You don’t see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s butt in Terminator Genisys. That’s probably not the detail you were most concerned with regarding the fifth installment of the “Terminator” franchise (though those after some cinematic man meat won’t have to look far), but it’s a representative one. There are, in fact, many moments one can choose from in Genisys that provide a diagnostic sampling of what’s wrong with it. Like Skynet, and now Jurassic Park, the series has become terminally self-aware, as only a brand this old can. Unfortunately, this rusted ’80s artifact still refuses to self-terminate, and thanks to Genisys, we now live in a nightmarish new world where Terminator Salvation might not be the franchise’s bottom.
But back to the butt. Terminator Genisys is more of a reimagining of established lore than a proper new entry in James Cameron’s once-technologically groundbreaking series. It begins in the blasted future first glimpsed at the start of 1984’s The Terminator, with the remnants of humanity on the verge of reclaiming Earth from Skynet’s army of automatons. As before, resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) must send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to prevent the machines from killing John’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), in 1984. Same $&%#, same day, as it turns out.
Or not. Something happens (and I wish that I, or the movie, could be more specific), and Reese’s exhibitionist trip through the 4th dimension causes events in 1984 to play out much differently than in The Terminator. Sarah Connor is no longer an unassuming 20-year-old waitress, but instead a gun-totting, shot-calling soldier trained from childhood to accept her destiny as the mother of mankind’s savior. Her guardian and tutor is a T-800 (Schwarzenegger), the same model of Terminator that menaced the Connors in T1 and T4, and protected them in T2 and T3.
When Reese is sent back to 1984, we see the original Terminator arrive at Griffith Observatory the same way he did in the first film. It’s a near shot-for-shot recreation that Terminator Genisys is attempting, and at first blush, the mimicry is uncanny. But you don’t need a dog to sniff out this impostor. The tires of the garbage truck are now branded, the editing is more rapid, and when Schwarzenegger’s hulking fusion of man and metal strides toward the L.A. skyline, naked as the day he was manufactured, his hot-off-the-time-machine buns are kept safely wrapped in shadows.
The above isn’t meant as an indictment of Terminator Genisys’ lack of faithfulness but instead its lack of purpose. There is no reason for this movie to exist. It adds nothing to the established “Terminator” fiction, as it selectively uses elements of the previous four films, while simultaneously establishing a new timeline of its own to separate itself from them. It’s a sequel, a reset, and a remake all in one, a jukebox “Terminator” mashup that manages to render every rendition or remix of a memorable moment from the series cold and lifeless.
Roughly half the runtime of Terminator Genisys is occupied by characters trying to figure out what it is you’re even watching. “God, a person could go crazy thinking about this,” Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor said at the end of Terminator, unaware of how Genisys screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier would turn the franchise’s branching timelines into a tumbleweed of brittle logic and weightless consequences.
We usually think of a narrative knot as a string, but preventing Terminator Genisys from cutting its way to a new path is a dense, impenetrable central premise that the actors must hack away at, scene after scene, to no avail. All the talk (and it is so, so much talk) of “nodes” in time and quantum fields: it’s all just white noise meant to inoffensively occupy you until the next explosion. The action scenes are clearly envisioned by director Alan Taylor, but that just means you’ll sooner realize that you’ve seen every bloodless, tensionless setpiece before, whether in another “Terminator” movie or somewhere else.
Your heart goes out to the performers, who have been hired not to act but to deliver reams of exposition as quickly as possible. Like the action, Terminator Genisys assumes your fondness for these characters will heighten moment-to-moment interactions that only have room for soulless sarcasm. “I came across time for you, Sarah,” though certainly not the most memorable phrase to come out of Terminator, encapsulated the clear sense of character and Cameron’s hotheaded romanticism that, along with Schwarzenegger’s performance, elevated a sci fi B-movie into a genre classic. Here, lines like “there aren’t enough bullets in the world to kill me” and “rule this,” followed by a grenade explosion, are delivered with the straight, unironic calculation of a machine trying to overpower you.
The flaw of every Terminator sequel that has followed Cameron’s own is that it mistakes spectacle and sentiment for the essence of the franchise’s identity. The Terminator who protects Sarah is played with grandfatherly cuddliness by Schwarzenegger, who completes the decades-long neutering of his once iconic and terrifying breakout role. “I’m old, not obsolete,” his T-800 says while framed in the reflection of a rearview mirror, in another instance of Terminator Genisys making nods to its history seem sad in both execution and implication.
For 125 minutes, we go through the motions of a movie constructed like a checklist of references and catchphrases, most obvious, some oddly specific. Characters promise that they will return, there’s a terrible throwback music cue and conspicuous Pepsi product placement, and a motorcycle is part of a high-speed chase for all of a minute because it has to be. It’s incredible that a film with this many explosions and this much CG mayhem can still be so dreadfully boring, but as with the Terminators themselves, each iteration of this series has proven less efficient at its task than the last. Terminator Genisys is meant to represent a bold and radical new way forward for the franchise. So why does it feel like we’re John Connor, facing down an assembly line of creations that threaten our past and bode ill for our future?
If it was the mission of Terminator Genisys to make you despair for the franchise's future, then mission accomplished.