“Time travel makes my head hurt”, says one character during this awkward reboot of creator James Cameron’s killer-cyborg franchise. And many viewers will agree with that assessment as they try to make sense of this rejigging of everything held dear about the first two man v machine classics while coping with faux scientific jargon relating to nexus points, quantum fields and parallel wormholes.
For this relentless and wearisome barrage of explosive action, digital trickery, doppelganger surprises and sci-fi cliché goes back to the basics of the 1984 masterpiece by re-creating the events of T-800 assassin Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arrival in Los Angeles. It throws in the buddy dynamics between him and mother-to-the-saviour of-the-universe Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), explores the origins of the SkyNet evil that developed into Terminator: Salvation (2009) and totally ignores Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003).
Except none of it makes a lick of sense in The Terminator scheme of essential ground rules as scriptwriters Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, hmmm!) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry) concoct so many variations on the alternate universe time-shift theme, they continually keep inventing “clever” homage twists to play catch-up.
The result is a tiresome shambles as the random plot devolves into the relatively simply concept of protector Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) arriving in 1984 from 2029 to accompany Sarah to 2017 where they must halt the Genisys app going online because it’s the first Trojan Horse step in SkyNet ruling the computer-connected future world.
‘Pops’, as Schwarzenegger’s iconic character is now sadly called, has survived through the intervening years – and three CGI makeovers – to build up the massive weapons arsenal needed to take down SkyNet HQ. There’s a huge spanner in these works, though, as one major player isn’t who they seem to be – a fail-safe planned from the very start of the machine revolution by mastermind Matt Smith. How appropriate an ex-Doctor Who should be the one to “Ex-Terminate!”
Talk about a mixed casting bag: Courtney doesn’t have the accidental hero appeal of Michael Biehn, Game of Thrones star Clarke lacks Linda Hamilton’s essential wide-eyed humanity and Jason Clarke’s John Connor has zero charisma compared to Christian Bale, or even Nick Stahl. Whiplash Oscar winner JK Simmons turns up in the pointless and thankless role of a former cop-turned-apocalypse predictor, while familiar faces Courtney B Vance and Sandrine Holt barely get a look in. With eyes clearly on the burgeoning Asian movie market, the best you can say about GI Joe star Byung-hun Lee stepping into the T-1000’s liquid metal skin is he does a good Robert Patrick impression.
With the narrative and character arcs so schematic and unwieldy – no intention here to even point out the hazy flashbacks to a nostalgic childhood might never even have happened – it needs a capable director at the helm to ensure the flights of manufactured fantasy and polished stuntwork punctuates the contrivances enough to keep disbelief suitably suspended during the epic action moments.
If not quite having Cameron’s gift for dynamic forward motion, director Alan Taylor (Thor: the Dark World) maintains the set-piece spectacle – somersaulting buses, persistent cyborg scraps, landmark destruction, fiery catastrophe – on the amiably distracting level while never letting them really ignite the imagination.
Throughout the confusing plot and dumb action machinations, Schwarzenegger stands firm like a granite edifice, forcibly grinning to highlight his friendly side (having him do this was a big mistake on the writers’ part), showing complete unstoppable resolve and mouthing those evergreen one-liners, including a new zinger to be added to the Austrian superstar’s lexicon of film lore, “I’m old but not obsolete”. If only that were true of this lacklustre addition to the growing list of satisfying 2015 reboots headed by Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World.
Terminator Genisys is released in cinemas on Thursday 2nd July