Watching Terminator Genisys, in IMAX 3D or otherwise, is an experience I would recommend only to slavish Arnold Schwarzenegger fans, fanboys that salivate at the idea of hearing lines such as, “Come with me if you want to live,” “The future is not set,” and, “I’ll be back,” rehashed yet again, and audiences with attention spans so short that they wouldn’t be motivated enough to finish reading this sentence, let alone this entire review. Here is a film so utterly devoid of a comprehensible storyline that it literally seems as if director Alan Taylor and screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier were making it all up as they went along. Just when we think we have an idea of where it’s going, something new and inexplicable is thrown into the mix, which in turn forces the characters to go off on a litany of off-the-cuff explanations that are hopelessly confusing. The characters all spoke perfect English, and yet I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying.
The film has been described as a “retcon to the series.” I’m embarrassed to admit that, in spite of my years earning degrees in English, the word “retcon” never entered my vocabulary. A recent visit to Wikipedia filled me in; it’s a contraction of the term “retroactive continuity,” defined as a change of established facts within the continuity of a known fictional work. This means, then, that the makers of Terminator Genisys want us to forget everything we already know about the Terminator film series, beginning in 1984 and continuing all the way through to 2009, and instead commit this new film to memory. Fine, except why then would the filmmakers go to such lengths to include homages to James Cameron’s original two films, including a confrontation between a Terminator and a gang of punks outside of the Griffith Observatory and the moment Sarah Conner must figure out which of the two identical people standing in front her is actually a shapeshifting T-1000 in disguise?
More to the point, how is such a thing possible, given that any fact and figure presented in this movie is such an overload of exposition that it confuses more than it clarifies? Not only do I have no idea what this movie is about, I can’t say that I even understood the basic scenario set ups, by which I mean the driving moments that lead from one scene to the next – which in this case typically involves a fight, a shootout, a car chase, and an explosion. Of course I understand the underlying story, namely the fact that a computer defense system called Skynet turned against humanity, brought about Judgment Day, gave rise to an army of machines, and prompted a human resistance movement to send a man named Kyle Reese back in time to stop a Terminator from killing Sarah Conner, who, along with her as yet to be born son, John, can prevent Judgment Day from ever taking place.
But this understanding stems only from my knowledge of the original films. What’s going on in Terminator Genisys? In the year 2029, at which point the machines have taken over the world, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is convinced by his mentor, John Conner (Jason Clarke), to travel back to 1984 and protect Sarah Conner – neglecting to inform Reese, of course, that he is in fact John’s father. Reese is sent back naked in a lightning-blue time bubble, expecting to find a Sarah Conner who is ignorant of her role in history. Instead, he finds a Sarah Conner (Emilia Clarke) who’s already a badass warrior, having been raised, protected, and trained by a benevolent and curiously comical Terminator machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) since she was nine. This means, somehow, that she already knows who Kyle Reese is, and that he would come to rescue her. Reese also finds the evil liquid metal T-1000 Terminator (Lee Byung-hun), promised in the ads as a prominent character but in fact exits the story almost as soon as he enters.
Strangely enough, there’s also an encounter with the original 1984 Terminator machine, which has been digitally rendered to look like Schwarzenegger as he did over thirty years ago, probably through motion capture animation. As both young and old Terminators duke it out, I found myself wondering how it was possible for a cyborg, inherently mechanical by design, to age. The convenient explanation is that, because the skin of a cyborg is organic, it’s subject to the ravages of time. Right. The older Terminator will eventually say that he’s old, but not obsolete. This is, obviously, not merely a line of dialogue but also a jab at anyone who has criticized the sixty-seven-year-old Schwarzenegger for being too old to be in action movies. The thing is, I agree; he isn’t obsolete. In order for anything to be obsolete, it at one time had to have been useful. Of all the things Schwarzenegger has been to the movies, useful isn’t one of them.
Anyway, let’s skip a number of overplotted yet underdeveloped details and go straight to an underground time machine, where Sarah and her guardian Terminator, whom she calls Pops, have built a time machine; it’s decided that they should travel from 1984 to 2017, at which point a computer system called Genisys, seen mostly in countdown form on everything from tablets to smartphones to digital billboards, will integrate itself into all the world’s computer systems, thus securing the creation of Skynet – I think. But wait a minute. Wasn’t Judgment Day supposed to have occurred in 1997? This discrepancy is mentioned, but a quick and obscenely technical conversation about alternate timelines overshadows it. I believe the conversation is meant to clear up the issue. It doesn’t.
In 2017, we not only meet a useless police detective (J.K. Simmons), who actually believes Sarah and Kyle’s story, we’re also reintroduced to John Conner. The film’s marketing people, in their infinite wisdom, have used all trailers, TV ads, and posters to spoil Conner’s significance to the story. I, of course, will not say a thing, even though we all already know the secret. Let us say that we’re also introduced to a new, sandy-looking Terminator upgrade, dubbed the T-3000, and that its sole purpose is to ensure that Skynet is up and running on a specific day at a specific time. But how did it get to this point, narratively speaking? What is it that the film’s numerous scenes of expository dialogue didn’t adequately convey? I’m sure the inevitable sequel will attempt to explain everything, and in all likelihood fail miserably. Since Terminator Genisys is partially titled after the opening book of the Bible, Genesis, it seems only appropriate, in more ways than one, that the sequel should be partially titled after the last book, Revelations. Stylistic misspellings seem to be all the rage, so it will probably look something like Revilashyns when printed on the poster.