The Terminator franchise is a property that has continued to resist Hollywood gravity for years now, though it’s not difficult to see why. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscleman whose underestimated acting abilities made the eponymous killer robot a cinematic sensation, is still game to reprise his role in movie after movie. The concept of militarized mecha hunting down and killing defenseless humans has ceased to even be fiction anymore, and of course, James Cameron has come around on the idea of drawing more paychecks from one of his most successful properties.
But the trouble is that the series as a whole hasn’t been good for a while. Even the latest movie, Dark Fate, the sixth in the series, didn’t really do much to move the needle despite being a pretty decent action film and a welcome return for Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in a movie where Cameron again gets a writing credit after having huffed about not wanting to continue the property when Terminator 3 came out in 2003.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is, as of now, the last really good movie in the series, the kind of full-blown phenomenon that utterly conquered the box office and the brains of moviegoers when it came out in 1991. It launched a million and a half parodies, completely codified the late-’80s/early-’90s action movie aesthetic, and cemented Schwarzenegger further as one of the most bankable stars ever.
Terminator 2 was an awesome movie, a master class in how to use special effects to thrill and enhance a story, and a sequel that really got mileage out of a committed returning cast. As it turns 30, it is also important to realize that it is the source (one might say the “genisys”) of the stuff that is wrong with the property, too.
Terminator was a down-and-dirty, mean-to-the-core ’80s action movie with a chilling sci-fi twist. The few scenes set in the horrible bombed-out future dystopia make great use of effects, set the stakes, and inform the character of Michael Biehn’s time-traveling bodyguard, Kyle Reese. Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as a literal killing machine, and Hamilton’s Sarah Connor has an arc, though a simple one.
The sequel takes all of this stuff and introduces interesting complications and consequences that make use of the actors, and the years lying between the two movies. Sarah Connor did survive and give birth to John Connor, the son who will save the world, but the world reacted to her doomsaying in exactly the way you would expect: by locking her up in a mental institution and taking her son away from her. That has in turn put John (Eddie Furlong) in foster care and led to his growing up as a wild child, ripping off ATMs for kicks.
As Sarah has forewarned, the machines are getting ready to stage their overthrow of mankind, and they do so by sending another mechanized killer through time to try to kill John. And as before, the human resistance in the future has sent a protector back to try to prevent that from occurring. The script is flipped though: This time, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killer robot has been reprogrammed to be a good guy. The bad guy is not a hulking brute (because who in 1991 could have convincingly out-muscled Schwarzenegger?) but a shapeshifting assassin portrayed by Robert Patrick, wearing the face of a smiling LAPD officer.
Just as Patrick’s T-1000 makes an attempt on John’s life, Arnold sweeps in with a shotgun and a motorcycle to save him, and we’re introduced to the dynamic that some give this movie grief for: robo-Arnold-as-babysitter to Furlong’s over-eager savior-in-training. Furlong’s portrayal was apparently so obnoxious to those looking back on the property that he’s never really reprised his role again, and in a truly shocking first-act gut-punch in Dark Fate, some other Terminator just walks up and kills his ass not long after the events of this film. Personally, I don’t get the hatred, but maybe some people haven’t seen the Star Wars Ewok movies or Rock-a-Doodle (which came out that same year!) and just lack a frame of reference for annoying child stars.
Arnold and his young ward bust Sarah Connor out of the loony bin and plot the downfall of the shady megacorp that will produce the machine overlords, all while evading the unstoppable T-1000. Along the way, all kinds of vehicles and buildings explode, and Arnold delivers beautifully stupid (stupidly beautiful?) one-liners right before causing said explosions. Sit down to rewatch it, and there’s no mystery why it drilled into the brains of the audiences of 1991 and took up residence there all summer long.
But it also got the ball rolling on the series being a confusing mish-mash of silly time travel. Terminator 2 is a movie great enough to cause one to overlook the individual ways in which it doesn’t make much sense.
The machines have the ability to send an assassin back in time. The first attempt failed, obviously, and Sarah Connor clearly learned from her ordeal. Why would you send another assassin—even an upgraded one like the T-1000—back to a point ahead of that failure? Surely the solution is to go even further back? If Sarah Connor does succeed in destroying the technology that gave rise to Skynet, why would any of the events of the film ever happen in the first place, being as there is no horrible future to send a robo-assassin from?
You aren’t supposed to question any of these things, and there could be any number of mundane explanations: Skynet probably can’t get intel from the past when its first assassin got junked, maybe they don’t have better records for where Sarah Connor was until she was institutionalized, and maybe they determined that this period when she was separated from John and they actually had records of where she was being held in custody was a time both would be the most vulnerable.
The trouble is that the movies that follow this series just keep messing with and flouting basic questions like this, in ways that either absolutely do not make sense or that undermine the narrative agency of the characters. The big reveal at the end of Terminator 3 is that the good guys just lose because otherwise how could there be an apocalyptic future from which to send these kill-bots? A big part of Genisys’ plot revolves around the characters traveling forward in time using a time machine when it seems like it would be way better of an idea to just … wait it out? Because that’s just the nature of linear time?
It’s clear that those who have been cranking out these sequels want to recapture the more-is-more feeling of T2. Dark Fate, the sequel that has Cameron’s hands on it for the first time since T2, was an attempt at being something of a corrective. It wiped the continuity of the movies after T2 and tried to tell a story that feels much more like a direct sequel to T2. The result wasn’t bad, but didn’t thrill the box office, probably because people have learned not to trust the series. It seems clearer than it’s ever been that the highs of the first two films just aren’t going to be reached again, even with Cameron and Hamilton back.
Motorcycle chases, a whole squad of LAPD cars getting mini-gunned, the final fight in a raging steel mill, the T-1000 oozing up out of floors and sliding effortlessly through barred doors, are all unforgettable images that haven’t aged a day since the movie premiered 30 years ago. But it’s also a movie with actual, personal stakes that keep you invested in its story.
Sarah Connor’s reaction to seeing Arnold again, before she knows that he’s had an extra line of code put in since they last met, is a vision of true terror. The perfunctory way in which Arnold informs John that his foster parents are dead, the way he rips the flesh from his arm to demonstrate to the family of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) that he is actually a robot, and Dyson’s matter-of-fact sacrifice of himself, are all profoundly human moments in a movie about humans trying to avert the destruction of humanity by machines.
The sequels have produced very few moments like those. It’s stuff like that, far more than expensive CGI or ice-cold one-liners, that keep your disbelief suspended enough to wave away the Grandfather Paradox.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.