“Terminator Genisys,” the fifth installment of the franchise that began with James Cameron‘s 1984 “The Terminator,” isn’t so much a sequel as it is a expand-quel, taking all of the films that have borne that name and surrounding them, via time travel, with brackets and then putting new variables around the plot and characters Cameron first created.
The new film still has murderous robots sent from the far-flung future to kill Sarah Connor (here played by “Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke) in 1984, before she gives birth to John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance that will, decades later, lead the fight against the computer intelligence that wants to destroy humanity. And there’s still Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney this time around) as the human resistance fighter sent back to 1984 protect her.
But now there’s more, thanks to Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay — more and different robots, more and different timelines, more and different iterations of Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s T-800 and, of course, plenty of loose ends to be tied up in future films.
At the same time, director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World,” “Game of Thrones”) gives us a film in which all of that “more” just means less. While “Terminator Genisys” doesn’t skimp on fights or philosophy, both feel somewhat perfunctory: A personification of the film’s bad guy doesn’t display much personality; Skynet has gone from a military program to being a portable, hip, killer app for consumers, with the “killer” part being literal; the newest upgrade to the Terminator line is an assassin made of nanomachines that can utterly subsume any human cell by cell, then shift shape or dissolve into dust before reconstituting itself to murder once again.
Most of these addenda represent change for change’s sake and “improvements” that aren’t, and while the film tries to get inside itself — offering familiar lines coming from different characters in new contexts, repeating visual gags like what happens when you shoot a T-1000 in the eye, including the fact that Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has learned to smile, sort of — the recent “Jurassic World” did a much better job of putting a sharp, cynical edge on the familiar parts of an older franchise.
Production designer Neil Spisak (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Spider-Man 3”) does a superb and praiseworthy job here as the film flickers through time periods, making each seem distinctive while also keeping a consistent look for the film.
Performances on this latest franchise installment are competent. Clarke has turned looking imperiled-but-resolute into a one-woman industry on “Game of Thrones,” so it’s no surprise she does so well here. Schwarzenegger is game and aided substantially by stuntmen and CGI. Jason Clarke‘s John Connor is nicely done, even if we only see a bit of him, while Jai Courtney is a little too adequate, especially because we see him a lot.
While the script feels frantic, it never feels epic; it’s too busy traveling through time and space to actually go anywhere, while the film’s attempts to make us care about the relationship between Clarke’s Connor and the Terminator who’s been protecting her feel a little too close to — and yet too far from — the bonding between Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong in “T2.”
The stunts and CGI and attendant action scenes are all simply fine; there’s nothing here with the stark simple power of “The Terminator” or the strong-but-strange brilliant inventions of “Terminator 2.” Instead, it’s all less-than-spectacular “spectacle” and plot convolutions twisting around themselves at the whim of the summer’s least interesting killer artificial intelligence. (Compared to Ava from “Ex Machina,” Skynet looks as outdated and old-school as anything in 1970’s “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”)
The least inspiring thing about “Terminator Genisys” is how it’s a fifth film that doesn’t improve or expand on the prior four so much as it’s meant to clearly set up Part Six, Part Seven and possibly even more. In 1984’s “The Terminator,” machines came back from the future to wipe out humanity; with “Terminator Genisys,” a whole franchise comes back from the past to water down summer moviegoing.