Rage against the machines

“I’ll be back … again. From being back. Having already been back several times.”

“I’ll be back … again. From being back. Having already been back several times.”

Rated 3.0

Terminator Genisys reboots a franchise that has proven about as hard to kill as its title character. It’s reportedly the first of a new trilogy, with the second scheduled for release in 2017 and the third the year after that. Strangely, the current movie leaves no plot threads dangling on which to hang a sequel; it has a satisfying sense of self-containment without that open-door finish that is tantamount to saying, “Come back next year, sucker, and bring another 10 bucks.”

The movie has story to spare, thanks to the constantly shifting timelines of what has gone before (when time travel is part of your premise, you can get away with stuff like that). The script by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier distills all four of the previous movies—the 1984 original, 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009)—plus, for all I know, bits and pieces of the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the theme park attractions as well.

It starts out as a high-budget remake of the first movie. We meet young Kyle Reese (Bryant Prince) as a child skulking among the ruins of San Francisco. He’s hiding from the Terminators of Skynet, that sentient global computer system that decimated the human race in a nuclear holocaust. Now, Skynet’s Terminators are hunting down the survivors. The boy Kyle is rescued from one by John Connor (Jason Clarke), who is organizing the Human Resistance.

Some years later, in 2021, Kyle has grown up (now played by Jai Courtney) and the Human Resistance is on the brink of triumphing over Skynet thanks to John Connor’s brilliant leadership.

In a last-ditch move, Skynet uses it secret weapon—a time machine. It dispatches a Terminator back to May 12, 1984, to find and murder John Connor’s mother Sarah before she can give birth to the boy who will grow up to defeat them.

Connor’s forces capture the time machine, but too late. So Connor dispatches Kyle back to 1984 to protect the unsuspecting young Sarah. Connor knows, of course—as do we in the audience and anyone else who’s seen the original—that Kyle isn’t just a protector. He’s also a sacrifice, doomed to die in Sarah’s defense. Also, he will fall in love with Sarah and become John Connor’s father.

So far, so familiar. But as with J.J. Abrams in his reboot of Star Trek, Kalogridis and Lussier throw a time-warp monkey wrench into the works. Just before Kyle vanishes into the past, he watches as a Terminator seizes Connor in a death grip and hisses, “Did you really think it would be that easy?”

Then Kyle lands in 1984, and nothing is quite what he expected, nor is it anything we’ve seen before. But let’s not get all that far into the new movie’s plot. It’s pretty damn complicated, and frankly, the more complicated it gets the harder it is to keep track of. I’m still not sure it really makes sense.

Not that it matters much. Under the briskly over-the-top direction of Alan Taylor, the movie is good fun, and the plot, like the “Genisys” of the title, is easier to understand while you’re watching than it is to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns, naturally—it would hardly be a Terminator movie without him —and in a nice touch, we get two of him: his real-life, slightly grizzled self as Sarah Connor’s reprogrammed protector, and a younger-looking version (grafted via CGI onto the body of one Brett Azar) as one of those upgraded, liquid-metal Terminators.

The real secret weapon of Terminator Genisys, however, isn’t its time machines or robot assassins, its countless CGI techies and stunt performers, or even Arnold himself. Surprisingly enough, it’s 28-year-old Emilia Clarke (no relation to Jason) as Sarah Connor. She’ll be familiar to Game of Thrones fans as Daenerys Targaryen (though they may not recognize her without that long blonde wig). She’s a fine ensemble player in Thrones, but she’s the center of attention here, and she’s dynamite—forceful, tender and sexy as the moment demands, taking command from the moment she appears. Whatever else happens with Terminator Genisys, it just might be remembered mainly as the movie that made Emilia Clarke a star.