Zombie Franchises is a series of occasional articles in which Ken Lowe examines one of the shambling intellectual properties that plods onward under sheer force of box office money. Be wary of spoilers for movies that have been out for a while.
There have been five damn Terminator movies, and two of them have been good. Let that sink in for a second. The last time there was any reason to be excited about this franchise, George H.W. Bush was president. It’s easy to just point to that fact as the sole reason to stop making these, but I can already hear the apologists lining up to slavishly go see the next one: “No, but James Cameron is coming back! He’ll bring the original series back! The next one will be good, you’ll see!”
It will not be good. I’m calling it right here and right now. That is just my guess, of course, but consider that, but for a collaborating director credit on a documentary, Cameron hasn’t been in the director’s chair since 2009, when he made Avatar, which is a bad movie. He’s produced plenty of things since then, but a lot of them are documentaries. Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out in 1991, and he hasn’t been formally involved in the series since. He isn’t the director he was then, nor even the director who made Titanic all the way back in 1997, which I have gone on record to grudgingly acknowledge as a movie that was at least not bad, however silly at parts. Even if he brings Linda Hamilton back and arms her with a flamethrower powered by the adrenal gland of a mama bear, even if Arnold goes on leave from Sacramento to reprise his career-defining role, they will still do it in service of a story that has curled itself into a spaghetti bowl of nonsensical CG schlock. Yes, even if it ignores Terminators 3 through 5.
How did we get here? Why are we unwilling, like a delusional pet owner faced with the death of a 20-year-old cat, to just let poor Sarah Connor and the T-800 die?
The Perfect Villain
Most of the time, Zombie Franchises is here to bemoan things that have been bullshit from the first frame. This is not so for the Terminator franchise, which started off with one of the most badass one-two punches in action cinema history. Terminator was not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first feature, but it was the one that used his physical prodigy and earnest intelligence as an actor to lift him to the level of fame where you can say just his first name and everybody knows to whom you’re referring. Terminator’s debut in 1984 landed on the world like a meteor strike, in no small part due to Schwarzenegger’s implacable villain.
I’ve thought a lot about what it is that makes his presence so menacing in this first movie, and I think it may have a lot to do with his entrance—seeming to appear before us fully formed out of the ether, completely naked and yet deadlier in that state than any fully armed and armored human he might encounter. The wild-eyed panic with which the time-traveling human sent to stop him describes him is not the usual empty exposition—by the time Michael Biehn’s character, Reese, rants at Linda Hamilton about the robot assassin’s invincibility and lack of error, we’ve seen Schwarzenegger methodically murder his way up toward his target. We know he can learn, adapt, shrug off damage that would kill a human, and even perfectly imitate human voices.
Terminator was a vicious bone-breaker of an action film—mean and desperate in a way few action films ever are any longer, with an inspiringly over-the-top death for its horrible villain. So it’s too bad that…
They Turned that Villain into a Teddy Bear
I am not here to dump on Terminator 2 (1991), but I am here to put it in the context of what it’s done to its own series. People loved Schwarzenegger’s invincible assassin so much because he was riveting to watch. He was, simply put, exactly the sort of villain you should build an action movie around. In response to this incredible acclaim, and after the passage of six more years had made him even more of an international superstar, somebody, somewhere, decided he should be the good guy of Terminator 2, probably because it was a foregone conclusion that people were just going to be rooting for him anyway.
That became the basis of one of the best pure action movies in the history of the genre. Terminator 2 holds up unbelievably well today, more than a quarter-century after its debut, and despite the fact nothing ages quite like special effects age. Faced with having its villain yanked away from it, Cameron responded by giving the film Robert Patrick’s T-1000, a chillingly implacable foe who also serves as a master class on how to use special effects to tell a story. Again, that world-class villain is one of the primary reasons the movie works so damn well despite the fact Schwarzenegger kills almost nobody in it and a lot of it revolves around a young, punk-ass John Connor (Eddie Furlong, in a role I personally don’t have a problem with but which the internet has apparently deemed even more unforgivable than ewoks, which I also personally don’t have a problem with, so maybe the problem is YOU, internet).
It Made Dumb Time Travel a Series Staple
Also well worth mentioning is that while Terminator has never cared all that much about the particulars of time travel, you sort of have to start caring if every damn one of these is going to be about screwing with time. The first movie already established that the effects of meddling in the past that science tells us would be eliminated by the Grandfather Paradox are (forgive me), grandfathered in. So, fine, sure, we have linear time.
If that’s the case, unless there’s some limit to how far you can go back, why haven’t the machines tried to send an even badder terminator unit even further back? Why send one after their first attempt, when Sarah Connor is even more aware of the danger she’s in and, as we’ve seen, has trained herself to be a steely killer? Why, if the future has been altered so many times, does it still so closely mirror the terror of Judgment Day? I’ll tell you why.
Time Travel Works however Marketing Thinks It Should Work (and Marketing Doesn’t Know What the Hell It’s Doing)
If the series had stopped here, as it was clearly supposed to, these minor failings would have remained merely that: minor. And here is the perfect opportunity to hold up Marvel’s impossibly well-oiled mega-franchise of superhero blockbusters as an example of how to overcome a whirlwind of minor failings. Marvel knows what its fans want because, by virtue of releasing a movie roughly every month and drawing from a deep well of comics lore that both has and, crucially, has sometimes not worked, the producers and writers and directors know what their audiences want to see and know when and when not to give it to them.
Conversely, the sequels to Terminator 2 have shown time and again that the creators of the series have no damn idea what to do. It wasn’t abnormal for a sequel to take a handful of years to come out back when Terminator 2 debuted. But the reason the series continues to churn these disinterested latter installments at the same disinterested rate is because they keep floundering spectacularly. Terminator 3 (2003) came out a full 12 years later over Cameron’s protests.
If you doubt the degree of artistic bankruptcy I accuse this movie of, know also that Schwarzenegger clearly was looking for some kind of upper limit to make the producers leave him the hell alone, demanding more than a million dollars in private jet service and an expensive gym, among other demands. Linda Hamilton wasn’t having any of it at any price.
“I knew my character arc was so complete in the first two, and in the third one it was a negligible character,” she said in an interview with MTV News about her choice to decline to appear in it. “[Sarah Connor] died halfway through and there was no time to mourn her. It was kind of disposable, so I said ‘No, thank you.’”
Terminator 3 decided, against all available evidence, that it was a good idea to go silly instead of playing its action straight. Kristanna Loken’s T-X is simultaneously less of a physical threat and less interesting of a special effect. Schwarzenegger was a very practical-effect villain: Believably menacing because he was a hulking bodybuilder even if the script also called for him to be a robot. Patrick’s T-1000 had a positively chilling affability to him, and the special effects that turned him into a shapeshifting serial killer overcame our first instincts of thinking there was no way he could go toe-to-toe with the original terminator. Loken completely failed to make any kind of impression, and it’s not entirely her fault when the script is so weak.
The movie also tasked a washed-up John Connor and some lady with stopping Judgment Day, along with a comic-relief Schwarzenegger as yet another re-programmed dad-bot. They fail to do so and it all ends in the bombs falling. Thanks, movie. Great to know that our heroes’ efforts will always be overridden by the sheer power of the immutability of box office returns … er, time. Yeah.
For the first time, the series retreated not to bask in critical and box office adoration, but to lick its wounds. It returned in 2009 with Terminator Salvation, positing that moving the action to the blasted-out future which we’ve just accepted as inevitable and steering hard into the grittier aspects of the series was the smarter move. It wasn’t as overtly, laughably bad as 3, but it’s hard to figure out some of the choices they made, starting with why we can’t spring for laser guns in a future we have already established to have laser guns everywhere.
After extensively googling this film—it’s been nearly a decade—I have determined that there is no reason you should watch it, both because Cameron is gearing up to completely retcon it and because it does nothing important with any of the characters or lore. At least it gave the world Christian Bale’s epic backstage meltdown.
It’s a legitimate oddity to me that they even bothered to come back in 2015 to bring us Terminator Genisys, an infuriatingly stupid and confusing movie that seems more like a Greatest Hits compilation than an actual coherent story. Merely describing the plot of this might cause somebody to actually lose their grip on linear time and end up in a Kurt Vonnegut novella, but here goes:
Kyle Reese, portrayed by the third actor to have inhabited the role (Jai Courtney, whom critic Bob Chipman once memorably called so forgettable that “Sam Worthington wants to know who the f*** he is”) goes back in time to prevent Sarah Connor from not being pregnant (and, I guess, from getting killed by a terminator). For some reason, this is not the Schwarzenegger terminator, but another liquid metal terminator, because the T-1000 was super cool. Reese arrives to find Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, who I also think shouldn’t act in things) somehow already fully armed and ready to go, by virtue of a T-800 who came back in time to save her from some other assassination attempt and has since been a father figure to her—a fact which I think should have influenced future John Connor’s decision to do all of this? This is Old Schwarzenegger, because his human visage ages even if his atomic battery keeps his robot interior chugging along (okay). When asked how he came to come back in time to do this, he has no answer and the film never follows up. Connor and Reese discover that Skynet will come online as part of a freaking smartphone app update. They decide to travel forward in time to this decades-off future instead of using their foreknowledge to prepare, where they discover that the bad guy is a robot who looks like John Connor—Sarah’s son whom she’s never seen because she hasn’t had him yet and who isn’t portrayed by any actor who’s done it before, meaning we don’t care either.
Naturally, We’re Getting Another Sequel Anyway
All of that nonsense, on top of subtitling the movie some nonsense word, added up to pretty much nobody seeing it. Considering that a successful movie in this series often means a gap of a good few years, you’d think we wouldn’t be on track for another one until at least 2024, but we’re apparently looking at a 2019 release of a reboot, and Cameron is on board. This isn’t surprising, considering he went from crabbing about Terminator 3 to actively shilling for Genisys, perhaps sensing that he’s leaving money on the table he could be using to fulfill his lifelong dream of actually recovering the wreck of the actual Titanic.
He insists it will be a reboot that will stand as the true Terminator 3. Considering every movie has irrevocably screwed up the series timeline, it’ll be truly impressive to see how he manages to screw with it hard enough to unscrew the screwing already done.
My question is, why? Every other movie since Terminator 2 in this series has grossed significantly less than the one that came before it. Genisys, even with the vast expansion of the foreign market between 1991 and 2015, still made $100 million less, which in 2015 vs. 1991 dollars is truly dire. There is some other franchise people would rather be seeing, clearly.
But I guess we’re talking about a series about a robotic, single-minded entity plodding forward, fixated on one goal, even if it’s destined to fail.
Kenneth Lowe can’t be bargained with, reasoned with, doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear and absolutely will not stop until you follow him on Twitter and visit his blog.