As the war between mankind and machines reaches its climax in the year 2029, humanity's saviour John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads the final assault on the maniacal super-computer Skynet. In a last ditch effort Skynet sends a Terminator back in time to murder John's mother and ensure he will never be born. Aware of 'future' events John sends his trusted right-hand Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), the man destined to become his father, back to 1984 to save his mother and safeguard the future. But Kyle arrives to find things not as he expected. He is immediately attacked by a liquid metal T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) posing as a cop, only to be rescued by a surprisingly badass young Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). Even more surprising, Sarah has as her stalwart guardian, an older, greyer, reprogrammed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). As the unlikely trio race to stop Skynet from going online through the mysterious Genisys program, a befuddled Kyle confronts even more shocking revelations.
Given how badly Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator: Salvation (2009) messed up the franchise it makes sense the creative team behind Terminator Genisys would want to detonate the timeline and start afresh. Along with Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, this sequel reflects a trend in blockbusters from 2015 that sought to rework thematic motifs, key lines and action beats from past entries to a hoped for crowd-pleasing effect. Terminator Genisys was the least well-received of these efforts although interestingly proved a substantial hit in China where it enthralled an audience unfamiliar with the earlier films. Where Terminator Genisys fails while the aforementioned films succeed stems from an inability to embed these playful postmodern games organically within a compelling story. Instead the ensuing tweaks to the familiar storyline stick out like the gimmicks that they are and reek of desperation. Indeed the film's biggest, most controversial twist goes so far as to invalidate the central premise for the Terminator mythos for the sake of a gimmick.
Co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, the writer behind Russian fantasy blockbuster Night Watch (2004) and Shutter Island (2010), and former Wes Craven editor turned horror director Patrick Lussier, the screenplay unwisely abandons the taut, lean, idea-driven thrills of James Cameron's original The Terminator (1984) and adopts the three-ring circus structure of Terminator II: Judgement Day (1991). To their credit the writers do establish an intriguing theme as the characters ponder whether fate is predestined or do their choices determine the future? In one interesting aside Sarah Connor admits she resents having only one path to follow in life. Everything about her future, right down to the man with whom she will fall in love, seems set in stone. Alas, these grace notes of poignancy and character interplay are few and far between. Too often the protagonists' flip attitudes hamper the drama while the film seems more concerned with maintaining momentum. Alan Taylor flings everything he can at the screen: liquid morphing (although for all the hype Korean star Lee Byung-hun is barely in the movie), robot doppelgangers, car stunts, time paradoxes, gun battles galore. Meanwhile the script rapidly dissolves into pseudo-scientific gobbledegook and unwisely calls on Schwarzenegger, of all people, to deliver exposition.
"Old, not obsolete" runs the mantra of Schwarzenegger's battle-worn cyborg this time around as the ageing action star tries to reaffirm his place in modern action cinema. Oddly while each new sequel becomes less and less of a story and more a thrill-ride, losing a little piece of its soul, they also give their ostensible star less and less to do. Nevertheless there is a certain frisson in watching old man Schwarzenegger tackle a young CGI Arnie. Another interesting addition is the new father-daughter dynamic between the robot guardian and young Sarah Connor even if it shoehorns Kyle Reese into the role of surly boyfriend caught in a lame game of one-upmanship with 'Pops'. Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor's hackneyed love-hate banter quickly grows tiresome but the other relationship is well played by Schwarzenegger and talented Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke. The latter's baby-face suits this reinterpretation of the Sarah Connor character as sweeter, more vulnerable, closer to the Linda Hamilton we first met in the original than the iconic battle-hardened bitch fans embraced in the sequel. Following Lena Headey in the television series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Clarke is the second Game of Thrones alumnus to take on the role. Elsewhere J.K. Simmons injects some much needed humanity into the film as the one cop in town who believes the heroes' crazy story but is sorely underused. The same goes for former Doctor Who Matt Smith in an ineffectual surprise role.