Arnold Schwarzenegger Emilia Clarke

Terminator Genisys Review: Quit Making Excuses for Your Existence and Run with It

Friday, July 03, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Terminator Genisys

Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney
Rating: Two and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now.

Terminator Genisys has an inferiority complex. It is self-aware in a way that hamstrings it rather then lets it breathe in a fun meta way. Every level of it keeps the audience at a knowing distance, in an "Okay, I get it" place rather than strapping them in for a visceral experience.

Oh, and Jai Courtney is simply the worst. An actor who has a strange stylistic mix (and should-be paradox) of stone-faced stiffness and crybaby whininess, he imbues his character, Kyle Reese (played in the original The Terminator by Michael Biehn, not the rangiest actor in cinema history, either), with the aura of the man at the gym who always needs to stretch, doesn't, then complains about it. Director Alan Taylor seems to recognize this and attempts to play it up in a swap of traditional gender roles from the first film -- this time Kyle is the one always needing to be rescued by Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). But Courtney does not have the charisma to fill the quasi-ironic humor here, instead laboring through the movie as a cranky dim bulb. This has a condescending effect that hangs over the rest of the film in the way all pretenders have.

Courtney is the hardest part of Terminator Genisys to watch, but he's only a symptom of the whole. There are several time jumps in the narrative, which should probably be expected in this movie from a series about time traveling robot assassins. These serve as a crutch to rewrite some of the series's history, and the movie never lets the audience forget for a second that it is in fact changing things because it explains exactly how it is changing things while it changing things. The timeline is different now because the well has run dry on where to take these characters, but for whatever reason the film is too timid to go forward with a full reboot, so it plants itself in this mushy middle ground of callbacks and over explanation -- how Terminators can age now to keep Arnold around, how "theoretically" every bit of technology works because the plot demands it, et cetera -- to make everything still somehow "count" while erasing things that "counted" before it.

That leads to the man in the middle of these films, the only one who matters to audiences and studio executives. Arnold Schwarzenegger has died in every single one of these movies. Every moment of peril for him in Genisys is rendered toothless, even if it seems, at several points, this might really be it for ol' "Pops" as Sarah calls him this time around. The script keeps calling out his aging with jokes about how he's not obsolete yet, which should clear a path for a graceful, heroic exit that never comes because they will need a 70-year-old man for the eventual sequel. And that exit would work in this context, because the dramatic through line of Genisys is the surrogate father-daughter relationship between Pops and Sarah, with each teaching the other lessons about how to get through life. Schwarzenegger pulls this off because he has grown tremendously as an actor since the first installment 31 years ago. His sideways glances and "trying to fit in" smiles are both humorous and full of pathos.

When paired with Emilia Clarke, Schwarzenegger makes the movie sing, because those are the times when it allows itself to be its own entity without feeling the need to excuse itself to the viewers. Their relationship is never meant to be healthy, instead a strange, utilitarian codependency, but it works for them. He is the only person she needs emotionally -- her romance with Kyle is one of the cleverest bits of the movie because she and the movie only need him for plot/destiny reasons and so the space-time continuum doesn't tear itself apart. Pops is her anchor, and they sell it as best they can while working with a clunky script that undercuts their work by shoehorning in so much exposition and attempts at humor that fail far more often than they succeed.

But despite the poor storytelling at the movie's core, director Taylor puts in a fairly solid effort with the action for the most part. Some of the set pieces are warmed over from other movies -- the bus sequence is ripped straight from the more effective moment in another mostly bad sequel, Steven Spielberg's The Lost World -- but when he is allowed to rely on tactile visual storytelling, like Kyle's introduction to 1984 Los Angeles via a clothing store, he does great work. Showing a refreshing knack for meat-and-potatoes basics, the sight lines match and each cut, even when they get rapid, flows logically from the shot before it. It's just a shame that modern blockbuster filmmaking is so reliant on pre-visualization artists whose jobs are more about individual shots than making a coherent story that the director often gets left out of the biggest decisions with action, because Taylor knows what he's doing.

But those moments of connection are fleeting and the problems weigh on the movie's shoulders. It's built on a poor foundation in the script. It gets stuck between reverence for past installments and wanting to be free of them, leaving a confused jumble in its wake, although an intermittently entertaining one. Make no mistake, Terminator Genisys is a poor movie, but it has its moments. Perhaps it even points to a bit of hope for future entries now that this one worked so hard to reset.

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