Well that was exhausting. Our old pals are back, still attempting to save the world from nuclear annihilation, still going over and over and over the same set of events and places in recorded history that began more than 30 years ago in James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR and continued seven years later (by our calendar) in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. By the way, for those counting and those I can't discourage from seeing the latest installment, TERMINATOR GENISYS (the fourth sequel), it certainly helps keep things in the new film straight if you've given yourself a refresher viewing of the first two films. In fact, the makers of GENISYS seem to have taken the scripts from the first two films and written over parts of them in crayon, then cut and pasted whole sequences into each other to come up with the newest version of folks from the future charged with protecting and/or attempting to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, from "Game of Thrones," stepping in for Linda Hamilton).
This time around, we start at the beginning, which actually means starting at the end. We jump to the future, when what appears to be the final battle between humans and machines is being waged, with the humans on the verge of shutting the intelligence knows as Skynet once and for all. The leader of the rebellion, John Connor (Jason Clarke from DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and ZERO DARK THIRTY), has gone through his entire adult life knowing that young Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, of the DIVERGENT films and JACK REACHER) will grow up, travel back in time, save his mother Sarah, and become his father. As a result, he grooms the boy, who grows to be one of the greatest fighters in his army, and soon enough, they get to that moment in time when they discover that the machines have developed a time machine and sent back the original Terminator to kill Sarah. And right behind him goes Reese with a total knowledge of the future and a pre-arranged affection for Sarah.
But when Reese arrives in the past, things are not as they were in the first film. Sarah is no longer a defenseless waitress unaware that her would-be killer and savior are converging on her location. When Reese finds her, she's already become a great warrior thanks to an aged Terminator she calls Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger, more or less how he looks today), who has just defeated the younger model (the CG-created 1984 version is Arnold is impressively rendered and promptly pummeled) and is attempting to help Sarah take out an early incarnation of Skynet before Judgment Day even happens. Apparently a mystery somebody sent back another Terminator (presumably the same one in JUDGMENT DAY), programmed to protect Sarah, to when she was a little girl, rather than an adult woman, so it could train her to fight for most of her life.
To make things just a little bit weirder, the future bad guys have also sent the infamous liquid metal T-1000 back in time, this time played by South Korean superstar Byung-hun Lee (THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD; I SAW THE DEVIL), who actually does bare a striking resemblance to a young Robert Patrick from Judgment Day. The reason I'm diving into so much plot—and believe me, I've only scratched the idiotic surface—is to give you examples of just how deeply and profoundly screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier have pillaged the archives to create this patchwork version of the TERMINATOR universe. There are also appearances by Skynet inventor Miles Dyson (this time played by Courtney B. Vance, taking over from Joe Morton), as well as a curious police character named O'Brien (J.K. Simmons), who I believe is one of the few officers not killed in the police station massacre from the first film. No reference is left unreferenced, no catchphrase is left unspoken, no important plot turn left unmolested and then some.
Things are further confused when some of the characters time-travel a few years into the future, to right before Skynet is activated, and then John Connor himself shows up to assist his mother and Reese in ending the threat of the machines forever... or does he? There genuinely came a point in this story where I gave up attempting to count the number of ways this pretzel-shaped restructuring of history didn't make any goddamn sense. And when your structure becomes so convoluted that the audience stops caring, you have a serious problem.
Going into TERMINATOR GENISYS, I thought the one saving grace might be director Alan Taylor, who is responsible for many key episodes of "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," as well as THOR: THE DARK WORLD). He's a gifted filmmaker, especially when it comes to taking crowded, complicated sequences and ordering them in a way that makes sense. He also has a great sense of character, and actually included bits of character insight and development here, even into action sequences. Some of the big fight sequences in GENISYS are beautifully staged, especially toward the end of the film when Sarah and Reese are battling a new breed of enemy that is both man and machine (it actually looks like it's made of magnetic shavings), but by the time we hit that moment in the film, so much nonsense has occurred that's it's virtually impossible to feel the stakes.
So what did I like? The extended opening sequence in the beginning set in the future, previously only glimpsed in small doses in previous films. For those of you turning up for GENISYS because you heard "Dr. Who's" Matt Smith is in it, well, if you force yourself not to blink, you'll catch him. And I actually didn't mind the section of the film set in 1984, and how a few key moments are re-created and messed with by the screenwriters. At least the structure in those segments makes sense. But all the rest feels like a facsimile of the familiar. There's a quick shot when the very first Arnold version of The Terminator is taken off the assembly line to be sent back in time. Surrounding the muscle-bound, skin-covered robot are identical versions of him. I can't think of a better metaphor for this movie—it's more of the same.
And the prospect of more of these literally exhausts my brain. How many times can they go back to the well until all that is left is an empty, dried-out pit? I think we've already hit bedrock, but someone needs to the tell the suits in charge, because TERMINATOR GENISYS is a husk of a film waiting to get blown away by a stiff wind.