by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old-on-the-outside T-800 killing machine, and eventually by the fully human sidekicks who follow him around, shooting stuff. It’s meant to refer to the T-800 specifically, of course, and also offers a meta-commentary on the spryness of Schwarzenegger himself, who looks pretty hale for a 67-year-old former governor. But as this laborious film wheezes and sputters through its marks, the mantra begins to take on a kind of subliminal influence: This 31-year-old franchise should have been decommissioned a long time ago – a fact clearly not lost on its creators.
If the 3D goggles worn during my screening of Genisys could convey smell as well as imaginary depth of field, I suspect I’d have picked up a whiff of desperation throughout Alan Taylor’s (Thor: The Dark World) film. This fourth sequel to James Cameron’s modestly brilliant source film is the third consecutive installment to feel like a tacked-on appendage to the vital organs that were The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Schwarzenegger sat out 2009’s Terminator Salvation, but his return now only underscores how lost the franchise is without him – and even with him, it’s on shaky ground.
The film starts off in 2029, showing the events of the first film from the perspective of the future freedom fighters who began this whole adventure. As before, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to 1984 to protect Connor’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) from the robotic assassin on its way to kill her before John can be born. Reese arrives, looking for Sarah the timid waitress – but finds instead a battle-hardened Sarah and Schwarzenegger’s aged Terminator, who has been prepping her for war for the better part of a decade.
Welcome to the baffling world of time travel – a concept so logically elusive that, were it ever actually invented, would have to be outlawed just to spare ourselves a collective headache. Unlike the previous films, which pivoted around efforts to thwart a specific timeline from coming to fruition, this installment suggests a wholly different timeline as the solution to our heroes’ trouble. In this new timeline Skynet, the artificial intelligence that birthed the Terminators, is no more – but it’s been replaced by Genisys, a benign-looking piece of consumer software that’s still destined to adopt Skynet’s AI agenda. The more things change….
Reese and Sarah figure they can stop Genisys from completing its master plan by going back to the future – but to 2017, not 2029, for reasons that are explained but don’t really matter. Along the way they encounter four different Terminators in all; but more isn’t better, and flitting back and forth across the timestream can’t obscure the fact that the franchise seems to be running on vapors. Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) does a credible impersonation of Linda Hamilton, but the rest of the cast brings nothing to the film that hasn’t been done before, better. The end credits promise a sixth installment, but Terminator Genisys deserves to be the swan song of this particular sci-fi series. It’s old, it’s obsolete, and it’s over.