Arnold Schwarzenegger is once again playing a machine cloaked in human skin in Terminator Genisys, but now he’s the most human thing in a plastic movie. Arnie’s trademark grimace looks rough around the edges, like a slab of petrified wood after years of erosion. In a movie that’s basically shitty comfort food, the original Terminator brings a damaged gravitas that anchors everything just enough to make this rehash a little bit fun, instead of just terribly dull.
Hey, don’t worry about spoilers. At this point, the marketing for Genisys has given away much, much more than this review will.
Arnold’s presence in this film is clearly supposed to save it from the fate that befell the previous movie in the series, Terminator Salvation. Bringing back the original killing machine is the main thing making Genisys marketable, and Schwarzenegger gives the Terminator films an identity beyond “killer skull-face robots.”
In fact, the Austrian bodybuilder is the only returning performer in a film that recasts everybody else. Emilia Clarke (from Game of Thrones) is playing Sarah Connor as basically Daenerys with a California accent. Jason Clarke is John Connor, and Jai Courtney is Kyle Reese. It’s a lot like Leonard Nimoy rubbing elbows with an all-new cast in those last two Star Trek movies.
And just like Nimoy, Schwarzenegger is here to provide reassurance, a sense of continuity, and a much-needed twinkle to an undertaking that’s otherwise a somewhat calculated exercise in giving you “the same but different.” But he ends up doing more than that.
Yep, it’s dumb
Without going into too much detail, Terminator Genisys screws around with the timelines in ways that parallel blowing up Vulcan and turning Spock and Uhura into lovers. And at the same time, it revisits a lot of the events of The Terminator, from 30 years ago, with some moments recreated shot-for-shot. And even when Genisys isn’t actually replaying the same bits, it’s constantly referencing the two Cameron films and serving up a lot of the same elements, in slightly different forms.
Terminator Genisys can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be understood. It won’t stop spinning out WTFery until your brain is dead. Nothing in this movie entirely makes sense, and several plot elements feel like the result of a five-hour pitch meeting where nobody was allowed a pee break.
Some of the new elements introduced in this film feel very much like the result of some exec saying, “Hey, how can we make this movie more relevant to today’s youth, with their Snapgrams and their Instachats and their selfie sticks?” Others feel as though writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier frantically trying to find something new to say about all the old tropes of time-traveling robots, the mother of destiny, and a post-apocalyptic future.
In a lot of ways, Genisys has all the hallmarks of being another yawningly mediocre sequel, that goes through the motions with dull grace. Except I found myself still enjoying it, long after it became clear what kind of movie this was. As dumb and empty as a lot of it feels, this movie still has an emotional core—and on reflection, I’m pretty sure it comes from Arnie.
The Terminator is a filthy movie
The original 1984 Terminator is a very tactile film, full of grimy imagery of machines, gears, treads and wheels. Watching it today, the VFX looks cheap and unconvincing, even by mid-1980s standards—but what the young James Cameron lacked in ILM-style wizardry, he made up for with an obsession with the mechanical. The moving parts inside a Terminator’s arm are lovingly detailed, but so is the whole process of Kyle Reese removing the ignition of a car from its socket. The young Cameron loves to take machines apart, and show their remorseless logic.
Cameron gets a lot of mileage out of the juxtaposition of future killing machines with present-day engines of daily living, from a garbage truck to a construction vehicle to various cop cars and sedans. This plays into Kyle Reese’s PTSD and his endless flashbacks to the bloody, filthy, hopeless future war.
None of the following Terminator films captures that same grungy, engine-grease sensibility, not even Cameron’s own T2. By the time Cameron made a sequel, he had cutting-edge computer effects to play around with, and (maybe apart from the foundry at the end) the industrial and mechanical is replaced with the computerized. The visceral dread of big heavy machinery is replaced with the sense that computers are agile and unpredictable—and meanwhile, instead of a tank in human form, T2 features a villain who’s literally mercurial.
And the more Genisys tries to revisit iconic moments from The Terminator, the more obvious the differences appear. Director Alan Taylor creates a much cleaner, tidier version of 1980s L.A., and even his CG-enhanced post-apocalyptic world feels more remiscent of the Divergent films than Terminator. Where The Terminator begins with a blasted destroyed landscape, Genisys starts with a pretty image of green hills.
And meanwhile, Kyle Reese is approximately 1000 percent less stricken with PTSD in this version, even though he’s been through the same stuff. In general, the human characters don’t have the emotional or physical fragility of their 1984 counterparts, and are much closer to being standard-issue action-movie heroes.
But Schwarzenegger, who’s the unexpressive machine at the heart of the original Terminator, is the only one showing flaws and vulnerabilities that don’t feel entirely calculated.
I will be your father figure
One of T2’s main innovations is to turn Arnold’s Terminator into a father figure for John Connor, replacing the actual father that Arnold killed in the first movie. One of the few smart creative decisions in Genisys is to put Arnold back into that role—except now, he’s much older, and feels much more fragile.
Arnold’s stoicism, in this film, seems to conceal a deep well of need and protectiveness, that his programming won’t allow him to express. His matter-of-fact delivery and funny line readings have a bit of haplessness to them, that seem part and parcel of his overall slight air of sadness. And when Arnie keeps coming back after getting squashed, again and again, it’s as much an expression of fatherly devotion as a cold relentlessness.
At the same time, Arnold’s air of fragility, and his ability to keep coming back, are sort of a double-edged sword. In true sequel fashion, this movie has to put Arnold up against more and bigger and more unstoppable killer robots, to the point where suspension of disbelief becomes a serious issue. A brand new version of Arnold barely took down one T-1000 in T2, and now he’s somehow going toe-to-toe with even more advanced Terminators. The Terminators start to feel a bit like the Borg in the later seasons of Star Trek: Voyager.
But even with that problem, Schwarzenegger’s hints of fatherly tenderness give the other actors in the film something to bounce off. Both Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese get a lot more energy from having this ancient stoic warrior in their midst. Schwarzenegger’s performance is actually a bit unpredictable, even if his arc in the film isn’t.
And Taylor, who already proved with Thor: The Dark World that he can serve up zippy, competent action sequences, gives all the usual car-fu and smackdowns a light, engaging touch. Nothing in this movie stands out in my mind as a particularly great or innovative set piece, but it’s all pretty entertaining in the moment.
All in all, I enjoyed Terminator Genisys more than I expected to, in spite of its many, many flaws. Some of that comes down to rock-bottom expectations. But also, this movie does have an emotional core, a spark of real feeling, at its center. And that comes, for the most part, from Schwarzenegger, who has evolved in the role of Terminator to the point where his scowl says more than a thousand speeches.
Correction: An earlier version of this review said Stan Winston didn’t work on The Terminator, when in fact it was one of his first movies.