There’s a reason no one has been able to make a good Terminator movie since “Terminator 2” in 1991: the story has been told. Writer and director James Cameron (“Titanic” and “Avatar”) told the epic tale of mankind’s battle against the machines with two films and then tied a neat little bow around them. Judgment Day would not happen; no more sequels could be made.
But they were made, and they were nothing more than shameless cash-ins. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” at least had Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, but not much else. There was no more story to be told, so the filmmakers ignored “Terminator 2” and let Judgment Day happen anyway. The less said about “Terminator: Salvation,” the better.
While there clearly was no more story to tell, we’re living in the age of the reboot. Old stories are being pulled out of mothballs and either retold or retooled. Thus, we have a fifth Terminator movie, titled “Terminator: Genysis.” While the film has moments of fun and inspiration, these get lost in a quagmire of wildly convoluted storytelling.
At least the creative team, which included four writers and director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”), tried. In the opening moments, they recap the storyline of the first movie while showing the battle between man and the machines. Cast in the dark blue sheen of Cameron’s world and populated with metallic endoskeletons, it at least feels like a Terminator movie.
Taylor and company then rebuild the opening moments of the original film shot for shot, complete with a digitally “youthanized” Schwarzenegger. These scenes are intercut with two sequences fans of the series have always imagined but never seen - the moment when Skynet sends the Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor (the future mother of John Connor), and the moment when John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to stop the Terminator from killing his mother.
These scenes have a strong pulse, and watching them was a thrill. But when Reese lands in 1984, he doesn’t find what he, or we, are expecting. Rather, something happened when he was traveling back in time that created an alternate past in which Sarah isn’t a meek waitress, unaware she’s about to conceive the person who will lead humanity to victory, but a revolutionary already aware of mankind’s doomed future.
It was enough of a hard right turn to give me cinematic whiplash. For some reason, this timeline contains a shape-shifting Terminator, similar to the T-1000 in “Terminator 2,” that’s after Sarah. How he got there is unclear to me. Then Sarah reveals to John that the original Terminator visited her when she was nine. How and why that happened are also unclear to me. And that’s only the start of things getting messy.
The writers got so bogged down in trying to reinvent the storyline, they either wrote themselves into several corners, or they created several anomalies they had to then fix. To keep viewers from getting lost, they packed the script with expository dialogue; at times, it seems as though the actors will never stop explaining what’s going on.
It wasn’t worth the effort, as the story is confusing anyway. Whereas “Terminator Genysis” starts out feeling like an inspired extension of the original film, it winds up looking like a predator picking over the bones of a movie that should have been left alone.
In the end, “Terminator Genysis” seems to ignore the events of the second through fourth films, yet it winds up exactly where the second one ended - with a single vehicle driving down an open road. The metaphor couldn’t be more clear (there’s no fate but what we make), so it didn’t need to be repeated.
While “Terminator Genysis” was unnecessary, it’s a better sequel than the third and fourth films. Schwarzenegger is terrific as an aged Terminator who has become a father figure to Sarah. He clearly had a good time stepping back into the role that made him a star, and I had a great time watching him. He brings much needed humor and fun to the proceedings, and I like how the writers didn’t lean too heavily on his classic one-liners but gave him some quote-worthy new material. (“It’s nice to meet you.”) I also love the line, “Old but not obsolete,” which the Terminator says in reference to itself and the actor portraying him. While I wish “Terminator Genysis” were a better film, it was worth the price of admission to see that Schwarzenegger truly is back.
Also, Taylor displays a nice eye for action, the performances are solid, and the special effects generally look great. I especially liked the shot of the shape-shifting Terminator peeling itself off of a department store mirror.
Despite serious reservations regarding the script, which fans will be sorting out and arguing over for years, I feel comfortable recommending the movie to people who enjoyed the first two films. If you haven’t seen another Terminator movie, though, don’t even try. You’ll snap your neck trying to wrap your head around the story.
Two-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence and gunplay, partial nudity, and brief strong language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.