“I’m old, not obsolete.” That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 (Model 101) defending his—and Schwarzenegger’s—continuing role in saving mankind by delivering a quip so quippy it’s dispensed no less than three times over the course of Terminator: Genisys. But ol’ T-800 could just as easily be defending the entire Terminator franchise, which, in terms of narrative cohesion, has permanently guarded itself against obsolescence by incorporating a confusing series of parallel destinies generated by its characters’ ability to travel through time and alter history. No amount of time travel, however, can alter the fact that the original Terminator remains the most inspired, efficient and charming—and cheap!—of the current quintet of Terminator manifestations.
Which is not to say that Genisys is without merit. Beginning in 2029, the story follows post-apocalyptic resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) as he travels back to 1984—the year of the original film—to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from killer robots so that she can give birth to John Connor (Jason Clarke), the leader of the anti-killer robot resistance. But circumstances are such that Kyle and Sarah, with the help of Schwarzenegger’s T-800, whom Sarah affectionately dubs “Pops”, then need to travel to 2017, which, now that history has been repeatedly altered, has become the year formerly known as 1997, a.k.a. the year of “Judgment Day,” when the killer robots take over and slaughter most humans. I can’t possibly explain all this here, but you’ll be glad when you make it to 2017 because that’s when some good actors—J.K. Simmons!—arrive to infuse the supporting characters with a little life. Genisys, alas, follows the original Terminator in placing the star in a supporting robot role while sticking a robotic actor in the lead, while replacing tough Linda Hamilton with baby-faced and not terribly convincing Clarke. Still, it’s fun how “Pops” assumes the role of overprotective dad to Kyle’s hubristic suitor. And it’s appealingly morbid how Kyle has spent his whole life in love with Sarah, a dead woman he knows only from a snapshot of her wearing a headband. Until, of course, he gets to meet Sarah (sans headband) in 1984 and they take a trip to 2017 together, naked and embracing in the time machine.
The film is quite entertaining, and so many things in it are almost interesting: the nods toward La jetée and Frankenstein, the nonsensical discussions about free will—and, by the way, where do the robots keep finding the will to destroy mankind?—and the story’s overriding anti-consumerist critique. That’s right: Terminator: Genisys is critical of you buying stuff, “Genisys” being the name of a new operating system that will link every device you own—and, little do we stupid tech-mongers realize, allow the robots to crush us all in their invincible liquid metal grips! Which reminds me: do you like monster truck rallies? Because there is this larger question, looming over Transformers, Terminators and superheroes alike, about how long it takes it lose interest in machines pummeling each other without ever getting being in danger of annihilation. It’s not exactly suspenseful.
Also, speaking of boringly invincible robots, that quip—“I’m old, not obsolete”—is made because Kyle notices that Schwarzenegger’s T-800’s flesh looks less fresh than the other terminators. The logic being that, while robots stay the same inside, robot flesh is just like human flesh—which is weird because “Pops” gets his flesh ripped to shreds multiple times in Genisys and within minutes it seems to grow right back to normal 67-year-old former-governor-of-California flesh. Baffling! But I’m confident the next chapter in the interminable Terminator saga will figure out why this is, and explain it in some expository dialogue.