As someone who despised Thor: The Dark World, it's understandable that I wasn't expecting much when I walked into the Alan Taylor-directed Terminator Genisys. But perhaps those lowered expectations worked in my favor, because I ended up enjoying Genisys quite a bit. It has some issues involving dialogue and some questionable action sequences, but overall, I found it to be a satisfying sequel to a franchise that was essentially dead in the water after the horrendous Terminator Salvation. This is a movie worthy of the Terminator name.
Director: Alan Taylor
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke
Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is the protagonist this time around, and just to get this out of the way, Courtney is basically a non-factor in the role. Like a lot of people, I sort of roll my eyes whenever he shows up in anything because there's the sense that Hollywood seems to be constantly trying to force him on us as The Next Big Thing (the same thing happened to Sam Worthington a few years ago). He was atrocious in A Good Day to Die Hard, but here he's a blank slate, playing the fish out of water as he travels through time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), only to discover that she doesn't really need protecting. He doesn't bring any noticeable charisma or even the desperate, animalistic physicality that defined Michael Biehn's take on the character.
The movie opens with a young version of Reese being saved by John Connor (Jason Clarke), and it tracks their time together fighting Skynet in the future. On the eve of Skynet's destruction, a Terminator is sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah, and Kyle is sent back to save her. But something goes wrong just as Kyle travels through time, so the timeline in which he arrives contains a different version of Sarah than he expects. In this timeline, Sarah was nearly killed by Skynet at an early age, but someone mysteriously sent a different Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to protect her. She calls him "Pops," and he raised her to prepare for this exact moment: when a younger Terminator model materializes in Griffith Park, the two are there to instantly destroy him. When Kyle arrives in 1984, Sarah quickly saves him from a T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee). The film gets a little bit cute with its intersections with events of the original Terminator, but those moments don't last very long before the story truly launches out on its own, jumping from 1984 to 2017 as Kyle and Sarah meet up with an aging Pops ("I'm old, not obsolete") and attempt to do what everyone always wants to do in every Terminator movie: destroy Skynet before it causes Judgment Day.
The script, by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, isn't the most inventive thing I've ever seen, but it's mostly in line with the tone of the first two films. The pacing is ramped up, and the core group of characters never stay in one place long enough for the audience to think too much about the mechanics of exactly how they arrived in their specific timeline. I could nitpick dozens of small moments to death, but I think the plot works pretty well in a macro sense and a lot of the individual beats are successful, too.
Emilia Clarke is a good Sarah Connor, falling somewhere between the versions of the character we see in the first two films. She's not Linda Hamilton's hardened badass of Terminator 2, but she's far from the big-haired waitress of the original. For one of cinema's strongest female characters, though, there's an awful lot of reliance on men (or cybernetic organisms) to take care of her, and the script seems to want to have things both ways by wanting to make her a capable presence — she fires her own guns, drives big trucks, and barks orders — while she still needs to be saved time and time again.
Schwarzenegger gives his most satisfying performance since making his return to acting, and he's downright delightful in this role. He's so comfortable with his character, and that ease and familiarity allows him to bring the humor out of the T-800 in a way that doesn't feel forced. The movie is exponentially better every moment he's on screen, and even though he's playing a version of the Terminator he's never played before, he brings a sense of authority and ownership to the role that just feels right. J.K. Simmons shows up for a few minutes in a fun role I won't spoil here, but he seems to be having fun and I wish we could have seen a little more of him. Jason Clarke snarls his way through the movie as a different version of John Connor than we've ever seen before, and Doctor Who star Matt Smith shows up as a new character that should surprise (and confuse) long-time fans of the franchise.
And while I can't stress enough how much I don't like Thor: The Dark World, after seeing Taylor's work here, I'm starting to wonder if I unfairly placed a lot of the blame of that film at his feet. (Still, film is a director's medium, and he has to live with the choices he made on that movie.) While I had some issues with some of the action here (especially a lifeless helicopter chase that felt like just meeting a contractual requirement of setpieces), I thought for the most part he did a decent job. That sentiment is a microcosm of the movie as a whole: it has some issues, but it's decent overall. For a movie I was expecting to outright hate, I guess that'll do.