Review: ‘Terminator: Genisys’ squeezes the last bit of life from the franchise

“Goddamn time-traveling robots.”

Precisely, JK Simmons. Precisely.

Yes, I am aware that James Cameron's name is all over the commercials for “Terminator: Genisys” right now, and yes, i am aware that both of the writers on the film (Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier) are people I dig whose work I like a lot. And while I'm even willing to concede that this is probably better than either “Terminator: Rise Of The Machines” or “Terminator Salvation,” that is such a low bar that I'm not sure I'd consider it a compliment.

From moment to moment, “Terminator: Genisys” is decently produced, and there are a few beats here and there that are clever or decently staged. But taken as a whole, “Terminator: Genisys” is representative of the worst of franchise filmmaking, and as someone who fell in love with the original “Terminator” in a theater in 1984, it sickens me. I had a palpable reaction of disgust tonight, one that I masked until I dropped off my kids.

They loved it, by the way. I suspect that in some ways, they represent the Terminator fans who keep saying, over and over, “I WANT TO SEE THE FUTURE WAR!” I have good news and bad news for those fans. There is indeed more of the future war this time, and it's staged on an impressive scale for a few minutes. But the bad news is, it's exactly as boring as I would have guessed. Look! Giant machines! Look! Explosions! Look! Very technically well-rendered images that basically look exactly like the Fantasy II stuff that was done for no money back in 1984! Only longer! And more expensive!

The most interesting idea in “Terminator: Genisys” is that the timeline is being rewritten yet again, and in a way that suggests that they could keep doing so as long as they can afford to keep making digital Arnold Schwarzeneggers. The film opens with what feels more like a big budget remake of the original, complete with some shot by shot recreations of events we've seen before. There is an inevitability to things as John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads the human forces against the machines on several fronts, finally beating them and then pushing forward to seize the time machine that sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to protect the helpless and vulnerable Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). Events either play out in the exact way we've seen them play out, or they show us something we've known but haven't seen. It's only once Reese shows up in LA that things take a left turn, and the scene that this entire film seems to have been built around is the exact moment that the film starts to get interesting. When the original T-800 shows up, everything's identical. He approaches the punks to demand their clothes, but before he can kill them, he's interrupted by another T-800, this one older, leading to a big brawl between the digital young Arnold and the current Arnold, a sort of irresistible pop culture moment. The twists continue as, instead of Kyle Reese tracking Sarah Connor down over time while the Terminator stalks LA, murdering every Sarah Connor in the phone book, Reese finds himself facing a cop (Byung-hun Lee) who is also a T-1000. The only reason he survives the encounter is because Sarah shows up, already kicking ass, giving her a chance to deliver his iconic line: “Come with me if you want to live.”

Unfortunately, once those two scenes play out, the movie turns into a far less interesting thing, The goal here is “Destroy Skynet before it goes online,” and there is a ton of energy spent on trying to keep the characters in motion before they descend on yet another building full of computers that must be destroyed. There is even a convenient and literal ticking clock displayed throughout the building so we can appreciate just how tense everything is, so you know it's all terribly important.

The reason this review has been particularly difficult to write is because it takes so much energy and so many words just to describe the basic ideas in play, while my main impulse is to just say, “A bunch of stuff happens that should never have happened.” I feel like I beat this broken drum, but nothing after the end of “Terminator 2” has ever felt narratively necessary. Even worse, all of it feels like wheel spinning. What this film seems to reinforce is that this entire franchise is “Groundhog Day” at this point. John Connor, Sarah Connor, and Kyle Reese will spend eternity locked in this same redundant dance, constantly destroying each other and constantly being reborn in an infinite number of timelines. The world blows up and dies an endless number of times, and every single time, the Connors and Reese all have front row seats. By telling us that this reset button can be hit, what “Terminator: Genisys” does is tell us that none of it matters. It is a Sisyphean struggle, and an exercise in pure futility. “There is no fate but what we make” has become “There is no fate because time is a circle that cannot be escaped.”

There's another “big twist” in the film, but it is wildly uninteresting and underserved plot point, and Matt Smith (Toshi leaned over to me when he showed up and loudly whispered, “OH MY GOD IS THAT DOCTOR WHO?!?”) has a very small but significant role. Wait, did I say significant? I meant he plays a role that is designed to be shocking and amazing and instead just feels like a very silly attempt to keep dragging this damn thing out.

There are some big weird problems with the various performances here. From the first trailers, it seemed shocking to me how much Emilia Clarke looks like young soft Linda Hamilton from the first film, but she never figures out how to play this person, and because of the refigured timelines, she can't just imitate what we've seen before. Jai Courtney is, sadly, a bust as Kyle Reese. It was easy to believe that Michael Biehn's Reese had grown up on a battlefield in the shadow of a dead civilization. He was like a hunted animal, all sinew and jitters and teeth and claw. Courtney plays this as… well, nothing. He says his lines, and he runs around and shoots, but there's not even a hint of actual character work or emotional inner life. He is bland on bland on bland, and Jason Clarke seems determined to go toe-to-toe with him to see who can be the most boring playing robot-killing future soldiers. Schwarzenegger's fine in his role, but they keep writing the character too broad, and JK Simmons almost successfully turns a nothing role into something fun.

Alan Taylor's work as a director looks exactly like what a studio movie is supposed to look like right now, complete with an almost pathological distaste for the way physics work, but once he's done doing the Cameron shot-for-shot remake, his own sense of style seems to be completely generic. There's no joy in this filmmaking. Go back and watch the first “Terminator.” Cameron is almost drunk on the momentum of that film, and there's an energy to everything that is palpable, whether it's the way Reese's crazy eyes seem to communicate both longing and horror so constantly or the deadpan humor that Cameron finds in the cold emotionlessness of the Terminator. In the second film, you can feel Cameron stretching into the realm of giant budget filmmaking, almost daring himself to dream up these giant set pieces just to see if they can be done. There's a constant sense of invention, and he has a great eye for story and character details. Once again, it feels like it was urgent for Cameron, like he had to make these films.

There is nothing about “Terminator: Genisys” that suggests that this film was a compelling, urgent, essential dream for anyone involved. This is all about squeezing cash out of people who are fond of the original films, calculated and without any of the soul of Cameron's films. Just as there is an assembly line we glimpse here, rows of T-800s on hooks, there is an assembly line that pushed this film out. That's a shame. The Terminator has been so thoroughly neutered that all that remains of the once-terrifying nightmare is a punchline-spouting Ken doll, a perfect central figure for a franchise content with simply spouting catch phrases instead of telling us a story with balls.

“Terminator: Genisys” opens tomorrow.