A literal killing machine, wrapped in flesh. A young woman who will end up giving birth to the savior of the human race. A soldier sent from a war-torn, hellish future to save her. These are the core elements that serve as the base from The Terminator, James Cameron’s groundbreaking sci-fi/horror film. The first of the Terminator films immediately struck a chord with audiences, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of the titular cyborg.
Schwarzenegger’s imposing physique, combined with his signature sunglasses and black leather jacket, helped to sell him as a nigh-unstoppable threat. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn also turned in excellent performances as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, respectively. Another reason the first film worked was the fact that it settled comfortably between science-fiction and horror. Sarah Connor is the ultimate “Final girl,” the sole character to survive the Terminator’s rampage and the one who ends up destroying it. Likewise, the idea of an unstoppable killer robot seems ripped from the pages of a Stephen King novel.
The first Terminator was a critical and commercial success and firmly established itself in the halls of pop culture. Naturally, Cameron returned to do a sequel. Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which not only upped the action and stakes of its predecessor but it also established Cameron’s knack for embracing cutting-edge visual effects, which he would bring to Avatar and Alita: Battle Angel. It seemed that much like the machine it was named after, the Terminator franchise was unstoppable. But the three films that followed Judgement Day have all been met with lackluster reception, for various reasons.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – Style over Substance
Rise of the Machines, directed by Jonathan Mostow, picks up several years after Judgement Day as an adult John Connor (Nick Stahl) tries to avoid his destiny as the savior of mankind while dealing with his mother’s death. Destiny, however, is not willing to forget him as a reprogrammed Terminator (Schwarzenegger again) is sent back in time to protect him from the lovely, yet lethal T-X (Kristanna Loken).
Although the film features some fairly solid action sequences, including a shootout where the Terminator places John in a coffin to shield him from the police, the story is lacking the horror elements that fueled the first two films. Even worse, several story elements feel extremely derivative of Judgement Day. The race to prevent a horrific future, a Terminator reprogrammed to protect John Connor, a Terminator who can change its appearance; all of these were elements audiences had seen before. But the cherry on top of the sundae was Sarah Connor’s off-screen death. Sarah was the audience’s defacto protagonist; her transformation from victim to victor is what fueled the first two films. Killing her off robbed the third film of any emotional investment. It also doesn’t help that Stahl is not a particularly compelling or even interesting protagonist.
Terminator: Salvation – Intent vs Execution
The next film in the series, Terminator Salvation, takes place entirely in the future as John Connor (now played by Christian Bale) leads the Resistance against Skynet’s forces. When a man named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) awakens from a coma and finds the Resistance base, Connor discovers a horrible truth; Wright, a former death row inmate, is part Terminator himself. The idea of a Terminator who didn’t even know he was a Terminator, as well as having a Terminator film set entirely in the future that previous films had tried to alter was a good idea on paper. However, Salvation fell victim to the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild Strike, and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld, The Dark Knight), who had contributed heavily to the project, left. To make matters worse, the third act of the film, which would have featured Connor dying and Wright taking his place, leaked online which forced heavy rewrites. The final film ends up being boilerplate post-apocalyptic fare, with Terminators sprinkled in. Wright never comes into his own as a character, due to the rewrites and Worthington’s stilted performance.
Terminator: Genisys – Repetition VS Innovation
Annapurna Pictures acquired the rights to the Terminator franchise in 2011 and began to develop a new film, consulting Cameron for story details. Taking a page from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, the film used time travel as a means to reboot the series. In it, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) travels back in time to save Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from death. It is also then he learns that Sarah has already become a hardened warrior, and even boasts her own Terminator guardian (Schwarzenegger, again) whom she calls “Pops”.
But deja vu struck again and elements from the first two films once again reared their head, as we yet again had another Terminator on the side of the angels and another shape-shifting Terminator. Even the genuinely shocking twist-John Connor was infected by Skynet and transformed into a Terminator-was spoiled in trailers, taking the proverbial wind out of Genisys’ sails. Both critics and audiences dismissed it, and a pair of sequels never made it into production.
Terminator: Dark Fate premieres today, and it seems like director Tim Miller has rectified one of the franchises’ constant mistakes by bringing back Hamilton to reprise her role as Sarah Connor. However, in order to truly succeed as a sequel, Dark Fate shouldn’t replicate the elements from Judgement Day, rather it should return to the horror roots of the first film and show why the Terminator has become such an enduring figure in pop culture.
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.