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Movie review

Robotic leads, convoluted plot weigh down latest ‘Terminator’

Emilia Clarke (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a scene from “Terminator: Genisys.” Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures/Paramount Pictures

You should probably prepare for “Terminator: Genisys,” as I did, by revisiting “The Terminator” (1984) and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”(1991), the original two films in the venerable franchise. First off, the new movie won’t make a lick of sense if you haven’t seen them. Perhaps more crucially, you might appreciate anew the lean B-movie simplicity of the first “Terminator” — the crude but unstoppable forward drive that director James Cameron built into his time-travel contraption — and the splendid momentum of “T2,” with its bigger budget and groundbreaking special effects.

By contrast, “Terminator: Genisys” is a Rubik’s Cube in full three-dimensional spin. “Convoluted” doesn’t begin to describe this movie, with its narrative switchbacks and chronological fake-outs, alternate timelines, and drastic character reversals. It’s a brain-cramp disguised as a summer blockbuster, the baroque “Back to the Future II” of the “Terminator” series. Is it entertaining? Reasonably so, in a helter-skelter fashion. More often than not, the movie’s simply exhausting.


“Genisys” begins precisely where the first film did, but on the other side of the temporal divide, with future freedom fighter John Connor (Jason Clarke) sending fellow soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to save Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke) from being killed by a robotic Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Some of the scenes from the 1984 original are even restaged shot-for-shot, but don’t be fooled. The first shock is that this time Sarah knows Kyle is coming. The second is that she already has a protector, a reprogrammed T-800 (Schwarzenegger) who has been her robotic father figure since she was 9 years old.

So, OK, fine, we’re off in an alternate timeline, meaning that everything that has been established in the first four movies is now moot. Because the nuclear Armageddon in the early films took place in 1997 and that obviously won’t do for a 2015 release, Reese convinces Sarah to travel to 2017 instead, where the evil SkyNet computer system is about to be uploaded into everyone’s phone under the brand name Genisys. Chasing the couple across the years is a gleaming T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) and an extra-special guest villain whose identity undermines pretty much everything this franchise has always been about.


Director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”) keeps it moving as fast as he can, with high-speed chases by car, by helicopter, by runaway school bus. “Terminator: Genisys” is a well-made action extravaganza that suffers only from its busy-bee plot and the underwhelming impact of the two leads. Courtney is a bland stand-in for Michael Biehn’s original Kyle Reese, and once you’ve witnessed Linda Hamilton’s ferocious mama-bear intensity in “Terminator 2,” Clarke’s Sarah Connor can’t help but seem a soft-bellied pretender in comparison. The actress might rule Meereen as Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones,” but she seems much too young and untested to be this movie’s Mother of Mankind.

And Schwarzenegger? He has a lot riding on “Terminator: Genisys,” and he acquits himself well — hits his marks, gets his laughs, punches through concrete walls with the old panache. Because he’s no longer the strapping mesomorph he once was, we’re told that Terminators’ outer skins age even as their cyborg innards don’t, and the 2017 sequences even give the character a becoming gray rinse. “I’m old,” he growls more than once, “but not obsolete,” and we’re invited to apply the sentiment to Schwarzenegger’s career.


Still, this Terminator is very, very far from the juggernaut death machine he was in the first film; with his ghastly grin and trademark quips and glowering not-with-my-daughter glares at Reese, he has become this series’ cuddly uncle — its mascot. Between Schwarzenegger’s neutering and the movie’s dismantling of its own chronology, in fact, you might wonder what drew the filmmakers to the project in the first place. “I’ll be back,” the man said, and he kept the promise, but I’m not sure we wanted him back like this.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.