After the July 4th weekend, there’s often some fretting over how bad things are. It’s the usual crop of worries: We’re up to our masks in superhero movies. Nothing’s original. Where are the new young stars? Technically, those concerns have been valid again this year, but overall this has been a well-above-average first half of summer. There’s been only a sparing helping of Marvel-ness, and the Marvel-ness we got — Avengers: Age of Ultron — seemed built to put everything else out of your memory.1 Meanwhile, 2015 might be the high-water mark for Hollywood sequels and reboots — by volume, yes, but also by quality, from Furious 7 to Magic Mike XXL.
1. The onslaught resumes in a couple of weeks, with Ant-Man and a relaunching of Fantastic Four.
The movies have been richer, weirder, and more ambitious than through any June I can remember. Some have come from the independent galaxy and represent a varying range of ideas — Results, The Tribe, The Wolfpack, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Amy, Dope, and What Happened, Miss Simone? Some, like Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, and Spy, represent an artisanal strain of Hollywood production. Some, like San Andreas and Jurassic World, hit the bull’s-eye of good-dumb summer crap. Even the one lousy movie in that bunch — Dope, which has been luring satisfied audiences since it opened three weeks ago — is, at least, a moviegoing experience.
The experience is all you want sometimes, and when you don’t get it — when Entourage or Ted 2 rubs your face in a bad time — you’re doubly insulted. Terminator Genisys is the worst of all possible worlds. It’s neither a surprising work of pop art nor an entertaining piece of crap. (And forget about explaining that spelling to a nosy 6-year-old.) It’s awful in a way that makes you not even feel entitled to a refund. With Furious Thirty-Seven or another Melissa McCarthy comedy, you can ask, “Who could blame the studios for trying again?” But I’m going to go ahead and presume that most of us are all set with this franchise, which began with James Cameron’s sweaty 1984 original and crested with 1991’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Until this fifth installment, I thought things couldn’t get sadder than Claire Danes screaming “Oh my god!” as Kristanna Loken attacked the roof of a speeding car in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Oops.
This time, the old characters have been reimagined with different, less ferocious actors. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator has been hanging around in 1984, serving as the bodyguard for Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of the savior of mankind. She’s hip to the pending Armageddon and is armed and ready for the return from the future of Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), who’s come back from the original movie to protect Sarah from Schwarzenegger’s killing machine. He has volunteered do so against the wishes of Sarah’s son, John (Jason Clarke), and is shocked to discover that his future baby mama is a soldier in the revolution against the corporate evil Skynet. The writing obviates any need to further set up the action: Part of what makes Terminator Genisys so pitiful as an evening out is that all the actors do over and over again is tell us why they’re in a particular scene and why the movie exists. There’s a way the explication of this legend could’ve been turned in on itself, as a joke. But this movie doesn’t appear to know what comedy is. It could have expanded to take in the other movies and previous stars, but there’s no ambition at work here.
Officially, Courtney does the narration (“I was born after Judgment Day, into a broken world ruled by machines”). But explication duties fall to everyone the way they do in a Bertold Brecht production, except “explication” here involves such goodies as “The boy is an alternate-timeline version of you,” “We don’t know what the hell it is,” and “You need a CPU from the future to make it run.” I saw this movie less than a week ago, and I can’t remember what “it” actually is. But it might as well be the film itself. Eventually, things get so bad that J.K. Simmons’s midpoint arrival, as a dried-up detective trying to do more explaining of the plot to other, less smart cops, is just another excuse to put a popcorn bucket over your head.
What’s really wrong with this movie? How can Jurassic World get away with being derivative and phony and also full of actors speaking mouthfuls of exposition and this movie can’t? For one thing, most of Jurassic World takes place during the day, in scenic locales. The pair of night sequences bring the kick of legitimate danger. Nearly all of Genisys (that name!) is set in Los Angeles at night, and the feeling is always that they’re hiding something, like wires, glue, and duct tape. It’s available in 3-D, but in 2-D, things look murky. This isn’t true of Cameron’s original, where the dark itself is a force of possibility, where anything is liable to appear in underlit corridors, alleyways, and waiting rooms. Cameron can conjure dread.
He appears to have had nothing to do with this movie, which the longtime TV director Alan Taylor helmed and whose script is credited to Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier. These people are continuing Cameron’s original thread but have lost most of the original’s cyberpunk-Orwellian media premonitions. You get the sense that all the talking the characters are doing is as much to keep the filmmakers oriented as it is to orient anybody in the audience born, like Kyle, after Terminator 2. That, of course, is forgivable, but you don’t watch this movie convinced the people in it know how to read what’s on the page. This is easily the worst-cast movie of the summer. Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, and Courtney all use stiff American accents (the men are Australian; she’s from England). Jason Clarke at least seems like he’s trying to have fun with his, but these aren’t people you want to watch save or destroy the world. They lack the stature and gonzo seriousness of a Linda Hamilton, who, in the second movie, made Sarah Connor mythological. Emilia Clarke, away from her platinum-blond Game of Thrones getup, is a damp presence who speaks her lines too quickly.
You understand why they’re here. What do they have to lose? But why Schwarzenegger keeps returning to this part is baffling. It seemed like the whole point of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables movies was that the movie’s gallery of beached action heroes were content to remain in that gassy retirement village. But the defensive humorlessness of The Expendables turned out to be a warning that Stallone & Co. believe they’re here to stay, like unwelcome houseguests. Schwarzenegger is 67 and as incapable of letting go of his iconic parts as Stallone is. It’s pathetic. But with Stallone, every Rocky or Rambo or knockoff of either seems to invigorate him.
There’s no pleasure that comes off of Schwarzenegger in this role, not anymore. In 1991, near the height of his stardom, he could mix menace and arch comedy into a screen style. It’s a mix that helped make him an elected official. Moviewise, everything since he left office has been a kind of disgrace. But in something like last year’s double- or triple-cross heist thriller Sabotage, or this year’s meek zombie drama Maggie, he’s searching for another gear. The ads promise that a high point of Genisys will be the sight of Schwarzenegger squaring off against the version of himself that appeared in the original movie. It’s just his young face superimposed on a hulking body double. The two slabs of Arnold push each other around a couple of times. But it’s not the time-bending fun that the effects team wants it to be. Their brawls are scary the way natural disasters are. You’re not at a science fiction action-thriller by that point. You’re watching a rockslide.