On Wednesday, Terminator: Genisys will try for the third time in 12 years to take James Cameron’s two-part sci-fi masterpiece The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and make a new, balls-to-the-wall summer action franchise out of it. The Terminator is a seminal work that served as one of the primary the inspirations for the cyberpunk movement, and without which other great films of the era like RoboCop, and The Matrix might not exist. T2 took the story, visual effects, and Cameron’s own directorial ambitions to the next level, while still being stylistically and substantively in line with the original. It remains an example that strongly argues that a sequel can surpass the original in creative and commercial goals.
Cameron said the story was done so far as he was concerned at the end of Judgment Day, and while a lot of series filmmakers change with every film, with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation, something else changed: Terminator was not the movie series it could have been, or should have been. Did the Terminator series flounder because James Cameron moved on to different things? Were the talents of the filmmakers subsequent to Cameron just not up to his caliber on even a basic level? Or did Cameron’s departure mark something more fundamental? Have all those other writers, producers and directors lost touch with what kind of movie The Terminator really is?
The problem with most Terminator sequels is that they misunderstand exactly what type of movie that The Terminator is. It’s not an action movie, or a high-minded work of science fiction, it’s a slasher movie. Sarah Connor is the ultimate final girl, and the robot Terminator is the malevolent monster whose sole purpose is to kill her. There’s a lot of powerful thematic stuff in there too, like predestination, fate, quantum mechanics, man vs machine, all of that, but stripped down to its basic programming (if you will), The Terminator is about one bad guy trying to kill one good girl who’s just minding her own business.
Is it surprising that Terminator would read as a horror movie? Considering that Cameron literally dreamed up the concept from a nightmare he had about a robot torso with a kitchen knife, it shouldn’t be. It should also be unsurprising that Terminator fits more amongst the tableau of the early 80s obsession with the quick and cheap slasher pic than big budget Hollywood sci-fi like Star Wars, or E.T. Interestingly, Terminator was released just a few weeks ahead of A Nightmare on Elm Street, another movie that was more directly about nightmares coming to life.
The later Terminator films, in their effort to fill all the expository holes about Judgment Day and the Future War, seemed to forget that most of that stuff really didn’t matter to Cameron in the first Terminator. True, future soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) takes some time to layout how a computer program called Skynet launches a nuclear attack before waging a war to extinguish the remains of humanity, but Cameron’s not obsessed by it. The few flashbacks, (flash-forwards?) we get are meant to highlight just how serious the threat of the Terminators is, and how desolate the world post-apocalyptic 2029 Los Angeles is.
No, the focus of The Terminator is the chase. The rush by everyman Reese to save Sarah (Linda Hamilton) from the methodical, intimidating killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger). In the midst of a movie era where supposedly human killers can be shot, stabbed, drowned, clubbed and set on fire, but still keep getting up for more, at least the Terminator’s resilience made sense: he’s a robot. The combination of Schwarzenegger’s physical presence and stand out make-up effects by the late great Stan Winston, helped make the T-800 a formidable antagonist, but the idea of the Terminator, that there was no human presence to bargain with, and the relentlessness of a machine trying to complete a task no matter the damage or obstacle, is the very stuff of nightmares.
Even the glimpses we get of future L.A., despite its war movie tappings, is more akin to The Haunted Mansion than The Green Berets with hollowed out buildings and grounds littered with skulls and bones. It’s in the future scenes we see the full horror of the Terminators as infiltration units, confidently disguised as humans and coming into shelters guns blazing at the cold and cowering remnants of humanity. World War II analogies to the Warsaw Ghettos and the Holocaust are apt, and in keeping with the resurgence of interest in the topic in the early 80s.
The Terminator plays beat-for-beat like a horror movie, a relentless chase through the streets of nighttime L.A.; friendly detectives (played by Khan victim Paul Winfield and Cameron regular Lance Henriksen) can offer no real assistance, and a precinct full of cops can offer no real resistance to the Terminator. Sarah’s only real hope is the spry but lanky Reese who’s clearly physically outmatched by the Terminator. Reese’s strength though is his love and devotion to Sarah. We learn that in the future, Sarah’s son John, the leader of the human resistance against the machines and the reason the Terminator’s trying to kill Sarah, gives Reese a picture of her, an image from across time that Reese falls in love with. In a sense, you could argue that John Connor programmed his father to be a love match for his mother, which adds another layer of psychological insight one can take from the film.
Thematically, fate is at the heart of Cameron’s two Terminator films. In the first movie, Skynet, in trying to alter its destiny to fall at the hands of the John Connor-led resistance, but in the process assured its own history would come to pass. Still, can fate be changed? That question drove T2, as Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, now recast as the good guy, aimed to protect the 11-year-old John and the more militant Sarah, from a new threat, the liquid metal T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick).
Realizing that physicality would be key for any villain facing Schwarzenegger in battle, Patrick’s strength is his intensity, his icy stare and his impeccable posture. In other words, he seemed like a robot made of liquid metal, and that fluidity and stature came through in his physical performance (with a little help from the then-state of the art visual effects of Industrial Light & Magic and Dennis Muren). The T-1000 was leaner and meaner as opposed to the T-800, but he was also a plausible and more vicious escalation of the threat of the Terminators.
Now the argument could be made that T2 leans more towards action than atmosphere, and certainly it features some big set pieces like the raid on Cyberdyne or the climactic showdown at the steel mill, but still, the original’s horror movie trappings are hard to shake. Think on the uncertainty generated by the of T-1000, a villain who can be anywhere, even the floor beneath your feet. Consider the eeriness, that even a trusted friend or family member may actually be a killer robot in disguise. And consider that the T-1000’s favorite weapons are knives and stabbing weapons created from its own arms and fingers, you can never disarm him.
In his way, Cameron makes a pretty clear statement at the top of Terminator 2 that this is still a horror movie, as the film’s opening credits roll over scenes of burning playground equipment, and even if you’re watching this without the context given later in the film, it’s still emotional imagery. Of course you can’t have a film called ‘Judgment Day’ without at least showing a piece of it, and about halfway through T2, in Sarah’s dream, we see a peaceful and serene day in park with running, laughing children turn into the most evocative Cold War nightmare. Cameron and his effects team did a lot of research into what the effect of a nuclear blast on a modern urban area like Los Angeles would like, and it was time well spent. Watching Sarah’s charred skin explode off her skeleton still grasping the fence is one of T2’s most powerful, and arguably more powerful than the key action sequences of T2 which are thrilling, but doesn’t recall Cameron’s original nightmare quite so clearly.
Twelve years later, Rise of the Machines tried to pick up where Judgment Day left off but without Cameron, or Hamilton, or original producer Gale Ann Hurd. Director Jonathan Mostow worked from a script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris that had to hop a number of obstacles, not the least of which was the fact that the date of Judgment Day, August 29, 1997, had come and long gone. Set in 2004, the filmmakers answer to this dilemma was simple: John, Sarah and the T-800 didn’t stop Judgment Day, they just delayed it. Apparently, Judgment Day, to use Doctor Who terminology, is a fixed point in time and space; it can’t be undone, but it can be nudged out of place for a moment.
Rise of the Machines would have been largely forgettable if it weren’t for one thing, it concluded with the Machines winning. It was true to its title and had the narrative brass to see it through even as the slightly older John Connor (here played by Nick Stahl) ran around and did his best to undo the inevitable. There’s palpable emotion in the end as Connor, finding himself in a fallout shelter he was tricked to believe was the heart of Skynet, realizes that the time has come to accept his destiny. He was at the point where everything in his life was leading him to, and he is surprised to find himself ready. But there’s just one problem, it’s a total betrayal of the message of the first two movies.
Rise of the Machines suggests that everything is inevitable, where as both parts 1 and 2 are all about how you have the power to change your fate. The first Terminator teased how the attempt to alter one’s destiny can end up ensuring it; if Skynet hadn’t sent a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah in 1984, there would have been no way for John Connor’s mother and father to meet. Of course, what all parties lacked there was knowledge of how they all fit into the future. Did Kyle know he was supposed to father John Connor? It’s unlikely. But in T2, Sarah et al, now armed with knowledge, knew exactly what they had to do to stop the inevitable, and as the credits rolled at the end of T2, we thought they had. It seems a bit convenient that everything comes to pass exactly as it was meant to, except being a little late of course.
Aside from the downer ending, Mostow and company seemed to not realize what was expected of a Terminator film. The action scenes were huge, but they carried no weight, no real sense of drama. Despite the fact that the T-X (Kristanna Loken) is supposed to be the most advanced Terminator yet, she never feels like a threat. That has nothing to do with the fact that this Terminator is shaped like a woman, rather it has to do with the fact that her abilities make no sense. She can reprogram other machines, shapeshift, turn her appendages into weapons like flamethrowers and plasma weapons, and she seems impervious to death. In other words the T-X is too powerful. Without limitations, like the T-1000 who could only morph himself into pointy weapons, T-X is a deus ex machina of a villain, she can’t be defeated till the story deems it’s time for her to be defeated.
By the time we get to Terminator: Salvation the producers seem to have all but forgotten The Terminator’s humble beginnings as a low-budget slasher film. It was now summer blockbuster fare without a hint of irony or subtext. Directed by McG, whose complete lack of subtlety is best reflected in his two Charlie’s Angels movies, came onboard to tell a story that was ripe with horror movie inspired implications. What is the post-Judgment Day desert of future Los Angeles but a zombie movie where instead of the undead, it’s robots lurking throughout the countryside looking to kill you. Salvation also comes loaded with another story note that drives zombie fiction, the fear that you might end up one of them.
Instead of an even more advanced model, Salvation’s Terminator hero is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death row inmate who was killed in 2003 and wakes up in 2018 with all his innards, save for his brain and his heart, turned into a Terminator. The script was meant to set this up as the ultimate contest between what has the most strength, man or machine, but of course, Terminator: Salvation was not the movie it was meant to be, heavily re-written to inflate the part of John Connor once it got the interest of Christian Bale.
Instead of a story cast into the frightening glimpse of mankind on the brink, something that would have been more akin to The Walking Dead or the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, we get the politics of the Resistance for whom Connor is not yet leader, but merely a, ahem, cog in the machine. McG teases for a moment to further the aforementioned Holocaust analogy, with what’s essentially flying cattle cars bringing humans back to Skynet for scientific slaughter, but instead be go back to Connor’s barracks where he frets over the audiotapes left by his mother and why the future (again) isn’t going to plan.
Salvation’s problems were many, but primarily the issue was that it’s a movie at war with itself. There’s the version it was scripted to be with Marcus befriending and then having save a young Kyle Reese from Skynet. There’s the version its star wanted where he gets to play the savior of humanity as opposed to a robot trying to find his. And there’s the version that Warner Bros. so desperately wanted, and is that Salvation be the first in a brand new series of highly successful films, like Harry Potter, but with robots, or that horrible two-parter of Batman: The Animated Series with HARDAC.
It’s to this instinct that Terminator: Genisys and the fact of its existence seems to be in aid of. Of course, Genisys has indemnified itself by bringing back Schwarzenegger, recasting the series original parts, and pulling the same trick as J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek – using time travel to have your continuity and screw with it too. Through the trailers we see that once again a Terminator director, in this case Thor: The Dark World’s Alan Taylor, has banked on strong action, the real question is whether or not there’s more to the movie than running, jumping, and exploding, not to mention the vague sense of nostalgia that seems to drive all studio production choices these days whether they make sense or not.
One wonders what might have happened if The Terminator in 1984 had been subject to the Hollywood mentality of 2015. Would Reese have survived the final confrontation so that he and Sarah could live happily ever after till the next Terminator comes a calling? Would they have insisted on bigger set pieces? More scenes set in the future? Giving John Connor a bigger part to set up further entries in the series? Probably yes to all the above, but in the process the very reasons that The Terminator still appeals more than 30 years later would have been lost.
At its heart, The Terminator isn’t just a wild rollercoaster ride of impossible stunts and unkillable villains. It’s about finding yourself pursued for reasons you can’t comprehend. It’s about putting your faith in a stranger because even though you don’t know them you recognize the danger in the alternative. And it’s about finding great strength in the struggle, more than you even thought you were capable of. The same could be said for Halloween, Black Christmas, Don’t Answer the Phone, Night School, or any one of the Friday the 13th movies. Yes, The Terminator is a horror movie, but in the hands of lesser directors it’s pretty much just a horror. Will Genisys break the trend? We’ll find out…