It goes, I think, like this: In 2029, John Connor learns that Skynet—the artificial intelligence network out to destroy humanity—will attack his Resistance from two fronts, past and future. To prevent this, Connor sends his lieutenant Kyle Reese back to 1984 to protect his mother, Sarah, from the Terminator who has been sent to assassinate her. But Reese’s presence in 1984 alters space-time, thus creating a whole new timeline that leads to, among other things, new fates for John Connor, new fates for the Terminator, and new fates for Sarah—who, unlike the Sarah of the original Terminator, is now prepared for Reese’s arrival. It also leads to Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the role of an aged T-800.
“The future is not set,” indeed. We are not meant to think too hard about any of this, but instead to subject it to the laconic demands of the time-travel-action-movie: suspended disbelief. Which is made extra clear by the film’s breezy reliance on “quantum fields” and “nexus points” (multiple versions, the film explains, of “a point so significant it gives birth to two futures”) and other soothingly Einsteinian callbacks to explain its cosmology. At one point—decidedly not a nexus point—Reese (Jai Courtney), as the film’s physics are being explained to him, remarks that the temporal acrobatics involved in his own multi-futured plot line are “making his brain hurt.” This is a way of letting the character, the audience, and the movie off the hook, all at the same time.
It isn’t Terminator: Genisys’ fault, really, that its plot is so absurd. The plot of every Terminator sequel has been absurd. And that’s because the plot of The Terminator itself (the future comes to the past to change the future but that means the past is changed so the future is changed so what even is the future but anyway Arnold Schwarzenegger) was absurd. The disbelief-suspension audiences are meant to undergo as they put on their 3D glasses for this version of the Connor saga is, seen generously, one way the sequel (or: prequel? what even is the future anyway) pays homage to the original.
What made The Terminator a classic, though—and what gave Terminator 2: Judgment Day its entry into the small pantheon of Sequels That Are Actually Good—was the fact that, via their silly plots, these films were making arguments about time and fate and the things humans owe to our families and our futures. They were deeply concerned about the monopolistic tendencies of the technologies of their times—artificial intelligences, computer networks—and their ability not just to expand human potential, but to undermine it. Their stakes were epic, but also powerfully microcosmic. Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), in addition to all the heroine’s journey stuff she undertook in her fight for and against cyborgian assassins, was a full, fleshed-out character. So was Kyle Reese. So, in his way, was Arnold, the eponymous Terminator and quintessential anti-hero.
Terminator: Genisys, however, has none of the stakes, and none of the moral preoccupations, of its predecessors. Movies that are about robots will always, on some level, be about what it means to be human, but the considerations here aren't more than skin (or, you know, fake cyborg skin) deep. The latest Terminator is a franchise film in the most cynical sense of that term, but also in the most serviceable. There are, indeed, shape-shifting man-machines to be had here. There are, indeed, extremely faithful scene recreations of the original—Arnold, youthful and nude!—accomplished through slick CGI. There are, indeed, fight scenes—involving, among other conveyances, buses, and helicopters—that are delightful in their defiance of the laws of physics. There is, indeed, “come with me if you want to live.” There is, indeed, a callback to “I’ll be back” (the equally deadpanned “I’ll be there”). There is, indeed, a love story. Kind of.
There are also references to other disbelief-suspending action movies. There's the leader-making-an-inspirational-speech-to-his-troops-about-their-upcoming-battle-to-save-the-world (Independence Day), and the vehicle hanging precariously over a ledge (Jurassic Park: The Lost World), and the woman-whose-nakedness-is-portrayed-by-way-of-shadows (pretty much every James Bond opener ever), and the same woman—a woman whose salvation the entire plot of the movie spins around—insisting, with high indignation, “I don't need saving.” There’s also a lot of awkwardly inserted exposition (“If we die tonight, humanity dies with us”) and even more awkwardly inserted dialogue. (“We blow it the hell up?” ones asks. “We blow it the hell up!” the other replies.)
It’s telling that the person who steals scenes again and again—they are ripe for the stealing—is not actually a person. It’s the T-800 who has aged (cyborg skin gets old, too, Sarah explains to Kyle) and whose programming has kept him locked in Sarah-protection-mode. So the machine has become a kind of father figure to Sarah—“Pops,” she calls him—and the film’s moments of levity revolve around Pops’ uncanny resemblance to middle-aged men of a more human strain. (“I read about this,” he remarks as he assembles some cyborg-fighting munitions, “on guns-and-ammo-dot-com”). The dad-bodded man-machine insists, again and again, “I’m old, not obsolete.” In the context of a reboot that both repeats and rejects the past, however, his protests are not convincing.