With the release of Terminator: Dark Fate in UK cinemas this week, Redbrick Film take a look back at the highs and lows of the Terminator franchise so far
Charlotte Tomlinson – Film Critic
Imagine a penniless James Cameron in 1983, living out of his car, writing the screenplay for a film that would launch his entire career and change action movies forever. Under his brilliant direction, 1984’s The Terminator is still the perfect summer sci-fi thriller. It is impossible to come out of this film feeling bored, for in every scene it cannot help but be entertaining. Its beauty is in its succinctness, as Cameron’s and Gale Anne Hurd’s script ensures that there are no boring expositional moments throughout.
At its core, it is a classic tale of good vs evil, with time travel and explosions thrown in for good measure. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn star as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, the two main likeable protagonists trying to save humanity. In pursuit of them is an iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the emotional expressiveness of one of his biceps, as the antagonist. It is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the almost indestructible Terminator, equipped with 14 lines of dialogue, a semi-automatic and sunglasses.
Only on a technical level has this film has not aged well. The special effects are almost adorable in how stop motion and puppetry are used to animate the T-800 before CGI. The action set pieces however are just as, if not more, impressive considering how limited special effects were at that time. Every man set on fire, car totalled over, or loud, violent shootout, was real and not computer generated. This film will always be timeless despite the film being over 30 years old, creating a lasting franchise that will always be a summer blockbuster staple.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Samuel Zucca – Film Editor
After making the best sequel possible to Ridley Scott’s Alien, five years earlier, James Cameron returned to his own franchise, with a bigger budget and a more expansive world to explore. Terminator 2: Judgment Day opens similarly to the first, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 beaming in from the future in a naked pose, only this time he is here to save Sarah and John Connor, and he is followed by Robert Patrick’s updated model, the T-1000. This is a very simple change in dynamic, but it does a lot in preventing the film from feeling like a stale rehash. For Schwarzenegger as well, giving him a role of a more fleshed out character suits his rise to stardom in the seven years since his debut. In this film he is less menacingly transhuman, and more of a cheesy and awkward android – a lovable killing machine – which perfectly suits his talents.
Cameron also utilises his technical skills incredibly well in this film. After experimenting in 1989’s The Abyss with CGI, Cameron uses the technology sparingly to create the uncanny powers of the T-1000. The computer-generated effects blend seamlessly with the practical effects, sound effects, and soundtrack, creating an oppressive and metallic atmosphere. The climax at the steelworks, visually contrasting molten metal and liquid nitrogen, is a terrific sequence, despite being symbolically on-the-nose. T2 does seem to set up larger battle set-pieces, but it frequently returns to smaller enclosed environments that made the first film so effective and claustrophobic. There are also some genuinely terrifying moments in this film, including Sarah Connor’s nightmarish daydream of an atom bomb being dropped on a city, feeding off nuclear paranoia, which brings the 1980s audience ever closer to her troubled character. Another scene sees Sarah become a sort of terminator herself, as she attempts to kill Skynet developer Miles Dyson to prevent the Terminator apocalypse that he will unknowingly cause. It’s a harrowing but enthralling place to take her character – and further shows how T2 develops on the original so well.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Ellie Burridge – Film Critic
The third instalment of the franchise is a cobbled-together rehash of concepts and story beats from the previous two films – perhaps the studio thought that in the 12 years between the release of T2 and T3, audiences would have forgotten enough that this would feel new. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the action sequences, some of which are inspired, but there’s nothing but emptiness underneath. The film most resembles the Terminators themselves, with a body of cold metal concealed by a thin layer of human skin. With James Cameron at the helm, these films had heart. His absence leaves a film occupied by flat characters and a contrived plot, kept afloat by unremitting violence and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commitment to playing the role he was born to play. However, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor is sorely missed, and the audacity of T3 killing her off-screen is almost too much to bear.
Rubbing salt in the wound is Claire Danes’ character, Kate Brewster, a bad copy of Sarah Connor from T1. John Connor even alludes to it, though the line, ‘You remind me of my mother,’ is a horrible addition given that Kate is meant to be his love interest. The relationship between John and Kate is perhaps the film’s weakest element. Their relationship is devoid of any chemistry, whereas in T1, Kyle and Sarah were characters you could root for as they had a real spark between them. T1 and T2 were, at their cores, character-driven stories with action sequences that hit even harder because you actually gave a damn about whether the people you were watching were going to survive. In T3, I might have celebrated if the sexy-lady-Terminator had succeeded in killing monumental bores John Connor and Kate Brewster. Which is why, even though Terminator: Dark Fate is sure to be awful, I’m at least glad that they had the decency to bring back the franchise’s shining light: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. The next step is to drag James Cameron, kicking and screaming, away from the Avatar series so that he can direct another good Terminator film.
Amy O’Neill – Film Editor
Salvation is definitely not the best film of the franchise. It is simply bland, with a plot and screenplay that even the most talented actors in the cast such as Christian Bale (who only took the role out of spite), Helena Bonham Carter and Anton Yelchin struggled to bring to life. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic Terminator is sadly absent, creating a strange disjointedness to the film compared to the rest of the franchise; it just doesn’t feel as authentic without him.
As the fourth instalment of the franchise, Terminator: Salvation takes a new direction, with another new director and cast to boot. Salvation follows a war between humans and Skynet in a post-apocalyptic 2018, as John Connor (Bale) fights to keep his father Kyle Reese (Yelchin) and hundreds of human prisoners alive.
It had a notoriously rocky start, with lawsuits over rights and Christian Bale allegedly being a diva on set (yelling at the DP for just stepping onto the set); and the problems clearly didn’t stop behind the scenes. There are some strong points – the action on the whole is good, if relentless, and there were attempts made at some depth. For example, in addressing the difficult choices leaders in war have to make and in navigating the tricky alliance between Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a cyborg, and the Resistance. However, the movie is just completely average.
Possibly the fatal flaw of Salvation is that little of the threat seems genuine, and for an action movie this is about the worst thing that could happen. The action, whilst occasionally cinematically impressive, is too constant for any real tension to be built. Also, there is so little time spent on the characters – their stories, development and emotions – that they become one-dimensional, almost props in the wider war rather than people who have real stakes in it, detached from their appearances in the previous films. This is something that the earlier Terminator movies did well; the characters were believable and sympathetic, but this all seems to have disappeared here.
I don’t think this movie was trying to be more than it is – a self-indulgent action film that’s a bit of fun for audiences to watch – but it’s a disappointment compared to its iconic predecessors.
Matt Taylor – Film Editor
I will admit that this fifth instalment, Terminator: Genisys, is not as bad as many people would have you believe. Not that it is good – far from it – but aspects of it are rather entertaining. The opening half-hour, for example, is quite enjoyable. Set after the apocalypse it is admittedly nothing we haven’t seen or heard about before, but it paves the way for some fun opening set-pieces, as well as an extremely intriguing development just as Kyle Reese is sent back to 1984.
Here, however, is where things start to go off the rails. Emilia Clarke appears as a T2-style Sarah Connor, having had a T-800 as her protector since she was nine. Their dynamic is interesting. The decision to make Arnie a paternal figure for Sarah falls right in line with his dynamic with John in T2, but something doesn’t quite gel here. Perhaps it’s the stinted dialogue, which is never any good throughout the entire film.
There’s also the fact that so little of it actually makes any sort of sense, no matter how much you think about it. What Genisys does is effectively wipe out the events of all the other Terminator films, to mixed results. So many plot beats are left dangling for the (now scrapped) sequels to pick up, and it is frustrating. The number of times the movie goes against its own rules of time travel is also infuriating – how hard can it be to stick to the rules you make in your own film? Everything that involves John Connor and Genisys/Skynet basically spits in the face of the original films: perhaps it’s better that this one is no longer canon.
‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ is in cinemas now.
Imagery courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.