"The best Terminator movie since Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is a statement like "Jai Courtney's best-ever performance in a movie": they both have the functional shape of a compliment, but they're not actually saying very much that's complimentary. And they're both true of Terminator Genisys, the little movie that couldn't, currently on pace to be one of 2015's most visible and embarrassing box office flops.

That's not... entirely... fair. It is probably the case that Genisys gets more wrong than it gets right, starting right from that ghastly title (it's derived from an in-movie brand name designed for maximum marketing impact, but that hardly makes it less obnoxious). But it doesn't only get things wrong, and some of its successes are genuinely worth the time it will take to watch the first half of the movie on Netflix several months from now. Hell, even worth a trip to the dollar theater, if there are still dollar theaters where you live. Let's be generous.

The plot is a jam-packed muddle, but the basic strokes are that, in the war-torn California of 2029, human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) is about to stamp out the evil artificial intelligence system Skynet, but before he can, Skynet sends an assassin robot called a T-800 (Brett Azar's body with Arnold Schwarzenegger's younger face CGI'd on) back in time to 1984. Its mission is to kill Connor's mother Sarah (Emilia "Not related to Jason at all" Clarke), when she was just a helpless 20-year-old. Connor sends his right-hand man, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to save history, only by the time Reese arrives, the events of the first three movies have so badly mangled the timeline that Sarah is now a bad-ass warrior with an aging T-800 named Pops (Schwarzenegger himself) as her protector and sidekick, and moved the end of the world from 1997 to 2017. The time machine she luckily has prepared for just such a situation provides their path to the future in the hope of stopping Judgment Day from happening, though Skynet fights them from two different time periods to preserve its existence and to destroy all humans.

That is literally the most concise version of Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier's screenplay that I could manage, which speaks to one of the bigger issues with Genisys: it wants badly to tell a vast, epic story, but it gets tangled up in the details. Ultimately, the only internal logic is a wearied "time travel works this way in this scene because we said it does", begging for our indulgence in promising not to think too hard about whatever the hell is going on. Around the time the story lands in 2017, the film has given up trying to tell a clear story, and has turned into a dispensary for action setpieces, which really aren't all that great; there's a lot of choppiness in the editing and the stakes are never clear on a scene-by-scene basis at any greater level than "try not to die".

Prior to 2017, though, there's actually enough that Genisys does well that it goes down pretty smoothly. The best thing that the writers and director Alan Taylor do is to present much of the first half-hour or so as a remix of plot points and specific visuals from 1984's The Terminator, letting the franchise faithful relax into the movie before it starts to rewrite the rules in front of us (those who aren't already invested in the franchise need to walk on by; this is a piece of unapologetic fan service). It's smarter than anything else in the film, more challenging to our baggage as an audience and more willing to use that baggage to its own end, exploiting the material of a remake as a way of digging into its own story rather than simply relying on nostalgia. When it starts to break the old Terminator mold, it is in crafty, pointed directions that don't treat us like morons who need to have things told at us repeatedly, but can pick up on shifts and understand what makes them important. Nothing else in the whole rest of the movie capitalises on any of this, which is one of the film's great sins. But at least it's playful, and when it was the only thing the film had going on, I was entirely prepared to sing the praises of this Genisys as a creative solution to a question that never had ought to be asked: so how can we do anything new in this sandbox, given that Terminator Salvation was plainly not the way to do it?

Besides, in the first half, the action sequences are a great deal of fun, however openly indebted to T2; the villain of the first third of the movie, for no reason other than "because it's cool", is a metallic shapeshifting T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun), and all of the tensest moments and most exciting action sequences pivot around that character - there is one sequence that brings us almost into Aliens territory (since once you've started copying James Cameron, you can't stop, like potato chips), in the form of a trap for the T-1000 that melts it into a scarred collection of jagged fingers of metal, and it is a lovely throwback to the traces of metallic body horror that were part of what made the first two Terminators so viscerally memorable, on top of being the only place where the 2015 CGI bringing the creature to life looks every bit as good as the 1991 CGI.

The other thing the film gets right is bringing Schwarzenegger back, and finding a way to do it that isn't transparently idiotic. Generally speaking, the human contingent of the movie is "fine" in the most sullen way: Emilia Clarke at times feels like a little girl playing at being a movie hero, and Courtney's strength in the role goes absolutely no farther than being perfectly serviceable and affable. But I had no problem watching either of them existing onscreen. But their co-star is a delight in his return to one of his great signature roles. An emotionless robot is hardly a showcase for an actor's sense of fun or comic timing, but even with that limitation, Schwarzenegger is obviously having a blast putting a deadpan spin on the corny gags the film tosses his way. The unblinking frivolousness of the performance and the role verge on parody of the classic-recipe Terminator, but with a film that goes off the rails when it takes itself seriously, a little bit of frivolous whimsy, even in the form of an angry machine, is exactly what Genisys needs to redeem itself into being at least watchable.

Because oh, how it goes off the rails. It's not, precisely, that it gets all that confusing, though it doesn't pay to think too hard about how time travel works in this franchise as a result of the revelations made in this franchise, since you would certainly put more thought into it than Kalogridis & Lussier did. What does happen is that it gets massively perfunctory, pulling out minimally surprising shocks - the big twist spoiled by the ad campaign might have been tricky to see coming, except that nothing the plot developments that force it into being make any sense without some kind of heel turn - and staging remarkably dull action. The climactic Terminator-on-Terminator fight is damn ugly, in its colors, its cheap CGI, and its broken-down editing. And it's still not as embarassing as the asinine "flipping bus" moment that made it clear from the ads that this would be an ultimately worthless experience.

Worthless is maybe strong. One good performance (two, actually: J.K. Simmons is an unadulterated delight as a conspiracy-minded ex-cop, but he barely affects the plot and simply vanishes out of the movie when his minor contribution is done) and some fun throwback action are all this movie has going for it, and while that's really not much, it's something. A very little something. As far as world-building and crafting a satisfying time-travel story go - as far as being a junk food action movie, frankly, except for a twenty-minute stretch in the first movie Genisys is a complete misfire, and being unexpectedly fun on the margins is nowhere near enough for this film to live up to the standards of its predecessors.

But fuck it, I liked it more than Jurassic World.

Reviews in this series
The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow, 2003)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015)