The brilliance and decline of the "Terminator" series

As "Terminator: Dark Fate" hits theaters, it is useful to look at why the "Terminator" franchise still resonates

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 1, 2019 2:14PM (EDT)

Stills from Terminator franchise films (Paramount Pictures/HBO/Warner Bros./Salon)
Stills from Terminator franchise films (Paramount Pictures/HBO/Warner Bros./Salon)

The "Terminator" film series has the usual trappings of blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking: Eye-popping special effects, over-the-top action sequences, a high concept premise, big name stars.

Yet there is something a little more intelligent about the "Terminator" movies, a little more inspired, that elevates them above standard Hollywood fare. As "Terminator: Dark Fate" hits theaters this weekend, it is instructive to look at the ups and downs of this historic franchise.

1. The timelines are confusing.

The above statement applies in two ways. First, the "Terminator" movies don't pay particular attention to making sense of the paradoxes of time travel, and as a result you need to suspend disbelief when it comes to the questions of logic that inevitably arise in stories when characters visit the past. This is not an inconsequential detail: With one exception, all of the "Terminator" films include time traveling.

There is another way in which the "Terminator" timelines are confusing. While the 1984 film "The Terminator" and its 1991 sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" are widely regarded as classics, the subsequent installments have met with receptions ranging from lukewarm to hostile. As a result, the franchise has made a few attempts at soft reboots or retcon-ing the storyline to get back to that sweet spot. Therefore, there are three different timelines for understanding the movies themselves within the "Terminator" universe: Timeline A consists of the first two films as well as "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" (2003) and "Terminator Salvation" (2009); Timeline B consists of the first film and "Terminator Genisys" (2015), with a few references to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day"; Timeline C includes the first two films and the most recent sequel, "Terminator: Dark Fate."

2. "The Terminator" is one of the best action movies ever made.

This is the only film in the series to have a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it earns that distinction. It tells the story of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a young waitress who finds herself being hunted by a cyborg assassin from the future called the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). We soon learn from a mysterious man sworn to protect her, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), that Sarah is destined to give birth to a son named John who will lead humanity in a successful resistance to overthrow Skynet, an artificial intelligence defense network that became self-aware and caused a nuclear holocaust, then created the Terminators to stamp out the few pockets of humans still alive.

"The Terminator" set the bar by establishing the four qualities that distinguish the series as a whole. It's a fast-paced science fiction story with state-of-the-art special effects that (mostly) hold up today and some of the most memorable action sequences ever put to film. It also includes two of cinema's most memorable characters in the vulnerable but tough heroine Sarah and the Terminator itself, which manages to develop a personality through Schwarzenegger's stoical, charmingly direct robotic performance. This world has tech-noir setting (a key action set piece is set in a club called Tech-Noir), one that contrasts the sophistication and sleekness of advanced technology with a world suffused in poverty, crime, social decay, and dark colors straight out of the film noir genre (hence the term).

Finally, and most notably, the movie presents an intriguing idea about the nature of destiny. When we meet Sarah, she is a hapless waitress who seems far removed from the fierce warrior that Kyle insists she will eventually become. Does her own free will matter in shaping her fate? Is she inevitably going to become a very different kind of person? And is the apocalypse itself likewise impossible to avoid?

"The Terminator" comes down hard on the side of philosophical determinism, ultimately arguing that the apocalypse and Sarah's destiny to give birth to John are both set in the stars. The next movie offers a different, more intriguing alternative.

3. "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" builds on the premise of "The Terminator" and thereby redefines what that film is about.

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" may rank slightly lower than "The Terminator" on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 93 percent fresh score, but it is a much more sophisticated movie. Indeed, by its ending, it had not only provided the series with a perfect conclusion (which was negated by the sequels), but transformed the original movie in the process.

The movie begins with not one, but two Terminators being sent from the future. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is a 10-year-old delinquent in this film, having been taken away from his mother after authorities concluded her off-the-grid lifestyle was a sign of mental illness. One of the Terminators has been sent to kill him, the so-called T-1000 (Robert Patrick), who is memorably made of liquid metal. The other, played by Schwarzenegger, is here to protect him, and the chemistry between Schwarzenegger and Furlong — who plays John as a precocious and tough little boy delighted to have his own pet Terminator, and eventually a new father figure — provides the movie with much of its heart. Hamilton is also iconic as Sarah, who has been transformed from a helpless figure in the first movie to a hardened, cynical warrior in this one.

Like the first movie, this one has revolutionary special effects. It was one of the first blockbusters to make heavy use of CGI, and unlike many modern CGI fests, this one knew how to blend the computer images seamlessly with its practical effects. The T-1000 is particularly impressive: Made of a "mimetic polyalloy," he is intimidating not because he is a muscular hulk like Schwarzenegger's Terminators, but because he looks so unremarkable that he blends right into a crowd. He is also maddeningly difficult to kill, more so than any of the other near-indestructible Terminator villains, and that fact is cleverly underscored by the simplicity of his design (how do you kill a liquid?) rather than by gussying him up (which the sequels did with their Terminators). The action sequences are also state of the art, in particular a prolonged chase sequence at the beginning.

Yet one of the less noticed aspects of this film is how cleverly it subverts the assumptions of the first. The premise of the original virtually guaranteed that it would come down on the side of a deterministic universe, but this one offers the possibility that the heroes could not only defeat Skynet, but prevent it from ever being launched. Side characters like Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the original inventor of the neural net processor that would lead to Skynet, are presented with complexity and have their own interesting story arcs here. Yet the most fascinating one belongs to Schwarzenegger's Terminator, whose actions raise questions about whether artificial intelligence can develop genuine emotions ... and, if that is possible, what that would say about our ability to control our own destinies.

4. "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" marked the beginning of the franchise's decline.

My main memory of this movie's theatrical release — which happened when I was a college freshman — was listening to a California friend lament that the man his state had just elected to be governor "is in a movie right now playing a robot." While subsequent research suggests that "Terminator 3" may not have still been in theaters at the time he said that, the observation has some symbolic merit. The "Terminator" series is what made Schwarzenegger into a movie star, which in turn allowed him to have a political career. It was appropriate that a "Terminator" movie was fresh on the public's mind around the time that he ousted Gov. Gray Davis in a recall election.

If it seems like I'm avoiding writing about this movie, there is a good reason for that. (All of the remaining bullet points in this essay will be shorter, since the remaining "Terminator" movies aren't nearly as interesting as the first two.) This is an unforgivably mediocre film: The special effects are unconvincing CGI, the action scenes are boring, the characters are generic (including the Terminator himself) and the overall tone feels half-hearted. Insultingly, the movie kills Hamilton's character off-screen and makes Connor (Nick Stahl) into a whiner who it is very difficult to imagine as self-reliant, much less as a great leader. New characters like Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) also fail to make a mark, and even the new Terminator (Kristanna Loken) seems like a step back: Her T-X can shapeshift, like the T-1000, but isn't made entirely of liquid metal and thus seems easier to defeat.

Perhaps the worst part is that the story completely undermines the premise of the previous film by saying that the events of that story only postponed Judgment Day (the moment when the machines caused a nuclear war). It would be one thing if the movie openly embraced a deterministic or nihilistic philosophy; that, at least, would have been logical and required some level of bravery. Yet like the other "Terminator" films, this one insists on trumpeting the idea that our fate is what we make despite it being clearly established in its story that, in fact, it is not.

5. The most memorable thing about "Terminator Salvation" has nothing to do with the movie itself.

Do you remember the time when Christian Bale flipped out on Shane Hurlbut, the director of photography, for walking on set during a scene? How that was audio taped and released to the public, with Bale apologizing for seeming like an unhinged brat?

That audio tape is far more entertaining than the movie Bale was filming at the time. "Terminator Salvation" has impressive special effects, but that's about it. It tells the story of how John Connor (Bale), now an adult living in the apocalyptic world that had been foreshadowed in the previous three movies, must make sure that Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) can survive long enough to go back in time and father him. Around the same time Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), an ex-convict who may or may not actually be a Terminator with a death row inmate's memories and personality, wanders around and does ... things.

While the action scenes here are competently executed, it is impossible to care about them when the characters are so rote. There is no philosophical subtext to speak of, nor does the movie address the theme of humanity's over-reliance on technology as did the first three films. It is just there, limply unfolding on the screen while the audience checks its watch and waits for it to end.

6. "Terminator Genisys" epitomizes everything that can go wrong with indulging in fan service.

"Terminator Genisys" wants to be a tribute to the first two "Terminator" movies while simultaneously replacing them. One could argue that this is hypocritical, but it seems doubtful that the filmmakers really grasped the implications of what they were doing.

Bluntly put, "Terminator Genisys" reenacts the opening scenes of the first "Terminator" — with a few variations — but then subverts that story by having a good Terminator named Pops (Schwarzenegger) and an unrealistically empowered Sarah (Emilia Clarke) rescue a confused Kyle (Jai Courtney) and tell him how the story is really going to go down. In the process the film pays homage to fan favorite characters and scenes from the two movies that fans liked while ignoring the two that they didn't, but at the same time wipes out all those stories and creates its own Terminator universe.

In this one, John Connor (Jason Clarke) is corrupted by a Terminator and becomes the franchise's main villain. The targets of satire are not military technology, which were the focus of the other movies, but the internet of things as manifested by the fact that the Trojan horse for Skynet is a global operating system called Genisys. This could have been intriguing, but the movie doesn't have anything to say about why it's more interesting to have John Connor become an antagonist or why we should be worried about the omnipresence of internet-based technologies. The ideas are insincere, the special effects lame, the action sequences dead on arrival. It is easily the worst film in the series.

7. "Terminator: Dark Fate" is a return to form, but does not match up to the first two movies.

I elaborate on my thoughts on this movie in my review, as it brings back Hamilton and finds a good way to use Schwarzenegger's Terminator characters. As I write:

Whenever Hamilton or Schwarzenegger appear on screen, the movie comes to life. Nostalgia is certainly a factor, of course, but the filmmakers knew how to take what had been established about their characters in the previous "Terminator" installments and build on it in clever and creative ways. In that respect "Terminator: Dark Fate" reminded me of last year's "Halloween" soft reboot, since that movie utilized Jamie Lee Curtis as effectively as this one does Hamilton and Schwarzenegger (coincidentally that one ignored all of the previous sequels in its series; this one ignores all but the first sequel).

It feels like the "Terminator" franchise is starting to understand more about what made those first two films work, and Tim Miller's "Dark Fate" is a step in the right direction. Should the series continue, and I hope it does, it remains to be seen what the next entry into the timeline will be.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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