“Time travel makes my head hurt,” someone says halfway through TERMINATOR: GENISYS, and he’s not alone. The film’s rejiggering of the franchise rules is fun for a while, but eventually, trying to mentally untangle the continuity gets in the way of enjoying the action.

One of the many great things about James Cameron’s original THE TERMINATOR was how, for all the back-and-forthing its scenario took through the present and future, it told a terrifically self-contained story that tied up all its threads. Cameron’s TERMINATOR 2 made things bigger and just as good, Jonathan Mostow’s TERMINATOR 3 wasn’t entirely necessary but kept the spirit, delivered solid action and stayed true to its predecessor’s thematic concerns, while McG’s TERMINATOR: SALVATION was an unsuccessful attempt to take the franchise in a different direction. TERMINATOR: GENISYS ignores the events of the second two films, restages bits from the first pair and throws in enough new curveballs for three sequels, with so many Terminators running around that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s central role is billed as “The Guardian” in the end credits.

After an opening recap of the basic premise for those coming into the franchise late, we join the battle for humanity’s future, already in progress. This time, we witness John Connor (Jason Clarke), leader of the human resistance in 2029 against the omnipotent computer network Skynet and its cybernetic soldiers, discovering that a Terminator has been propelled back in time to off his mom. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent to follow him to 1984—only the Sarah Connor Reese encounters is not the one we remember from Cameron’s film. Played here by Emilia Clarke, she’s not a naive waitress but a well-trained woman of action, since she now has been in the care of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator/Guardian (whom she calls “Pops”) since age 9.


That’s just the beginning of the reversals in Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script of the mythology established by Cameron’s movies, which would take too long and be too spoilery to fully summarize here. Suffice it to say that the liquid-metal T-1000 shows up earlier in time than expected (portrayed by Korean action star Byung-hun Lee, who’s got a profile like original actor Robert Patrick); also, the day Skynet goes on-line and brings about Judgment Day has been pushed forward to 2017, and it exists in this timeline as Genisys, a sort of super-iCloud that ties all networking technology together. There are hints of cautionary commentary here and there in the film about the dangers of connectivity and our associated vulnerability in the modern computer age, but the film is too busy rebooting character histories, delivering exposition about them and blowing things up to fully develop it.

For a while, it’s entertaining to see events only glancingly referenced in the prior films get fleshed out on screen and classic characters given new wrinkles, and there are few die-hard fans whose pulses won’t race a little faster when the chung-chung-chung-cha-chung of Brad Fiedel’s original TERMINATOR score sneaks onto the soundtrack. (The new music by Lorne Balfe, part of the Hans Zimmer factory, isn’t as distinctive.) Director Alan Taylor, who graduated from HBO’s THE SOPRANOS and GAME OF THRONES to big-ticket feature-making with THOR: THE DARK WORLD, doesn’t quite have Cameron’s gift for relentless forward motion, but he stages effective large-scale action, from the opening flash-forwards of the 2029 war to a major setpiece on the Golden Gate Bridge. The latter might have been even more effective if that particular structure hadn’t been the site of so much damage and destruction in recent megamovies, from RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to GODZILLA to this summer’s SAN ANDREAS.

Familiarity, in fact, is a key element working against TERMINATOR: GENISYS. For all the strenuous reinvention of all the characters’ backstories, there aren’t many truly fresh ideas being explored here, just variations on a theme that can only be bent so far before it breaks. The longer it goes on, the more you get distracted pondering whether the new twists aren’t contradicting themselves, and whether a few of them couldn’t have been held for the inevitable sequel (signaled in a Marvel-esque mid-end-credits stinger scene). And altering the personas isn’t always the same thing as improving on them; ironically, despite Emilia Clarke’s game performance, watching heroic-from-the-start Sarah isn’t nearly as compelling as her evolution from waif to warrior as embodied by Linda Hamilton in the first movie.

That said, Schwarzenegger’s characterization of his best-known part is one constant that remains entertaining. “I’m old, not obsolete” is his mantra in GENISYS, serving notice that he’s still as indomitable today as he was half his lifetime ago when the Terminator first arrived on screen. CG technology may have advanced to the point where his 1984 T-800 can be seamlessly recreated to tussle with his current self, but his characterization of an unstoppable machine with touches of humanity is still one of this film series’ best special effects, even if those qualities become overwhelmed as the plot keeps tying itself up in knots. “I’ll be back,” he inevitably says in the heat of the final-act mayhem, and when he does return, one hopes he brings a more streamlined, genuinely original narrative with him.


About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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