Saga Review: The Terminator

So with Terminator: Genisys arriving to cinemas soon I feel it is important to look back at the series as a whole.

I love the Terminator franchise, or at least I love the first two movies and appreciate the mythos and universe they have created. The series itself is a bit of a contradiction: on the one hand it is one of the most successful and bankable franchises Hollywood has produced, but on the other hand The Terminator narrative is a black hole of various time paradoxes. Paradoxes that only seem to become worse as the series goes on!

A great deal of people boycott any of the films after Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and I mostly agree.

What I will say, and plead to everyone reading this, if you haven’t seen The Terminator or Terminator 2 but intend to see Terminator: Genisys, please, please, please watch the two of them first.
While I would love to be wrong about this, Genisys looks like it is going to be a massive failure, or at least poison the new generation with a watered down “alternate version” of two of cinema’s greatest achievements. I do not exaggerate.

Not doing anything tonight? Watch those films!

The Terminator (1984)

Before either of them were the famous Hollywood icons they are now, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron created a small but unstoppable film that would define 1980s cinema.

In 2029, humanity is on the brink of extinction: the machines and computers once built to protect and serve them having gained intelligence and caused massive nuclear destruction. But as one savior rises up, John Connor, the machines send an assassin back in time to 1984 to kill his mother.

It cannot be disputed, this is one of the greats. Director James Cameron had only Piranha Part 2: The Spawning to his name, and while Schwarzenegger of course had a career in bodybuilding, he had only the two Conan films critically by this point. The Terminator would make these two become fast friends, create a franchise, teach Cameron a great deal about film-making and bring together several people before the creation of the blockbuster hit film Aliens.

What can be said about the film itself, asides from its legacy? It is a short movie at one hundred minutes (its sequel is a mighty two and a half hours) and I was surprised and impressed how silent it is. Here’s a film that knows when to keep things simple and never over explain or talk needlessly. The term Tech Noir isn’t just restrained to a club in the film itself, but as a descriptor for The Terminator‘s cinematography; the film is set perpetually at night as our victim Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is pursued by the inhuman malice and aided by future war soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). The colour palette is often stark steel grey and blues, the music is either a shrieking synth or droning, thudding bass, representing the cold future war scenario leaking into our time.

It is a continuous chase. As Kyle Reese says: “It absolutely will not stop”, our heroes are worn out over the experience, even while the Terminator isn’t present it has a sort of omnipresence akin to the Alien.
I really wish I could have experienced it when it released (but then this was one of the many amazing 1980s films released in my birth year!) and appreciate the terror that it must have given. This is a horror film, or even a slasher film, long before 1991’s Terminator 2 made itself an action thriller. The Terminator is at first believed to be a serial killer by the police department; systematically murdering all of the Sarah Connors in the phone book (yup, the phone book) by simply arriving at their front door and silently gunning them down. That, and the chilling final scene that still grips me. I adore practical effects, and the Terminator puppet work is one of my all time favourites.

Sure, it has dated. “Oh, look, lawl, its soooooo fake looking,” says the newest generations, “That’s totally a model lawl, this is dumb” even the music at times can feel retro and not in the good way. Especially since the Terminator franchise has now exploded so far as to have spin offs with Alien and Robocop. But considering it only had a budget of $6 million (compare that with Ghostbusters of the same year with $32 million!) it is an incredible achievement!

The Terminator, regardless of what the franchise has warped it into, or what the public foolishly demands it becomes, is the definition of the series. This hard as nails, bleak and brutal science fiction slasher film is genesis.

Additional Marshmallows: I even noticed something new, after a dozen times I have watched this. During the pickup truck / motorcycle chase, the Terminator’s sunglasses reflect the two red taillights of the truck ahead, depicting the machine’s piercing red eyes.

Additional, additional Marshmallows: Did you know that Harlan Ellison, a speculative fiction author, sued Cameron for copyright infringement, believing the material to have been ripped from his scripts of two episodes from The Outer Limits? He was given an undisclosed sum as compensation.
But in reality, The Terminator was conceptualised after James Cameron had been ill and had dreamt of a metallic torso dragging itself from an explosion carrying kitchen knives! His dreams having been influenced by the 70s and 80s boom of slasher movies.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The defining sequel of all action movies; bigger and badder, a defining milestone of cinema special effects, and to this day an effective (albeit preposterous) way of making 30-something men tear up.

About a decade after the events of The Terminator young John Connor is targeted by a new, more deadly machine sent by Skynet from the future. However, another protector was sent back once again to defend him, it is a race against time and humanity’s fate is on the line.

I must attempt to resist gushing about this movie like my inner ten year old wants me to, but seriously, I have seen this film so many times. I had lots of the toys when I was younger (I still keep my silver Terminator endoskeleton as a prized possession) I definitely watched this under-aged as I used to shy away from the gorier moments but relished all the action and Arnold’s awesome portrayal as the iconic cyborg.

The film, released seven years after the original, follows director James Cameron after he had reached dizzying heights with Aliens and The Abyss, both praised for incredible vision and effects both digital and practical. Terminator 2: Judgment Day remains to this day a milestone in these practices. Virtually flawless, it hit a sweet spot in cinema history with the advent of fully digital effects and priceless puppet work (I still adore that opening sequence!) with the right man at the helm: this was Cameron’s baby, the successor to the work that made his name.

But Schwarzenegger was clearly a massive star by 1991. Since we last saw him in the role he had completed Commando, Predator, Twins, Total Recall and even Kindergarden Cop! Now a cynic could argue that someone decided portraying Arnie as a villain again would be a terrible misstep, that the audiences were used to him as the hero. Whether that is true or not, the effect of switching the Terminator from antagonist to protagonist was a dynamite move here as it flipped our perceptions of him.
More importantly, it changes Sarah Connor’s character, reprised by Linda Hamilton who honestly makes the film her own. This isn’t Arnie’s film, it isn’t even John Connor’s film (the savior of humanity!) it’s Sarah’s film and her battle to protect her son and the one against her own personal demons. It is a powerful performance.

While far more bombastic and hair-raising than its predecessor (with a whopping budget of $102,000,000, a mere $96,000,000 more than The Terminator!) and it has bone rattling chase sequences that go on and on and on (so good) it is still amazingly well shot and still keeps itself paced and grim when it needs to be.
You know how action movies these days always shake the camera? All the time? Terminator 2 never does that, ever. Intense, awesome and spectacular action sequences are all captured with slow, calm and measured camera work! The movie takes time to show you details even during intense moments, why else do fans adore the moment when the Terminator reloads a shotgun by spinning it around his wrist while riding a motorcycle, because we can see it happening!

As for the newcomers Robert Patrick, in his most stand out role, as the mercilessly cool headed T-1000, and young Edward Furlong as John Connor are excellent and debatable respectively. Patrick has the tough task of appearing more threatening than Arnold in full costume with a lithe figure and a police uniform… and it works! While Furlong… plays Connor as a product of the early 90s… which is unfortunate.
The tried and tested “machine learns what it means to be human” storyline is somewhat laboured nowadays, coupled with Connor’s now ridiculous 1990s dialogue, gets a little silly, but the heart is in the right place when put together with Linda Hamilton’s bold, stoic mother figure.

It is a feat of cinema hardly matched, you simply don’t get action movies like this anymore; they are bogged down with romance, overuse of CGI, needlessly attempting to recapture past glory or all three. I basically just described the future of the Terminator franchise.

Now I am sad.

Watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day before any other in the series, I beg of you. This to me is when the franchise ended, it was short but it was sweet, so very sweet.

Additional Marshmallows: If you haven’t seen any Terminator films before the release of Terminator: Genisys then please, at least, watch this film. I swear you won’t regret it and I am only asking of you 143 minutes of your life.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

I think this is the last time I watch Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

After the events of Terminator 2, Judgment Day has been prevented and John Connor finds himself paranoid without purpose. But when the Terminator returns once again from the future to protect him from an even worse threat, the Terminatrix, he discovers fate may be even harder to escape than before.

Straight out of the gate, something is wrong with this film: there’s no Terminator theme over the opening title. That’s like a Star Wars film without an opening title crawl!

After this blasphemy things look slightly up, we see an older John Connor played by Nick Stahl who remains consistent throughout the film and is possibly its only decent contributor! John is lost and paranoid over the prophecy he is meant to fulfill, a moody narration and night-time bike ride introduction reminds us of where we left off.

Then the Terminatrix appears… and we realise the true tone of this movie. Kristanna Loken plays the new “advanced” killing machine. A killing machine so cold and merciless that when pulled over by a cop for speeding she is inspired by a Victoria’s Secret advert to inflate her breasts to get the drop on the cop.
Then the Terminator arrives, Arnold Schwarzenegger weathering the twenty-two years surprisingly well, only to be entering a bar hosting a Ladies’ Night. The only man with clothes the right size? The stripper, who has rose-tinted star-shaped sunglasses in his pocket and tells the Terminator to “Talk to the Hand”.

(audible sigh of disgust)

Terminator 3 is a product of lazy writing and the need to make a quick buck; it is a parody of Terminator 2, and that is putting things nicely. Director Jonathan Mostow has only two other major films to date (U-571 and Surrogates) and apart from Nick Stahl (who I think was working solely off material from Terminator 2) he apparently cannot direct actors to save himself.
Kristanna Loken’s Terminatrix is awful, just awful. Inclining her head “robotically” every chance she gets, pouting, experiencing orgasm when she discovers John Connor’s blood, her robot inflections are garbage to the point people would suspect she was a machine! Robert Patrick’s T-1000 has more infiltration skills than her!
Heck even Arnold, the one who made the franchise what it is and the reason this film exists, looks like he’s phoning it in; stomping around like Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith.

Mostow clearly didn’t know what he was doing with the series, so he compensates with action sequences. After all, Terminator 2 defined the modern action genre. But so much of this film is played for laughs, even the action scenes, I cannot appreciate it at all! Terminators constantly make metal “bong” sounds when they hit into things, Arnie gets pasted into the windshield of an oncoming truck like a massive Austrian mosquito, the Terminatrix grabs his crotch at one point, the Terminatrix gets her head smashed down into a toilet, there’s even a random garden toy that gets knocked aside and it goes “bi-ong!”.
What… what garbage is this?? Who thought this was a good idea? WHAT HAVE THEY DONE?

I really struggle to find goodness in this pile of regurgitated virtually-12A nonsense. Nick Stahl and Claire Danes as John Connor and future wife Kate Brewster are interesting enough; they both get opportunities to appose the Terminator’s mission and it doesn’t feel contrived or forced.
The Terminatrix assassinating kids (who will grow up to be Connor’s lieutenants) was interesting and obviously wanted to tap the 1984’s original horror vibe, but it is shot poorly and the preceding breast inflation scene somehow kills the tone!

Apparently “fans” wanted Arnold to reprise the role of the Terminator, and this is what they get: a tacky parody of a film that defined and celebrated cinema action films. Good job.

Terminator 3 is a missed opportunity, I believe that had Cameron directed a final chapter it could have been engaging. If they had made the Terminator the villain again and didn’t pander to the wallets of studio executives and the rabid Schwarzenegger fans, it could have been even more intriguing.

But no, we get Kristanna Loken playing a character I thought up when I was ten.

Additional Marshmallows: So colour me curious but… this film reveals to us that all Terminator T-800s have extremely volatile fuel cells in their chests, that explode when ruptured like a small nuclear blast.
Did… did these writers even watch the first film!? Because I remember things differently!

Additional additional Marshmallows: This film was so despised that they made a television series The Sarah Connor Chronicles starring Lena Headey that completely erases this film from the timeline. While the show did not receive much praise, I like to commend it just for this fact.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

You won’t find a greater sympathiser of Terminator Salvation than me; that despite poor casting, poor director and poor script, I still commend it for even trying.

Judgment Day has passed and John Connor is finding his place amongst the post-apocalyptic chaos, with humanity scattered and scared and military commanders doubting their belief that Connor can save them all. Connor’s own agenda to find his to-be-father Kyle Reese conflicts with his superiors’ plans, but a mysterious individual going by the name of Marcus Wright could provide him his hope.

Terminator Salvation is an unlucky beast and continues a legacy of ill-advised director choices with McG, a man with only the two Charlie’s Angels films to his name before and This Means War and 3 Days to Kill after his go at the Terminator franchise. Yet the studio had planned this as a new trilogy, a trilogy that would close the circling narrative of the series, to end at the beginning. Sadly, those high hopes died with an incompetent director, a furious lead actor and a lukewarm critical reception.

Personally any attempt to progress the series to new concepts, no matter how flawed, is to be commended and appreciated.
We have no Arnold Schwarzenegger, we have no time travel, and no chase theme with destruction of contemporary surroundings. This film is set in heady 2018, before humanity was following Connor’s tactics and were being wiped out by an ever increasing and evolving machine army, even the classic T-800 Terminator hadn’t been created yet. The world is a blasted wasteland, the film is a wash of greys and browns and does not visually hark back to the originals at all. In fact at times Salvation is an ugly film to look at, spattered in grease and clouded in smoke.

But at least it has the freaking Terminator theme unlike Terminator 3! And at least there’s plenty of practical effects on the Terminators (again, unlike Terminator 3!) which is great with the film being credited In Memory of Stan Winston, creator of the Terminator skeleton and many other film effects.
We get to see the first Terminators, described by Kyle Reese in the original film as being covered in rubber skin and were easy to spot, we get to see numerous other machines employed by Skynet, from scout drones to prison barges.
Perhaps the most interesting element is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), and he steals the show from Christian Bale’s John Connor perplexingly enough. His character shows a piece of Skynet’s more insidious side; how much of the series main antagonist is rooted in humanity’s own achievements and mistakes. Sadly this plot is somewhat subdued and underplayed. Anton Yelchin plays the young Kyle Reese and also does a surprisingly good impression of Michael Biehn and could be the only thing tethering this film to the overall series.

Anyone can punch holes through Salvation as easily as a Terminator punches through a ribcage. Christian Bale infamously had a massive on set row with the film’s director of photography, which was mutually resolved later, but I cannot say I think much of Bale as Connor here; he is stiff and constantly angry. He says all his lines with a gruffness that gets tiring quickly, and while adult Connor was never previously depicted in the series, I struggle to imagine this being the eventual result.
The rest of the cast is forgettable (some with silly names: Common; Moon Bloodgood) such as Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate and Michael Ironside as Michael Ironside Character No.5.

There are also massive plot inconsistencies that do more harm than good to an already questionable film series. Number one offender being Skynet’s plan: kidnap Kyle Reese to lure and kill John Connor. Does Skynet not know that once you capture Kyle, killing him will erase John from existence? Thus removing John from the equation without even involving him?
Terminator’s ridiculously broken narrative means that Terminator Salvation is both a sequel and a prequel (which is unique) but this film depicts a sort of 80s Saturday morning cartoon Skynet, a Skynet that waxes lyrical instead of murdering everyone and winning.

Terminator Salvation feels like a half-hearted attempt at something that should have been fascinating and deeply threatening and bleak. The 12A and PG-13 certificate did not help this at all. To make a trilogy out of the Future War would have been an excellent change of pace and breath of fresh air in a stagnant series, but it looks like salvation will not come so easily.

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