** SPOILERS **
For a weird but still good time at the movies, call Kyle, Sarah and Pops. Since 1991, every Terminator sequel has jockeyed for the title of "Third Best Terminator Movie" and all have fallen short... until now. We finally have a definitive Third Best Terminator Movie. Game of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor's Terminator Genisys rejiggers the Terminator franchise the way the title rejiggers the spelling of the word "genesis," with explosive, entertaining, and bewildering results.
In Genisys, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as the T-800 model Terminator we know and love, proudly declaring that he's "old, not obsolete." The Future War circa 2029 we know and dread takes place as we were told 30 plus years ago: the human resistance lead by John Connor (Jason Clarke) does indeed defeat the murderous machine hordes of Skynet, the artificial intelligence that used our own nuclear arsenal to wipe out humanity on August 29, 1997 - Judgment Day. In desperation, Skynet uses a time machine to send a Terminator (model T-800) back in time to May 12, 1984. Its target: Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke, no relation to Jason Clarke) a 19 year old waitress unaware she is destined to give birth to the leader of the resistance and savior of humanity. John Connor in turn sends back his most trusted lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), whom Connor knows is destined to do the nasty-in-the-past-y with Sarah and become his father. But as Kyle ascends into the time bubble, he sees Skynet, in the body of a Terminator, attack John Connor and things go cuckoo bananas.
At first a loving homage to James Cameron's seminal original Terminator movie rife with attention to detail and callbacks galore (really only missing young Bill Paxton as a punk at the Griffith Observatory), Genisys suddenly takes what Bugs Bunny would call a left turn at Albuquerque and piles on head-spinning time paradoxes and robot-on-robot action. When the Terminator arrives in 1984 Los Angeles, suddenly an older model of that same T-800 is there waiting to terminate it. So is Sarah Connor, not the helpless damsel we recall, but a hardened soldier. Also, there are liquid metal, shape shifting T-1000s in 1984, a full 7 years before they're supposed to arrive in the past in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which now apparently happened in a different reality altogether. Sarah and "Pops" (her pet name for her old Terminator) are quick to explain to a terribly confused Kyle (and audience) that Sarah's older Terminator arrived to save her as a 9 year old from being terminated by a T-1000 in 1973 (complete with a flashback shot of the Terminator carrying young Sarah reminiscent of Arnold carrying young Alyssa Milano in Commando). The past Kyle was told about and we remember from the movies James Cameron helmed no longer exists. As explained by Pops in his Exposition Mode, we are now in an alternate timeline.
It only gets weirder from there. Sarah and Pops conveniently having a time machine of their own allows them to travel to the future, not just theirs but ours, to 2017. There, an even older Pops, is waiting for them, weapons stockpiled for the final assault on Cyberdyne, now a San Francisco-based tech company owned by Miles Bennett Dyson (Courtney B. Vance, no relation to Jai Courtney) and his son. Cyberdyne is about to launch a worldwide networked artificial intelligence called Genisys. While in the time bubble traveling to 1984, Kyle began having flashbacks of a happy, non-apocalyptic childhood he never had, including the phrase "Genisys is Skynet." Indeed, much of the character interplay between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in Genisys is them withholding key plot points from the first Terminator movie from each other (mainly that Kyle dies at the end). Kyle and Sarah take turns confusing and stunning each other by reciting platitudes and dialogue the other couldn't have known or uttered in timelines that no longer exist but they still remember. (James Cameron's classic line "The future is not set. There is no fate but that which we make for ourselves." is just one; Genisys manufactures a few more.) While all that's going on, Kyle and Pops take turns not trusting the other, with Pops telling some blatant dick jokes about Kyle, since he and Sarah (to her chagrin) are well aware Kyle is meant to impregnate Sarah to give birth to John.
When the current Terminator braintrust mapped out the future of the franchise, at some point they decided the problem with the Terminator saga is John Connor. Genisys' solution is to make Connor the bad guy. Not just bad, but the worst guy of all. Gone for good is the plucky, hopeful boy Edward Furlong played in Terminator 2. In Genisys, Jason Clarke's John Connor has become that which Connor has always fought against; a new kind of Terminator, "not man, not machine, but more." Basically, Connor can shapeshift like a T-1000 and he "absolutely will not stop until machines rule the Earth." Making Connor the villain wipes out the one constant hope the Terminator story always built towards no matter how many times cyborgs traveled to the past to try to terminate his parents. It creates a wide open horizon of possibilities, which is both interesting and a little daunting. No matter what, Skynet is meant to be built and the threat of Judgment Day is just pushed back. Genisys doesn't make it clear that John Connor is now meant to be born. It's easy to forget the first Terminator movie was R-rated and included a torrid sex scene between Kyle and Sarah. Genisys strips the sex, even the possibility of it, right out of the story. Clarke and Courtney's Sarah and Kyle may not ever get together, especially now having faced and battled the monster Skynet turned their future son into.
It does becomes clear, as 1984 Sarah and apocalyptic future-survivor Kyle come face to face with our current society of smart phones, the Internet, social media and the like, that our heroes are actually ill-equipped to tackle the threat of Skynet. All they know how to do is "blow Skynet up" with bombs -- analog solutions to digital problems (the post credits tag indicates they didn't succeed). Luckily, they still have Pops, who spends Genisys being pounded and stripped to his metal endoskeleton while trying to protect his human friends. Pops at long last receives a well-deserved upgrade into a T-1000 after his climactic battle with John Connor, because there is no fate for a future Terminator franchise with just Kyle Reese and Sarah but without Arnold. (Strangely, Pops decided to continue looking like an older Arnold Schwarzenegger despite now being able to shapeshift.) Genisys concludes and sets up the ongoing saga with the confounding math of 1 Terminator, 1 Sarah Connor, 2 Kyle Reeses, 0 John Connors, and the possibility of 1 Skynet down the line.
Amidst the explosions occurring on a regular basis backed by the familiar and welcome Terminator theme music, there are pleasures to be had in Genisys. J.K. Simmons delights in a slightly undercooked role as a cop who encountered Kyle in 1984 Los Angeles, witnessed the T-1000 first hand, and spent 30 years as a huge Terminator fanboy. Behind his stoic facade and occasionally ghastly grins, Arnold seems especially pleased to be back as the Terminator. Although Sarah proudly declares early on that Pops "no longer kills humans," making Pops more of a general handyman who happens to also fight any robots that drop by, Arnold can't hide what a ball he he's having stepping into the skin of his greatest role. Director Taylor seemed more comfortable helming spot-on recreations of scenes from James Cameron's Terminator movies than staging his own memorable action scenes with all the CGI at his disposal or delivering a sensible through-line for the plot, but he coaxed a witty chemistry between Emilia Clarke, Courtney, and Arnold. They are an odd trio indeed - together again for the first time - but they remain all that stand in the way between us and robots crunching our skulls at their feet. Arnold, Clarke and Courtney can keep on fighting killer robots together as far as I'm concerned. Genisys never answered the question it raised of who sent Pops back to 1973 and who sent all those T-1000s to the past. "That data was erased," Pops states. "We will throw enough stuff at you to confuse you that you won't remember that plot point until you are in your car driving home." Oh well, there's always next Judgment Day.