The Terminator series review

As preparation for the new Terminator: Genisysyou can find my review for that here—I thought this a great opportunity to rewatch the four movies that precede it, to see what might be learned. How do they hold up?

I certainly have an affection for the first two, the James Cameron pictures, with strong memories of watching them the first time. Less so of numbers three and four.  For the completists out there, I gotta admit I haven’t seen the two-season TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and I’m not going to get into it here. I also never read any of the comics.

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There’s something wonderfully ’80s about The Terminator (from 1984, directed by James Cameron, written by Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd), a peculiar alloy of films from earlier times updated for the glossy, neon-lit Me Decade. Westworld and Night of the Living Dead both seem like direct influences. The Terminator nicely synthesizes our fear of nuclear annihilation with anxiety around tech that’ll destroy us.

It’s not just the fashions that define it in its era—though it’s there in the teased hair, headbands, and long coats—it’s the whole way Cameron directs the thing. I love everything about its low-budget kinetic exploitation-y vibe—from the out-of-frame commentary from day players (“you’ve got a serious attitude problem, man”) to the way Cameron makes us aware how much machines are already a part of our lives in 1984: close-ups of garbage trucks, scooters, walkmans (that we listen to while having sex), beepers, answering services (“you’re talking to a machine”), the date who stands up Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a big shot because he drives a Porsche. This is, without a doubt, “Tech Noir.”

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The Terminator is the product of a filmmaker hungry to make his mark, with terrific instincts for genre. Watching the movie again it’s easy to see why it worked, because it still does: The action beats are excellent, the casting is great—why Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn didn’t become bigger stars outside of Cameron pictures is beyond me. And the supporting cast—cops Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, and the schlubby psychologist and professional skeptic played by Earl Boen—are all memorable.

And there’s no underestimating  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charisma in the lead. Along with John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian, it was a career one-two punch for the Austrian-born bodybuilder: The perfect roles at the perfect time.

Do I have to go to the trouble of synopsizing the plot? I’m sure anyone interested in reading my impressions knows the story.

Here’s the nutshell, anyway: an orbital defence system (Skynet, created by a company called Cyberdyne Systems) becomes conscious at some point in the future and decides to exterminate humanity with a nuclear strike, what we humans dub, in our typically Judeo-Christian way, Judgement Day. Skynet gets most of us, followed by years of a misery, with killer robots called Terminators designed to look like humans hunting the rest of the survivors. In 2029 us flawed and fleshy folks find a way to stop them.

When one  of the Terminators (Schwarzenegger) goes back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Hamilton), the mother of John Connor, leader of the human resistance in 2029, the unseen Connor sends his right hand man, Kyle Reese (Biehn), to save her.

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In a twist only possible in time travel movies, Connor manages to create himself (Kyle Reese is his father) and the robots manage to create themselves, as we see in future franchise entries.

(It’s headache inducing, but here’s an in-depth look at the conundrums of time in the Terminator movies, including Terminator Genisys. And here’s a few other questions answered about the labyrinthine plotting of the newest movie, from an interview with the writers.)

What else is great about the first Terminator? Brad Fiedel’s score is terrific. The electronic drums and synths when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable killing machine makes his early rounds through Los Angeles, shooting or beating to a pulp everyone he comes in contact with, including a blue-haired Bill Paxton, have become iconic. In the lobby of the Park Lane Cineplex cinemas in Halifax is a Terminator: Salvation videogame, which will periodically play that theme. Sticks in my head every time I hear it.

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What gives The Terminator its beating heart is Hamilton’s Sarah, a character who when we first meet her is a waitress living in Los Angeles. She’s the living dream of potential,  the warrior mom, giving birth to and raising the hope of the future. A hero to be who becomes that right before our eyes. She’s a great character and it’s her spirit that’s missing from the later movies. This isn’t really John’s story, it’s Sarah’s.

Despite The Terminator being a perfectly closed loop—as a time-travel tale, anyway—Cameron returned to the material in 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgement Day (written by Cameron with William Wisher).

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Sarah (Hamilton) intros it for us in a v/o, that a second Terminator was sent back to kill her son when he son was a 10-year-old, in 1995 (the near future from when the film was made). Edward Furlong (young John) is definitely a mature 10-year-old, but that’s neither here nor there.

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And a second warrior is sent back to save him—despite what Reese said in the first movie, that this was a one-shot deal, that John Connor would have destroyed the time travel device. Such is the nature of sequels, I suppose.

Early on there’s a sweet callback to the first film with the truck headlights in the scene where the new T-800 (Schwarzenegger) warps in from 2029, and I liked that Cameron knew enough to inject a little humour into the proceedings: excellent use of George Thorogood’s “Bad To The Bone”.

Sarah Connor (Hamilton again) is behind bars in a sanitarium under the care of Earl Boen’s Dr Silberman, the result of her erratic behaviour and doomsday rantings, while John is a juvenile delinquent being fostered by perennial asshole Xander Berkeley (has he ever played a decent human being?) and Jenette Goldstein (who was Vasquez in Aliens). Meanwhile, the tech retrieved from the factory at the end of the last movie is being developed by Cyberdyne’s in-house genius, Miles Bennet Dyson (Joe Morton). Judgement Day, the moment when the computers become sentient, is imminent. But there’s no fate but what we make, right?

Everything in T2 is bigger: the stunts, the explosions, the themes. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, but it’s certainly different. And, if there was any doubt after The Abyss of Cameron’s blockbuster ambitions or comfort with special effects, T2 lays them to rest.

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The key relationship isn’t a doomed romance between a knight protector and his charge, it’s between a boy and his robot, which gives the thing a sweeter note at its centre.

One of the  terminators gets reprogrammed to be a protector, while another model, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), is made of intelligent liquid steel—via FX that hasn’t aged too badly, it can change form and mimic the identity of anyone it touches.

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The studio made a serious tactical error when it released a trailer revealing the plot development that Arnie was the good guy in this one. I suppose I’m doing the same thing here, but 24 years (almost to the day) after the release date, I think you take your chances with spoilers.

One thing that has improved from the first film is Hamilton’s hair: no more poodle puffs in 1991, thank all that is holy. She’s also totally pumped up, barely recognizable from years on the run. Her hollowed cheeks nicely mirror Patrick’s, but her wild eyes are really something to see. It’s a hell of a performance.

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The best scene, in my book, is when Sarah, John, and the Terminator discuss Dyson’s responsibility for the coming apocalypse. It’s great acting from the John Sayles veteran, Morton, and it gets right into the complicated ethics of what they’re trying to accomplish.

The Special Edition really slows the pace and increases the running time, though it includes more interesting interstitial scenes between John and the Terminator, along with an appearance by Biehn as Kyle Reese in a dream sequence I think is essential, as it ties everything to what went before.

That last scene in the steel factory is a little heavy on the cheese, but I like what Sarah says about facing the future with hope. It feels like this franchise should have ended right there. That would have been good. If someone, somewhere, decided to take it forward, it should have been Cameron. It’s his baby. This isn’t the Alien series, where every movie is a take by a different auteur.

Journeyman director Jonathan Mostow, who at the time was best known for a Kurt Russell action picture and a Jon Bon Jovi submarine movie, took the reins for third visit to the franchise in 2003. This one was called Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (written by John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris, and Tedi Sarafian, with characters by Cameron and Hurd), though given it depicts the events of the actual Judgment Day , it feels as though they were already behind the eight ball with the title already used.

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The premise has promise: John Connor (now Nick Stahl) is still kicking around SoCal. 1997 came and went with no destructor-droids. Now he’s adrift, uncertain of the future he was raised preparing for. Welcome to real life, buddy.

Too bad they don’t do much else with the material that feels new. Another edition of Killer Arnie appears, once again sourcing leather gear in a bar with associated chuckles. And, again, we have another, more advanced Terminator gunning for John Connor and his future associates, the T-X (Kristanna Loken), a female machine this time. While she can still do all those T-1000 impersonations and liquid metal tricks, improvements include all kinds of weaponry and the ability to control machines, driving cars by remote control and log on with her dial-up mouth. How quaint.

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You’ve got to wonder why Skynet keeps trying the same trick over and over to diminishing returns. Presumably, wherever they send a terminator back and nothing in their timeline changes, they resolve to send another. Then the Resistance does the same. How does the Resistance know where Skynet sends their Terminators? Are they using different time machines? This series raises a lot of questions about a future that robots keep travelling backwards in time from.

The action set-pieces in T3:ROTM are huge and destructive, which is entertaining enough, I suppose, but things feel a little hollow, espeically in the first and second act. Without Sarah Connor at the centre, this feels like a relic, a retread without the same personal stakes. It’s another mechanical horror on the hunt while the hunted keep one eye on the clock while trying to stay alive. As Schwarzenegger’s T-800 so aptly puts it, it’s an obsolete model. (And his “talk to the hand” line seems especially lame now.)

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I did enjoy Claire Danes as Kate Brewster, John Connor’s future bride. She’s dully written as a screamy Sarah Connor replacement, but Danes brings a typical vulnerability and intelligence. I’ve always admired how she’s able to cry at the drop of a hat.  And there’s a cameo by Earl Boen that rewards franchise fans. Too bad the production design—none of the interiors, props or robots, are especially special or memorable— and the score aren’t up to the standard established in the franchise to date.

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When Skynet does go live, with John and Kate on the run from a variety of mechanical  threats, the third act delivers more satisfyingly. It ends better than it starts, which isn’t something you can say too often. I was once again reminded of Westworld, and, a bit, of Wargames. Not a bad association. And I like that the final takeaway of the film is, despite all that time twisting and travelling, that some things are inevitable. Like, say, the end of the world.

And then, one day in 2009, John Connor became Christian Bale. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

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The fourth movie is Terminator Salvation (Directed by McG, with Rise of the Machines writers John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris back for another go round). On its own, there are some compelling reasons to see it, especially if you’re a fan of post-apocalypse movies in a general way. Aesthetically, Salvation has more in common with the Mad Max series than the previous three Terminator movies, despite it being the first PG-13 franchise entry. And I think that’s a problem for a Terminator movie.

But credit to it for staying in its moment, for not actually featuring any time travel during its running time, a first for the franchise. In order for a reintegration of that trope, it would have to be a very different approach, which comes in number five.

Furthermore, the filmmakers of Terminator Salvation are depicting events discussed and suggested in past movies—the world as it will exist after Judgement Day—but in a weird way, given the all hopping around in time, it’s a prequel. And, accordingly, it’s locked into a mythology, connecting the dots, which is often a real drama-killer. Narratively, this is a franchise painted into a corner. And yet, while it’s a mess, at least it attempts to diverge from the repetition that sunk much of the third edition.

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The movie introduces Markus (Australian Sam Worthington, American his accent mid-Pacific at best) who, in 2003, was a remorseful death row inmate. Before he gets sent to his death, a horrific-looking Helena Bonham Carter, playing a Cyberdyne doctor, encourages Markus to donate his body to science. In 2018 he wakes up, pulling himself out of a hole in the desert, a former Skynet research facility just blown up by John Connor and his resistance buddies.

Highlights of the first half of the movie include a solid action sequence with a giant robot in the desert and the introduction of motorcycle terminators, along with a reprise of “You Could Be Mine,” the Guns N Roses track that was a big part of the T2 soundtrack. Lowlights: a lot of low-stakes, uninteresting plot developments,  characters we don’t get to know or care about, and a couple of helicopter crashes.

The film strangely puts Markus and John Connor at odds, with a twist most seasoned scifi watchers will see coming, and then reveals it in the second act rather than the third. That’s not to say it isn’t a good twist, but it should have been saved to the end.

So much of this feels generic and ham-fisted. It doesn’t help that Bale is at his most shouty and uninteresting—his John Connor is maybe his most two-dimensional creation—and those other characters I mentioned, played by Moon Bloodgood, Jane Alexander, Michael Ironside, Common, Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate, and Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, make next to no impression.

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Markus gets to have the broadest and most interesting arc, but no real relationship with anyone else.  This may be Sam Worthington’s best performance to date, though that isn’t saying much. I don’t find him a compelling leading man, whatsoever. And his character’s eventual disposition and sacrifice comes off as more than a little ridiculous. It just doesn’t feel earned.

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The finale does include a rubbery CGI version of our favourite T-800 (since Arnie was otherwise occupied with his Governator duties), but that’s no reason to watch the thing. Trust me on that.

I guess the lesson here is stick to the first two. Try the third if you must, but beware beyond that. Here’s another link to my thoughts on Terminator: Genisys.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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