Before his death in 1986, the great Russsian filmmaker and cinema philosopher Andrei Tarkovsky managed to see James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi neo-noir The Terminator. "The brutality and low acting skills are unfortunate," Tarkovsky said, "but as a vision of the future and the relation between man and his destiny, the film is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art."
It may feel like Stravinsky praising Springsteen, but Cameron's original thriller skates across a number of Tarkovskian themes, particularly the cyclical nature of experience and memory (displayed in Terminator's time-travel paradoxes, and the overlapping realities they create) and the relationship between humanity and our environment. In Cameron's film, however, that environment was not the natural world, or even the spiritual one, but the technological ecosystem.
Still, there was something deeply inhuman in the Terminator films that scrapes against the notion of Tarkovsky, The Cinema's Great Spiritualist. The world of Cameron's The Terminator – and its subsequent sequels, of which the dopily-named Terminator: Genisys is the fourth – always felt thoroughly mechanical. Even destiny was algorithmic, with humanity's destruction at the hands of a sentient super-computer called Skynet seemingly unavoidable, despite its hardscrabble protagonists' explosive efforts to avoid it.
This inevitability, along with those time-travel paradoxes mentioned above, also serve as a handy way of reviving the Terminator franchise, whenever such a revival washes out as sufficiently profitable. "There's no fate but what we make," characters in these movies often chant, and it never felt entirely convincing when any new future could be unwritten by a subsequent movie sent chugging down the assembly line.
That Terminator: Genisys is such a chugging, redundant product goes without saying. Accusing a sequel released 30-plus years after the original of being superfluous is like accusing a cheeseburger of having cheese. What's remarkable is that this fifth Terminator is worthwhile precisely because of its franchise cash-in excessiveness. It's at once an eminently satisfying actioner, jackknifing tractor-trailers and vertiginous helicopter chases and all, as it is a passably thought-provoking comment on memory – headily engaging with the very nostalgia it intends to evoke.
So. It's 2029, the sentient machines are enslaving mankind, and bad-boy messiah John Connor (Jason Clarke) dispatches his right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to 1984 to save his mom, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), from a Terminator robot sent back through time to kill her, thus ending the human resistance before it could start.
The plot – which is the setup for the original Terminator – hits a snafu when it's revealed that Skynet had already sent another Terminator further back in time, and that the humans sent yet another one back to stop that one, and that that Terminator (the ones the human sent back) ended up raising young Sarah and training her for the day Reese would arrive.
That paternal robot-assassin is nicknamed "Pops" and played, naturally, by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose weathered appearance is rationalized as the result of the Terminator's organic skin aging in real time. As if that wasn't enough loopy nonsense, the wrinkle in time opens up an alternate timeline, in which Reese and Connor must travel to 2017, meet up with Pops, and stop the rise of Skynet Trojan-horsing its way into homes via a new operating system called Genisys, described as "the ultimate killer app."
Writers Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry 3D) have good fun mucking about in the time paradox gobbledygook, while director Alan Taylor rushes his B-grade cast through references to the original film(s) like they're curating a YouTube supercut.
But where they hit upon something interesting is in their statement about the nature of humanity. Here, Skynet yearns to be human, even adopting a physical form. More than looking like us, it wants to endure, to pass on its computer-genetic legacy.
Yet what Skynet can't understand is why Reese, Connor, and company would struggle so vainly against its superiority. Genisys finds its humming, humanizing centre in the idea that, unlike a machine evolving uniformly toward sentience and singularity, we can be proud, haughty and downright stupid, working against our own best interests not because it makes any sense, but because we feel like it. (These feelings, this innate sense of our place in the world, bubble up in intersecting flashback sequences that evoke a sense of what Tarkovsky's Terminator might have looked like.)
Like Edgar Wright's The World's End, another film about humanity's robotic takeover, Genisys configures human arrogance – our refusal to accept inevitability, or even sensibility – as our saving grace. Our vanity, our satisfaction in our own supremacy, simply does not compute.
No fate but what we make. Until they make the next Terminator, anyway.