Movie Review: “Terminator Genisys”

Emilia Clarke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith
Alan Taylor

“Terminator Genisys” marks the second sequel to a seemingly dead franchise this summer. Following the massive success of “Jurassic World” comes the fifth “Terminator” movie to date. The last two sequels were failed reboots, and for good reason, as neither of them had the intensity or awe James Cameron brought to the original films. “Terminator Genisys” doesn’t recapture the series’ former glory, but it is an actual “Terminator” movie, and it’s certainly more ambitious and entertaining than its recent predecessors.

The film begins in 2029, with John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) leading an ambush against Skynet. We see the events that influence Connor’s decision to send Reese back in time to save his mother, making this both a reboot and a surprisingly faithful sequel. Reese expects a helpless Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) back in 1984, but she’s nothing of the sort; she’s a trained, skilled soldier. At her side, once again to Reese’s surprise, is a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who Sarah refers to as “Pops.” For a reason that’s being saved for a potential sequel, someone sent the T-800 back in time to protect Sarah as a child, which answers one of the most of obvious questions in this franchise: Why doesn’t Skynet simply kill Sarah as a kid? Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese and the T-800 have to work together to prevent Skynet’s takeover and, surprisingly, defeat John Connor, who’s working for the bad guys this time around.

Screenwriters Patrick Lussier and Laeata Kalogridis rewrite the past, but they don’t erase it. There is no shortage of time travel talk in the film, and one of the key decisions made is to establish this as an alternate timeline, so the other timelines, meaning the first two films, still exist. Do the time travel rules always make sense? No, but neither does time travel. Sometimes, the less explained, the better – and the first hour struggles with that. There is a cluster of exposition in the setup, often explaining what we’re literally seeing. At first, Jai Courtney’s performance suffers because of how many questions and obvious statements he has to deliver, but once the wheels start moving, “Terminator Genisys” improves as it goes along.

One question that’s been explored again and again since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is: Just how human is the T-800? This film gives a definitive answer. Despite Sarah Connor calling the T-800 “Pops” a few too many times, their relationship is surprisingly effective. The film moves briskly from one set piece to the next, but there are these little touches along the way that lend the father-daughter story real depth.

The “Terminator” series made a mistake moving ahead without Schwarzenegger, because he is this franchise. It’s great to have him back, and he’s only grown as an actor over the years. His comic timing is excellent, and on top of that, he knows how to play a struggling father figure, as proven by this year’s “Maggie.” There’s one line he delivers to Kyle Reese that makes the final set piece more than just sound and fury. Emilia Clarke also deserves credit for how satisfying the emotional payoff is, because she completely invests in the love Sarah Connor has for the T-800. The actress’ Connor isn’t only engaging because of how badass she is, but because of her vulnerability, having to face the conflict she once passed down to her son – the burden of knowing your own future.

“Terminator Genisys” marks director Alan Taylor’s second film. A terribly thin script held back his first feature, “Thor: The Dark World,” but his eye for mood, clean camera movements and performances showed he’s more than the average director-for-hire. Taylor’s sophomore effort is a considerable improvement. There’s nothing spectacular about his action sequences, but they all contain a sense of danger and striking compositions, reinforced by some terrific production and sound design.

“Terminator Genisys” lays the groundwork for sequels, while also telling one contained story. The film is initially hamstrung by deciding to reiterate who the main players are and the stakes to those unfamiliar with this franchise, but once “Terminator Genisys” moves past its setup, it thrives on its clever concept, the return of Arnold, memorable set pieces, and the relationship between Sarah Connor and the T-800.