There’s a riff in a classic Season 8 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where, after one of the characters in the movie Overdrawn at the Memory Bank comments “I’m bored!,” Tom Servo responds to his fellow riffers with, “Okay, which one of us said that?” I experienced a similar sensation while watching Terminator: Genisys when Kyle Reese says, “time travel makes my head hurt.” I looked around the theater and wondered, “Okay, which one of us said that?”
Terminator: Genisys is not the worst movie ever made. It’s not even the worst Terminator movie ever made. That said, it’s certainly not a good movie. This attempt to reboot the franchise with a fresh timeline, similar to 2009’s Star Trek, tries its best, but ultimately unravels the series’s own ethos, leaving us with a mess of a movie, and one that will most likely spark a hatred of time travel movies for many movie goers for many years to come.
The movie opens similarly to 1984’s Terminator. In 2029 Los Angeles, the humans are deep within a brutal war against the machines. Skynet, the artificial intelligence that seeks to eradicate humanity, sends a Terminator – a machine designed to look like a human – back in time to kill Sarah Conner, the mother of John Conner, the leader of the human resistance. In response, John Conner sends his trusted right hand man, Kyle Reese, back in time as well to protect her. If you’ve seen the first movie, you’re up to date at this point. But, this is also where things get wonky. While they are sending Reese back, a Terminator attacks John Conner, causing something to break within the timeline, leading to an alternate timeline. This 1984 Sarah Conner is not the scared waitress of the first film. Instead, she is a butt-kicking fighter of Terminators, already well-versed in her fate as the mother of the future leader of the resistance, thanks to another T-800 that was sent from some unknown point in the future to protect Sarah when she was 9. Are you with me? Because it gets worse. Because of the changes made to this timeline, Judgment Day is actually postponed to 2017, and Sarah Conner and Kyle Reese have to time travel again, and we the viewers are left wondering why it all has to be this hard.
Time travel in the Terminator films has always been a little wonky. Spoiler alert for the first film, but John Conner sends Kyle Reese back in time, where he dies protecting Sarah Conner, but not before they get it on. Nine months later, John Conner is born, the son of Sarah Conner and Kyle Reese. But how does John Conner exist to send Kyle Reese back in the original time-line? My friend Ryan once tried to explain to me how time travel works in the Terminator universe, but even his explanation made my head hurt, and I’m not sure that I could faithfully represent it here. Just know that it involves cyclical patterns, and fixed points that are always happening. No matter how many times its release is delayed, Skynet will always come online, and it will always try to destroy humanity, and Kyle Reese will always go back in time, and there will always be a John Conner to send him back. These fixed patterns can’t be changed.
Of course, the biggest issue with the time travel construction in Terminator: Genisys is that it does try to change these fixed points. In doing so, the time travel starts to make even less sense. It doesn’t work. In order for John Conner to exist at the exact moment he needs to send Kyle Reese back, the events of 1984 need to play out exactly like they did in the first movie. If they don’t, then everything changes, and technically, John Conner shouldn’t exist. Terminator: Genisys can use all of the fancy words it wants, like “time nexus” and “existing out of time” to explain away the shifts in the timeline, but the inevitable result is that the changes make absolutely no sense within the context of this universe, and we’re left scratching our heads and wondering “why?”
And the wonky time travel is really just a symptom of larger story-telling problems within the movie. On the whole, the plot of the movie doesn’t really make much sense. Most of the major events in the film are painstakingly explained through long stretches of clumsy exposition, and a big twist halfway through the movie essentially ruins the purpose and point of every single Terminator film until this point: protect John Conner. Frankly, the plot of Terminator: Genisys is bad, and everyone who was involved with this film should feel bad for inflicting it upon us, fans of the franchise.
At this point, someone will inevitably bring up the fact that one shouldn’t expect a well-crafted plot when watching a Terminator film. While this is not technically true – there’s never an excuse for bad writing – the argument does hold a little weight. If you turn your mind off and don’t think about the terrible story, there are things to praise within Terminator: Genisys. First, the action is really well done. I enjoyed Terminator: Salvation more than most people, but even I can admit that a lot of the action felt very hollow in that film. The CGI robots felt light, and none of the hits felt like they had much weight behind them – certainly not the weight you’d expect from one robot punching another. Terminator: Genisys doesn’t suffer from this problem. Maybe it’s having the real Arnold Schwartzenegger back in the saddle as the T-800, but the movie feels more like the classic Terminator films. There are some very strong action pieces in the film, and the fights are all well choreographed. When one Terminator knocks another through a wall, you feel the impact of the hit. And in an action movie, that’s what I want to feel.
I also enjoyed the acting considerably. The weakest link in the film is Schwartzenegger, which isn’t surprising. He’s not in this role for his acting chops. Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney have a good chemistry on screen as Sarah and Kyle respectively, and they play off each other very well. As an actor, Clarke is much better than Courtney, but I think they both do a decent job. Jason Clarke rounds out the cast as John Conner, who probably does the best job in the film.
And, of course, one can’t write a review of Terminator: Genisys without at least mentioning the nostalgia factor, and the feels are strong with this one. First off, is the big, Austrian elephant in the room. Schwartzenegger is back at the T-800, and the movie does a decent job utilizing him. In fact, the only plausible element within the story is the explanation of why the T-800 looks so old. Aside from that, there are numerous callbacks and homages to the original film. It’s enough to make any Terminator fan squeal and then immediately feel ashamed because he or she just squealed while watching a Terminator film.
With all that said, as with any review, I am now tasked with weighing the good of the film with the bad to determine if the movie was worth the time, energy, and money to see it. I apologize for the following cop-out, but I think it all really depends. Terminator: Genisys is a mess of a movie, with numerous plot holes, and the plot points that are there are confusing as heck. But, it is a good action movie, with plenty of classic Terminator goodness, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this movie delivers its fair share very well.