State of the Franchise: The Terminator

Perhaps no decade is more synonymous with iconic film franchises than the 1980’s. There was just something different about the decade. Popular culture media soared to new heights in the 80’s with films, television, and music dominating mainstream America. The MTV generation was in full swing and, even now, 80’s nostalgia is at an all time high with titles like Stranger Things and the recent film adaptations of Stephen King’s It glorifying the decade. Of course, there are also constant remakes, reboots, and sequels stemming from 80’s films like Blade Runner 2049 and Child’s Play along with upcoming adaptations of Dune and Big Trouble in Little China. Then, you have all of the big name action franchises that still persist from the decade. Films like First Blood, Predator, and Die Hard have gotten new sequels of varying quality in the past few years. One 80’s series that has refused to die over the past 30+ years is, arguably, one of the best action franchises of all time: The Terminator. With a brand new sequel/reboot slated for release this weekend, now’s the perfect time to discuss the convoluted mess that this franchise has become.

The Terminator franchise is one that has exceeded its cinematic beginnings and propelled its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the stratosphere. To date, there are six total films (including the new one), a television series, and more merchandise than one could ever imagine. There’s a slew of video games, novels, comics, action figures, board games, etc. Pretty much anything you can think of has had the Terminator name slapped on it somehow and not without reason. The franchise has earned over $3 billion dollars since its inception and Schwarzenegger is its face. Multiple catchphrases have spawned from his work on the series and the man himself is a cultural icon. On top of eventually becoming the governor of California, he even influenced a heavy metal band, Austrian Death Machine, whose song titles come from Schwarzenegger quotes in his movies. Seriously. When it comes to the actor’s work, he has had many iconic roles but none have come close to his role as the T-800.

The Terminator was released in 1984 with Schwarzenegger receiving top billing. The film sees the T-800 Terminator (Schwarzenegger), a cyborg assassin, sent back in time to the year 1984. His objective is to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the birth mother of Resistance leader John Connor, and wipe him from existence. John is trapped in a war with a company called Skynet in 2029 which causes a nuclear holocaust years prior. Skynet’s last effort to thwart the Resistance is to send the Terminator to kill John’s mother. Similarly, John sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to 1984 to protect Sarah from their enemy. With Sarah’s skepticism about being the mother to humanity’s last hope, the film becomes a game of cat and mouse with Kyle persuading Sarah of her destiny while battling the Terminator for their lives.

The film is only the second feature from legendary director James Cameron after his horrid debut, Piranha II: The Spawning. Cameron himself even considers The Terminator as his debut film. He sold the rights to producer Gale Anne Hurd, known more recently for her run as producer on AMC’s The Walking Dead, for $1 with the promise that he could direct it. Cameron and Hurd eventually married in 1985 before divorcing in 1989. Cameron’s original idea for The Terminator was more along the lines of what the sequel turned out to be but, due to a need for better technology, changes were made. When it came to casting, many names were kicked around for the title role. Actors like Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson were considered for the T-800 while Schwarzenegger was a studio pick for the role of Kyle Reese. James Cameron had no intention of hiring Schwarzenegger but, after meeting with him, had the idea of casting him as the Terminator instead. Of course, the rest was history.

Despite little faith from the studio, Orion Pictures, The Terminator was a hit at the box office and with critics. Its dark science fiction plot and atmosphere is riveting and appropriately sets the stage for what’s to come after. Prior to this film, Schwarzenegger was most well known for his role as Conan the Barbarian but, as we know now, he’ll always be better known as the cybernetic organism with living tissue over a metal endoskeleton. By today’s standards, The Terminator has aged relatively well. The clothing and style of the mid 1980’s feels a bit dated but the action and story still works. The biggest drawback for modern audiences is probably going to be the special effects. They’re certainly good, especially for the time. Though, some of the makeup and body molds don’t hold up as well as some other 80’s effect driven films do. Joe Dante’s Gremlins came out the same year and that film’s effects still look great today. Regardless, The Terminator is still a great film and a good launching point for a young James Cameron.

That’s because, by 1991, Cameron would change the game completely with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This sequel opens similarly to the first with the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) being sent back in time to 1995. This time, the reprogrammed Terminator is sent by John Connor to protect his child self from another Terminator sent by Skynet. The T-1000 (Robert Patrick) is an advanced model made out of liquid metal that can take on the form of inanimate objects as well as people it touches. Young John (Edward Furlong) is in a foster home after his mother, Sarah (Hamilton), is arrested and committed for trying to bomb a computer factory. John shows his mother’s training by robbing ATM’s and hacking into computers but also demonstrates an appreciation for humanity. After being saved by the T-800, John and the machine develop a bond all while breaking out Sarah Connor, trying to prevent Judgment Day, and also battling the T-1000.

Good lord. If you haven’t seen this film, what are you even doing here? Go watch it immediately. Without doubt, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest action movies ever made. In this writer’s opinion, it is the best action movie ever made. Helmed once again by James Cameron after honing his directorial abilities on films like Aliens and The Abyss, Judgment Day is simply classic. When people think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime riding motorcycles, wearing leather, and spouting catchphrases, this is the film they’re thinking of. However, there were some legal disputes prior to the release of this film. Hemdale Film Corporation owned 50% of of the rights to the franchise and blocked the sequel from being made by Carolco Pictures. By 1990, though, Carolco purchased the rights for $5 million and the production was greenlit.

As previously mentioned, the film is a masterpiece in the action genre. At the time of its release, Judgment Day was the most expensive film ever made at a budget of $102 million. It raked in over $520 million at the worldwide box office as the highest grossing film worldwide in 1991. While the film’s story is still great to this day, its action set pieces and special effects exceed the original’s by a mile. The film’s CGI was groundbreaking for the time and still holds up quite well today. Yes, the T-1000’s liquid metal transformations definitely look computer generated but they don’t take you out of the overall experience and it’s easy to see their influence on today’s techniques.

Robert Patrick as the T-1000 is one of the most formidable foes of the action genre. His stone-faced portrayal and no-nonsense demeanor is chilling. Also, when you see this guy run after someone, you know he means business. The film marks Edward Furlong’s film debut and he’s excellent as the young John Connor. On one hand, he’s a punk kid but there’s a lot of emotional depth to the character and you feel for him. Linda Hamilton’s return as Sarah Connor is one of the most amazing character transformations in all of cinema. In The Terminator, she plays your typical damsel in distress but with a deep seated toughness. In Judgment Day, she’s a bad ass action movie heroine. She’s hellbent on destroying Skynet and saving the world and she doesn’t care who she has to go through to do so. Her history with Schwarzenegger’s T-800 is always under the microscope and there’s constant tension despite this being a new T-800 altogether. She’s the unsung hero of this film and it’s no wonder that she’s set to make her return in the upcoming sequel. Ultimately, there’s just not enough that can be said about Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s an absolute must watch for movie fans of all types.

So, after a solid debut followed by one of the best sequels and action movies ever made, how do you follow it? Frankly, you don’t. What comes after Judgment Day will make most people wish that the world really did end. Fans would have to wait twelve long years before the release of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. This film sees another identical Terminator sent back in time to protect high ranking members of the Resistance from the T-X (Kristanna Loken), an advanced female Terminator also sent back. Since preventing Judgment Day, John Connor (Nick Stahl) lives off the grid in fear of the return of Skynet. When the T-X arrives in modern day Los Angeles to kill John and his Resistance brethren, the Terminator arrives to protect him and a future colleague, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). The T-800 claims that Judgment Day is inevitable and was only delayed by the actions of John and Sarah in the previous film.

Surprisingly, this film actually got positive reviews upon its release. Needless to say, it doesn’t hold up one bit. This is, arguably, the worst Terminator movie there is. It sorely lacks the humanity and finesse of James Cameron who originally intended to make a third film. After the rights for the franchise were in flux due to Carolco’s bankruptcy, Cameron had a falling out with the eventual producers while working on Titanic. What fans ended up with is an ugly and lifeless mess filled with constant explosions and things crashing into each other that’s both poorly written and acted. The script comes from the duo who wrote films like Primeval and Catwoman. Yikes.

The T-X has zero charisma whatsoever which is a huge disappointment after Robert Patrick’s T-1000. She also does whatever she wants at all times. The T-1000 felt like it had rules and an ultimate goal. The T-X has none of that. Nick Stahl is unbelievably bland as John Connor and way out of his league even when compared to an inexperienced 13 year old Edward Furlong of the previous film. He constantly talks to Schwarzenegger’s Terminator as if it’s the same one from Judgment Day. At multiple points in the film, the Terminator specifically tells John that he’s not the same one that he remembers from childhood. Nothing makes sense and Rise of the Machines is nothing more than a very poor attempt at continuing the franchise.

The series would remain dormant for another six years before Terminator: Salvation would hit theaters in 2009. After three installments with essentially the same plot, Salvation at least tries to do something a little different. It opens in 2003 with death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signing over his body for medical research. Then, the film fast forwards to 2018 where Resistance fighter John Connor (Christian Bale) leads an attack on a Skynet base. John discovers plans to create a new type of Terminator, the T-800, and also a kill-list with his name second behind Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). John knows the significance of Kyle to his own future and must locate him to send him back in time before either of them are destroyed by Skynet. John eventually teams up with a modified Marcus Wright assisting him in his efforts as well.

While Terminator: Salvation is much more watchable than its predecessor, this is a very poorly imagined sequel. It’s basically the prequel story from the future that sets up the original 1984 film. The problem is that fans already know how all of that shakes out before even seeing Salvation. Just as Rise of the Machines felt like your typical early to mid 2000’s action movie, Salvation feels like your typical late 2000’s action movie. It’s very bleak and unappealing to look at but has some impressive action scenes. Though, they really don’t have much substance and are mainly there to have things blowing up. McG, the director of the two 2000’s era Charlie’s Angels films, manned the director’s chair for this one so no one should’ve expected much. McG did do a pretty good job on Netflix’s 2017 horror/comedy, The Babysitter, so there’s that.

Christian Bale, who’s a very capable actor, does the best job he can and feels like a legitimate future John Connor. Oddly, it doesn’t feel like he’s in the film all that much though. Whereas Claire Danes’ Kate felt like an important part of the previous film, Bryce Dallas Howard’s go-round with the character is forgettable. She doesn’t do a damn thing all movie long and the rest of the cast doesn’t go above and beyond here either. Of course, the big omission from this film is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was in his second term as governor during this film’s production and was mostly on hiatus from acting during this time period. At the end of the day, Terminator: Salvation is mostly going to be remembered for Bale’s vulgar and degrading leaked rant towards the director of photography on the film. Honestly, that audio is more entertaining than all of Salvation. It’s not a bad film but it’s very uninspired and just feels like something that no one really asked for or needed.

Up until now, we haven’t really addressed the convoluted time travel aspect of the Terminator films. As a recent film like Avengers: Endgame has discovered, when you mess with timelines, people will punch plot holes in your movies all day long. When Terminator: Genisys released in 2015, it didn’t just have plot holes. The film is a plot abyss. It starts almost exactly like the 1984 film with both the murderous T-800 (Schwarzenegger, obviously) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) sent through time to carry out their task of killing/protecting Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) respectively. Though, things are different this time and events don’t play out as they should. Sarah shows up to save Kyle from a T-1000 (Byung-Hun Lee)and it’s discovered that she was actually raised by the T-800 AKA Pops (ugh) since she was nine years old. Somewhere along the way, this became an alternate 1984 and now Sarah, Kyle, and Pops reunite in 2017 to stop an app called Genisys from launching and taking over the world. John Connor (Jason Clarke) also plays a big role that won’t be spoiled in this writing even though it was already spoiled in the film’s trailers.

For Terminator: Genisys, it’s best to just turn your brain off and accept the film’s story for what it is. The beginning of the film that recreates moments and scenarios from the original Terminator is actually kind of interesting. The characters have pinpointed the start of this war to the evil T-800 being sent to kill Sarah Connor. Then, Genisys decides to travel into the future while not explaining how the original timeline has changed, how Judgment Day 1997 was avoided, the significance of 2017, etc. To say the story is complicated would be an understatement. In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter. Seriously. Sarah says so herself in the film. When discussing how the past was altered, Clarke’s Sarah responds with, “Does that matter?” Well, apparently it doesn’t.

While the cast of Rise of the Machines seemed to be restricted by budget with low level talent and names, Genisys does have some star power with Emilia Clarke. Unfortunately, she’s not really a standout though. It’s not quite her fault as the script for the film is so bad and she’s mostly wasted. Jason Clarke as John Connor is hard to buy. Christian Bale made sense as he gave an intense performance as the leader of the Resistance. Clarke just doesn’t have the same onscreen presence and it’s impossible to accept him as a military leader. Then, we have Jai Courtney who’s awful as Kyle Reese. He’s just a meathead who says the dumbest things and lacks any charisma whatsoever. The film also expects its viewers to acknowledge a romance between Kyle and Sarah but that’s just not going to happen with Courtney.

Even with how screwed up the timeline is and the bad screenwriting, Terminator: Genisys at least tries to have some fun. That actually puts it above Rise of the Machines in terms of watchability and in a tossup with Salvation. The latter film is certainly more well made but Genisys has a strange appeal. It’s kind of in a “so bad, it’s good” category while not being completely awful. The film grossed over $440 million and received negative reviews. Originally, Genisys was planned to be the first of a new trilogy but, obviously, plans were scrapped quickly. According to Emilia Clarke, she was relieved that the trilogy was scrapped and that no one had a good time making this movie. Once again, the Terminator series would, understandably, go back into hiding.

This weekend, the franchise returns to the big screen once more. This time around, though, there will be some familiar faces. After 28 years, James Cameron finally returns to the franchise as a producer and also lands a story credit on Terminator: Dark Fate. Like last year’s Halloween, the new sequel will retcon the three films that came after Terminator 2: Judgment Day. While this tactic has become a bit too familiar in Hollywood, it’s for the best when it comes to this franchise. The timeline has been absolutely skewered and simplifying it will make it better for not only the filmmakers but the audience as well. The one thing that’s kind of scary about Dark Fate is how many writers there are. There are five people credited with the story and three with the screenplay. One of the writers is David S. Goyer who can’t seem to put together a good film without the help of Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Tim Miller, the director of Deadpool, is in the director’s chair and, perhaps the film’s biggest surprise, Linda Hamilton reprises her role as Sarah Connor.

Early reviews for Terminator: Dark Fate have already started coming in but fans of the series will have to decide for themselves on the merits of this one. After all, Rise of the Machines had shockingly favorable reviews. For all of its stupidity, Genisys actually felt watchable as a Terminator sequel but was, conversely, panned by critics. The one beacon of hope for the franchise in general is the return of James Cameron. Even though he’s not directing Dark Fate, he at least has some pull on the film’s direction and, most likely, the future. If there’s anything that everyone will agree on, it’s that the new film will never trump Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Yet, if we can get an acceptable sequel to it, fans will probably be over the moon considering the dreck that Hollywood has put out in the 28 years since Judgment Day. The Terminator franchise deserves a proper resurrection and we’ll soon find out if Dark Fate is the sequel we’ve been waiting for or just an appropriately titled premonition.

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