As the title suggests, "Terminator: Genisys" goes back to the beginning of the much-loved machine-battling series. Unfortunately, "Genisys" may have borrowed the earlier films' clothes, boots and motorcycle, but it's a still cold metal frame with barely-convincing skin stretched over it.
Released in 1984, B-movie "The Terminator" made stars of wonkily-accented muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and director James Cameron. They re-teamed in 1992 to create "Terminator 2: Judgment Day", combining cutting-edge computer effects, heart-in-mouth action, a clever plot, compelling characters and endlessly quotable dialogue. So perfect was "T2" that we never really got over it -- revisiting the "Terminator" world for two further sequels and a TV show yielded sadly diminishing returns. In theatres this week, "Genisys" is the latest attempt to reach the dizzy heights of the first two films, this time by explicitly referencing them.
We've done our best to avoid spoilers, by the way, but if you want to go into the movie completely fresh then read on at your own risk. And for heck's sake don't watch any other trailers apart from the safe one above, because they spoil a huge and actually pretty cool plot twist.
"Terminator: Genisys" opens with civilisation ending in apocalyptic fire and the heroic John Connor leading the last remnants of the human race against robot oppressors. The machines send a robot back through time to terminate Connor's mother Sarah before he's born, so human soldier Kyle Reese follows the android assassin back to 1984 to stop it.
But you knew that already. Yes, the first act of "Genisys" literally rehashes the backstory of the first movie. Things finally get into gear when the time-travelling begins, with director Alan Taylor lovingly recreating James Cameron's series-sparking 1984 movie. Only "Genisys" doesn't just rebuild the original movie, it actually steps into the action and starts rearranging the furniture. This isn't a reboot so much as a remix.
That leads to an early highlight in which the modern-day, aged Arnie faces off against his younger self, the slab-chested colossus that exploded onto screens a whopping thirty years ago. This is when "Genisys" is at its most imaginative, playfully subverting the established characters and rules of the "Terminator" mythos.
Sadly though the CGI in this scene isn't quite up to scratch -- 1984 Arnie looks like the cartoon-sheened and oddly-weightless Hulk of the "Avengers" movies, the fight lacking the bruising physical impact of the machine-on-machine scraps in "T2". This is the problem with "Genisys" in a nutshell: it harks back to the past while adding modern innovation, but ends up smoothing out what made the series so compelling in the first place.
Like summer rivals "Jurassic World" or "Mad Max: Fury Road", "Genisys" walks a tough line between appealing to long-time fans and newcomers -- and surely pleases neither. The redundant first act -- a sort of "Previously on the Terminator!" -- might be useful for new viewers, but the constant hat-tipping to previous movies and the nuances of the time-twisting plot are likely to baffle newbies. Compare that to "Mad Max: Fury Road", which does a grand job of building a thrilling new vision within an existing mythos.
"Genisys" suffers in comparison with "Fury Road" on the action front too. Where "Fury Road" was wall-to-wall, nail-biting, viscerally authentic carnage, the action scenes in "Genisys" are lacklustre, with none of the imagination, élan or visceral impact of previous "Terminator" movies. The lack of innovation is summed up by the fact we're treated to the cliche of an action scene on San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge, involving a school bus dangling precariously for no apparent reason.
It's not just the action that's been smoothed over and all interest removed: the cast are handsome but ruinously dull. Jai Courtney looks like he grew up sipping smoothies in a well-air-conditioned gym, not clinging in stark terror to the scorched ruins of a post-apocalyptic hellscape. As Kyle Reese he lacks any trace of original star Michael Biehn's desperate humanity or sweaty charisma. Emilia Clarke has neither the strength or vulnerability of original star Linda Hamilton, and Jason Clarke brings his one facial expression to yet another blockbuster.
The one new entrant to distinguish himself is JK Simmons, who's great but criminally under-used.
Inevitably then the star of the show is the big man himself. The most fun on offer is when Arnie is throwing punches, wielding comically-oversized weapons and dispensing stone-faced one-faced-liners. Amusingly, "Genisys" doesn't try to gloss over the unashamedly silver-haired Schwarzenegger's age, instead building it into the story -- even Terminators get old, you guys.
Unfortunately he's saddled with a chunk of exposition, mostly about time travel. "Genisys" reminded me of the 2009 "Star Trek", so desperate to make its time-travel conceit work the film ties itself in knots at the expense of narrative momentum. There's endless exposition, the blandly beautiful Courtney and Emilia Clarke exchanging reams of dialogue about the consequences of time travel without ever giving any sense of the stakes. Arnie is left to deadpan the timey-wimey gobbledegook in a fashion that reminded me of the moment in "Austin Powers" where a character just looks into the camera and instructs the audience not to worry about it.
Another modern-day touch is that the villainous Skynet is brought into the Internet age. They actually call it the "ultimate killer app", making this the latest Hollywood movie that tries to convince us that smartphones and tablets are evil. We're sleepwalking into extinction at the hands of the machines, we're warned. We should look up from our screens, we're told. Hollywood beseeches us to remember the things that make us human: love, emotional connection...and paying for our media.
If you're considering watching in 3D, save your money: there are no fun uses of the three-dimensional effect, and when Taylor decided to ape James Cameron's blue-shadowed palette he forgot that people would be wearing a pair of sunglasses to watch it. Another modern innovation on show is the mid-credits sting. Stick around if you must, but the postscript to "Genisys" is even more crushingly mediocre than the film that precedes it.
With more sequels potentially in the works, it seems the "Terminator" series will continue, like a smashed robot refusing to stop crawling on despite its body being destroyed, its red eyes glowing with implacable resolve. This most commercial of franchises can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever.