For much of its running time, Terminator Genisys feels like being trapped in a conversation with a child breathlessly recounting the highlights of the preceding movies. A plot heavy on alternate timelines uses fluctuations in the established canon to produce an effective mega-mix of nonstop action so that when Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) travels back to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), he immediately finds a combat-trained woman fending off a liquid-metal T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) with the help of a reprogrammed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). And before Kyle can even get his bearings, he’s dragged through a redux version of the first two films, preceded by a future battle sequence that compresses Terminator Salvation down to a single firefight.
The shamelessness of both the written and choreographed callbacks reeks of Schwarzenegger seeking a surer bet for his comeback than flops such as The Last Stand and Sabotage. Those films showed the actor flexing his chops with weary, jaded performances that confessed to the anxiety of feeling slower and less powerful, of struggling to adjust to a life lived beyond the imagined limits of a brash younger self. Schwarzenegger’s work here, on the other hand, is defensive; his graying robot may betray a paternal bond with Sarah, but Schwarzenegger’s moments of tenderness never match the emotional urgency of his constant reassurances (to himself as much as anyone else) that he’s “old, not obsolete.” This edge of self-justification neuters the usual confidence in the actor’s deadpan wisecracking, further revealing the transparency of this cash grab.
The endless set pieces grow wearisome in their reliance on prior choreography, though on occasion something impresses. The early showdown with the T-1000 lacks suspense given that Sarah and her guardian have waited for decades to spring a trap, but the efficient cutting and methodical progression of movement shows a facility with action filmmaking the rest of the film obliterates with nonstop effects. For the most part, however, the breakneck pace prevents any image from sticking, and it also gives the actors no chance to establish their characters. Courtney has never exactly been a great actor, but even Michael Biehn himself couldn’t have developed Kyle’s wounded core and longing the way he did in James Cameron’s exceptionally paced, dynamic first film. As John Connor, Jason Clarke also fails to put across any menace, and at all times he defers to the mechanics of the script to sell the character’s corruption instead of his own skill.
The film’s greatest attribute is its redirection of focus back onto Sarah. The series is at its best when it filters John’s messianic narrative through the perspective of its Mary figure, altering the emotional arc from a hero’s triumph to the sacrifices of someone fated to be a footnote in history despite being tasked with all the grueling work of preparation. Emilia Clarke impresses as a toughened Sarah, but she truly excels when chafing against the expectation of falling for a man destined to be the father of her child without her say-so. When John emerges from a changed future as a man-machine hybrid, he embodies Sarah’s conflicted feelings and resentment of existing solely to give birth, and on occasion it seems that she fears the prospect of motherhood more than the apocalypse. Terminator Genisys may not be a good movie, but Sarah’s arc manages to do what the franchise’s previous film shied away from: radically altering the parameters of not only the series’s timeline, but its philosophical and emotional underpinnings. As an action movie, this film is clumsy and condescending. As an ambivalent meditation on the responsibility of raising a savior, it’s the most fascinating entry into the franchise since The Sarah Connor Chronicles.