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Terminator Genisys

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to his greatest role

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I'm going to risk my film-geek cred by going on record as not hating Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are a lot of reasons I should hate him: Commando; Kindergarten Cop; Jingle All the Way; Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin. Not to mention his years as Republican governor of California and his role in popularizing the Hummer as a civilian vehicle.

But there's something about the guy that makes it impossible for me to banish him to Steven Seagal land. Maybe it's the fact that he was downright brilliant in two of the best sci-fi/fantasy movies of the 1980s: Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator. Directors John Milius and James Cameron, respectively, knew how to use Schwarzenegger's impressive physical presence and limited command of English to create their title characters. As his career (and English lessons) advanced, he revealed a self-deprecating sense of humor that his contemporaries Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme lacked. In 2015, I find myself intrigued by the prospect of his return as Conan, even though it won't be in Milius' long-rumored King Conan script.

But instead of seeing him wear Conan's Crown of Iron, we got Terminator Genisys.

In these dark times of unnecessary sequels and reboots, Terminator Genisys stands out as particularly unnecessary. The original Terminator was a master class in low-budget exploitation sci-fi made by an acolyte of Roger Corman. The second was a lesson in what happens when a plucky underdog gets a big enough budget to fly a helicopter underneath a viaduct while a semi explodes in the background. Then things just got silly.

Okay, maybe the original premise of The Terminator is pretty silly: Skynet, artificial intelligence spontaneously generated from defense computers, initiates a planet genocide by starting a nuclear war in 1997. Then, 30 years later, when it is on the verge of defeat by a human resistance movement, it sends a robot in the form of Arnie back in time to kill a woman named Sarah Connor, whose son John would grow up to become the general who will defeat Skynet. It was pulpy fun and fairly self-consistent, since Skynet accidentally created its own nemesis when Kyle Reece, the soldier John Connor sent back in time to defend his mother ended up being his father.

But time war is a tricky thing. Once you start violating causation, you've opened up a major can of worms. Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor tries using Back to the Future, Part II as a template for the story, which sees Kyle Reese, now played by Jai Courtney, traveling back to save Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke), only to find that the past ain't what it used to be. Yet another terminator has been sent even further back into the past to terminate the terminator Reese was supposed to terminate. Who sent it? Nobody knows, but it has something to do with former Doctor Who Matt Smith, who plays yet another, higher-tech terminator that is Skynet made flesh. This is the kind of super-twisty plotting that could, in the hands of a genius science-fiction writer, pay off big time.

Unfortunately, Terminator Genisys doesn't take its own plot seriously enough to build real tension. Instead, Schwarzenegger occasionally spouts a few lines of half-assed technobabble, and away we go to make bigger booms. Even as the story falls apart, it's still burdened with leaden exposition. In place of Cameron's relentless action-inventiveness, we get derivative hackery and callbacks to action sequences that were better staged 25 years ago. Clarke makes a brave run of it as Sarah, but she can't live up to Linda Hamilton's iconic heroine, and Courtney is too well-fed and bright-eyed to effectively channel the desperate future soldier Reese.

Watching old Schwarzenegger fight young Schwarzenegger is the best thing about the movie, but unlike Jurassic World, the action sequences aren't good enough to help the audience ignore the shoddy characterization and indifferent plotting. The whole thing reeks of what it is: a dumbed-down version of a successful product created to exploit the overseas market. You can be forgiven if that gives you a sense of déjà vu.

Terminator Genisys
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