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The later Terminator sequels would be completely obsolete if not for Ahnold

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With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Has judgment day arrived for the Terminator series? Somewhere, probably in an airtight bunker beneath the offices of Paramount Studios, a cabal of studio executives is deciding the fate of the franchise that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, James Cameron a major Hollywood player, and “Hasta la vista, baby” a torturously inescapable catchphrase. It’s not looking great for the machines.


Genisys, the fifth (and possibly final) film in the series, was supposed to be a hard reset on the Terminator brand—the opening chapter in a new trilogy. But the movie, which premiered last summer to dismal reviews and so-so box-office, has instead forced the powers that be to rethink the profitability of keeping the T-800 in commission. It’s not the first time a Terminator sequel has failed to perform its tent-pole duties. Six years ago, Salvation was also conceived as part one of a new trilogy, but similarly underperformed. And six years before that, the third film in the series, Rise Of The Machines, failed to outgross its 12-year-old predecessor, which is what led to all the new-trilogy talk in the first place.

The Terminator series has always been troubled, its rights passing constantly from one distributor to another, creative talent coming and going as prospective sequels passed in and out of production limbo. (Believe it or not, there was once talk of an animated Terminator movie.) “Troubled,” of course, is James Cameron’s wheelhouse; remember, this is the guy who pulled the two biggest hits of all time out of the boondoggle of difficult shoots and disastrous pre-release buzz. But even if Cameron had stayed at the helm of the Terminator saga, rather than abandoning it after the second movie, there’s a strong case to be made that this series should have stopped with T2. For though there are endless story possibilities in the films’ apocalyptic, chronologically complicated universe—further explored in comic books, novels, video games, and a well-received television series—the first two Terminator movies work so perfectly as a completed whole that each subsequent entry has felt at best unnecessary, at worst downright counterproductive.


There are some who would go further, and argue that they should have stopped with just one Terminator movie—that self-contained B-movie actioner, as relentless as the manlike machine of its title. Made for $6.5 million, and shot mostly at night on the streets of Los Angeles, Cameron’s 1984 sleeper married the junkshop-future aesthetic and vehicular mayhem of The Road Warrior to the primal stalker narrative of Halloween. It also established the premise of the series: Skynet, a sentient AI defense program that’s pushed humanity to the brink of extinction, sends a cybernetic assassin (Schwarzenegger) back in time, from battle-ravaged 2029 to pre-war 1984, to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the resistance’s unborn leader. Fortunately, General John Connor has sent his own soldier, the flesh and blood Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), to save her from this merciless golem.

It’s strange to return to The Terminator after years of sequels that resemble it only in overarching narrative. The original is small, spare, unforgiving, and closer in spirit to creeping horror than shoot-’em-up action on the sliding genre scale. Set pieces, like the Terminator’s grisly rampage through an ill-equipped police station, inspire more pit-of-the-stomach dread than adrenaline rush. The nocturnal timeframe also enhances the supernatural terror of the material, as do gory shots of the villain performing surgery on himself. Even the fiery finale resembles the final scenes of a slasher movie—complete with determined Final Girl and a killer who just won’t die—more than the slam-bang climax of a Hollywood blockbuster.

About that finale: If the stop-motion effects haven’t aged too gracefully, they possess a certain Ray Harryhausen-like charm—the cyberpunk equivalent of those skeleton warriors from Jason And The Argonauts. Anyway, the film’s real special effect is its marquee star. Conan The Barbarian had already catapulted Schwarzenegger into the limelight, but it was The Terminator that made him an action hero. His take on the character isn’t robotic, exactly; he’s remorseless but not quite emotionless, judging from the occasional flare of volcanic, bestial anger. Cameron sees more of an alien quality in Schwarzenegger’s iron-thick accent, halting delivery, and impossible physique; he’s the mechanical man as hostile new species—and Schwarzenegger, draining his eccentric star persona of any warmth, has never been so frighteningly well-utilized. (In fact, the series as a whole has made marvelous use of the actor, finding menace, humor, and even poignancy in his superhuman otherness.)

Seven years later, Cameron and Schwarzenegger would subvert the malevolence of their literal killing machine. Whereas the first Terminator delays revealing the mechanical nature of its antagonist and the reason Reese has followed him through time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day revives that sense of mystery by playing on audience’s familiarity with the original: In a reversal of expectations, it’s Schwarzenegger’s T-800 model that’s come back in time to play protector—this time to a bratty teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong). Of course, there are some early and pretty big hints that the dynamic has been flipped, including the comic tone of Schwarzenegger’s first appearance and the fact that the apparent Kyle Reese substitute straight up kills a police officer for his uniform. Furthermore, the marketing campaign did a pretty good job of giving away Cameron’s inspired twist, just as the trailers for Salvation and Genisys would later spoil their own identity-related secrets. All the same, the scene where young John discovers who he should really be running from still provokes goosebumps.

If the first Terminator was resourceful grindhouse fare, achieving its ambitious high concept on a relatively low budget, T2 is basically the prototypical modern summer blockbuster, both in its escalating series of enormous action sequences and its seminal deployment of CGI. Judgment Day increases the scope of the timeframe, geographical radius, and plot; it’s basically The Road Warrior to the original’s Mad Max—a fuller realization of Cameron’s imagination and ambitions. It also largely signaled the director’s slow transformation from economical genre pro into event-movie maestro, from Sam Peckinpah into Cecil B. DeMille. From here, Cameron’s movies would get bigger, jokier, and cornier. To some diehards, it’s the cinematic equivalent of Metallica’s Black Album: the overproduced crowd-pleaser that brought his leaner, meaner ’80s heyday to an unfortunate end.


In many ways, this is the film that set the template for the Terminator franchise, providing a road map for future sequels. The winking repurposing of lines from the original (“I’ll be back,” “Come with me if you want to live.”) into repeated catchphrases begins with T2. So, too, does the reprogramming of Schwarzenegger’s character into a sympathetic hero, trained not to kill, his robot logic suddenly a source of deadpan humor. It’s easy to see how all of this might have vexed Terminator fans of the time; a character that was once basically the angel of death had been turned into a pal and sidekick, joking about needing a vacation and giving a thumbs up on his way out. He was suddenly almost cuddly, when not blowing out kneecaps with a shotgun.

And yet if Terminator 2 loses the barbaric intensity of its predecessor, the tradeoff is that it morphs, like the franchise’s new shapeshifting adversary, into the platonic ideal of the big-budget action movie—a film too propulsive, too visionary, too flat-out entertaining to despise. Even more so, perhaps, than the prehistoric wonders of Jurassic Park, its fellow pioneer in the field of CGI, T2’s special effects hold up—in no small part, of course, because they’re being used to bring to life a creature that doesn’t look, move, or behave like anything “real.” As played by both a series of 1s and 0s and a sinewy, chilly Robert Patrick, the metallic mercenary T-1000 isn’t just an amazing special effect, but also a tremendously memorable villain—and a perfectly scary replacement for Schwarzenegger himself. The action scenes, meanwhile, are for the ages: Sequences like the L.A. highway chase and the siege on Skynet prove that while Cameron might have already been losing his edge, his chops remained fully intact.


Furthermore, there’s a dramatic potency to T2 that the franchise would never achieve again. Cameron realizes the nuclear anxiety of his premise with a nightmare scene that harrowingly visualizes several decades worth of big-bomb fears. But his sequel earns even more honest sentiment from its depiction of surrogate family, with Hamilton’s badass-survivalist mother—a far cry from the terrified Sarah Connor of part one—able to give her son everything he needs to be a great leader, while denying him the emotional support he openly craves. The Terminator, meanwhile, becomes a makeshift father figure—a concept much less absurd than it sounds, at least when Hamilton is explaining, through voice-over, how his tireless devotion to his adolescent charge makes him a better fit than the genuine article. Sentimentalism may not have been what Terminator fans wanted or expected from this four-quadrant follow-up, but the film’s fatalistic climax (“I know now why you cry”) reaches Hawksian levels of macho poignancy.

“The future is not set,” Sarah proclaims in the final moments, as Cameron races his camera down a jet-black highway into the great unknown. Whether that’s an accurate assessment of the franchise’s knotty time-travel logic is up for serious debate. Cameron’s Terminator films toy with the idea that time travel is already built into the architecture of time: The first film finds Reese impregnating Connor with the child that will eventually send him back to 1984, while the sequel explains that it was the discarded arm of the original Terminator that led to the creation of the AI that built it—which is to say, just as John Connor arranged for his own conception, Skynet created Skynet. At the same time, however, T2 suggests that events from the past can be changed, given that the film ends with Sarah, John, and the T-800 preventing Judgment Day by destroying Skynet.


Or does it? Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003) essentially walks back the optimism of its predecessor, replacing the no-fate-but-what-we-make philosophy of the previous movie with something closer to a belief in predestination. (That this direction essentially destroys the closure Cameron provided his own story is just business as usual for the Hollywood sequel machine.) Part three finds the T-800—technically a new one, but still played by Schwarzenegger—returning to the past like an absentee father to once again protect John Connor from a suped-up rival model. Judgment Day has been pushed back, but it’s still on the horizon; much of the film deals with John and his future wife (Claire Danes) dealing with the realization that it’s not preventable but inevitable.

“Don’t you remember?” John asks his new bodyguard, who looks just like the one he wept over a dozen years earlier, but has none of the learned behavior, the friendship modifications, of the earlier model. The irony, of course, is that Connor himself has been replaced, too: He’s played here by Nick Stahl instead of Edward Furlong, making him the second of four actors who would end up taking on the role. (Christian Bale and Jason Clarke stepped in for subsequent installments.) Those looking for a charitable metaphoric rationale for this clockwork recasting could argue that the war with the machines continuously transforms him into a new man, or maybe that as the face of the resistance, he is every man. Regardless, and with apologies to Furlong, Stahl is maybe the best of the John Connors, if only by virtue of bridging the bratty teenage version we see in T2 to the mythic super-leader of later entries in the series.


But the most significant substitution happens behind the camera, not in front of it. Saddled with the impossible task of filling James Cameron’s shoes, new director Jonathan Mostow does a serviceable imitation: The heavy-artillery action scenes, like a terrifically destructive homage to part two’s highway chase, generally get the job done. But as an early-2000s summer blockbuster, T3 leans far too heavily on its digital team, never doing anything practically that could be done with the click of a mouse instead. As a result, the effects look much more dated than those in T2. That’s not the only lesson the film fails to learn from its predecessor. Whereas Terminator 2 is still an ideal of sequel strategizing, expanding on the ideas as well as the scale of the film it follows, Terminator 3 adopts the more typical approach of simply making everything bigger and louder. The result plays like an unneeded redo, with lamer humor (an early strip-club scene) and a less iconic foe (Kristanna Loken’s vamping T-X, whose powers are both less defined and less creatively utilized than those of the T-1000).

Salvation, released in the summer of 2009, deserves credit for at least trying something a little different. Ever since we first saw the bombed-out battlefields of the original, fans have longed to spend some real quality time in this post-apocalyptic world. Salvation takes place entirely in John Connor’s fabled future, creating a fully realized version of the ashen hellhole Earth only glimpsed in previous installments. Visually, it’s a compelling environment, and new director McG proves a more proficient purveyor of CGI mayhem than Mostow; he stages a couple of killer set pieces, including another chase scene—a series specialty—involving automated motorcycles.


But Salvation is nevertheless a dull, mostly joyless experience, with protagonist duties passing to a glowering Sam Worthington, while Christian Bale turns off every hint of his charisma to play a poker-faced John Connor. (This is the project that provoked that infamous outburst, leading one to wonder why Bale didn’t channel some of that bellowing emotion into his actual performance.) Worse still, the movie makes not a lick of sense, even by the shaky sci-fi logic of the series. Why does Connor seem to know about the events of The Terminator but not those of the sequel? Are we to assume that the first Terminator has gone back in time to 1984, but that the second one hasn’t yet made his trip to 1991? What memories of his childhood does John have? Furthermore, if the machines know that Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin here) will eventually father John Connor, why don’t they just kill him immediately instead of using him as bait for Connor?

What this fourth film most crucially lacks, of course, is the strange charm of Schwarzenegger himself, then preoccupied with his political career. (He appears only in CG form, for a pointless cameo/fight scene.) The series would arrange his triumphant return for last year’s tepidly received Terminator Genisys. If Salvation capitalized on the then-and-still-trendy practice of writing origin stories for every profitable property available—with the wrinkle that this particular prequel technically takes place after the events of the other films—Genisys fits into the current craze of official fan-fiction sequels: Like Jurassic World, Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Spectre, the film flatters the passion of the faithful by constantly referencing the most popular components of its series. It’s less sequel than fan-service reboot, taking the franchise back to its roots by supposedly giving its audience what they used to like about The Terminator.


Not that this strategy paid off. Genisys earned the crappiest reviews of the series, even landing on some worst-of-the-year lists. But while the film, directed by Game Of Thrones alum Alan Taylor, suffers from a crass insistence on simply recreating the most popular moments from the first two films—without Cameron’s panache, of course—it’s nonetheless a more fun action distraction than Salvation. The plot is goofily convoluted, with Kyle Reese (now a bland Jai Courtney) jumping back to 1984, only to discover, along with the audience, that the timeline has already been altered, with Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) becoming the tough-as-nails action heroine of T2 several years ahead of schedule. Leaping around in time—and often interacting with the events of the first two movies, Back To The Future II-style—the film is fast-paced enough to remain reasonably entertaining, at least for those with a weakness for seeing iconography recontexualized on the fly.


Playing a worn-and-torn version of the Terminator, whose organic flesh has aged the same way real human tissue does, Schwarzenegger gets to both reprise his most iconic role and play a walking and talking acknowledgement of his waning physical superiority. In so much as there’s any justification for keeping this series going past the perfect punctuation of T2’s moving finale, the Terminator sequels work as a surprisingly affecting encapsulation of Schwarzenegger’s career. The first presents him as a perfect physical specimen, all muscle and aggression. The second deepens his character in sync with his evolving star power, accommodating the humor and certain limited acting prowess that came to define a Schwarzenegger vehicle. The third finds his T-800 announcing that he’s “obsolete”—a meta nod to how the performer had begun to steadily age out of his physically demanding line of work. And then Genisys finds the latest line of Terminator correcting the last one and insisting that he’s “old, not obsolete,” which works as a pretty transparent commentary on the way this elderly icon has reemerged as a screen presence, playing on his advancing years rather than trying to ignore them. Hell, even Salvation fits into the schema, its digital Schwarzenegger facsimile reflecting the way that the traditional action hero of the ’80s was being rendered irrelevant by advances in special-effects technology. (Remember, Salvation opened the same year as Avatar, also starring Sam Worthington—an actor without an ounce of the curious charm of his Reagan-era ancestors.)

Cameron’s twin triumphs make up a single unit of rollercoaster Hollywood storytelling; they complement each other, one building on the mythology of the other, each boasting unique merits. In an ideal world, one not ruled by desperate attempts to milk a good idea dry, the Terminator movies would be ineligible for this very feature, as there’d only be two of them. But the later sequels do exist, and if they feel like anything more than unnecessary supplements, it’s because of their hulking headliner, evolving even as the franchise around him refused to. Will the Terminator be back, as he always insists he will? Let’s hope not, though there are worse futures than one that allows our most eccentric action hero to slip back into black leather and his signature role one last time.


Final ranking:

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The Terminator
Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines
Terminator Genisys
Terminator Salvation