Franchises are a part of the cinematic landscape. Some series grow more complex and change throughout their run while others just keep doing what’s expected of them. Now, I am happy to announce another ongoing series of our own. Every so often on Moviocrity, I will be looking at each film in a given franchise. One by one they will be reviewed and hopefully give a clear view of how certain franchises survived and how others fell apart. You’ll be able to read all about it in a column I’m calling THE WHOLE PICTURE!
1984’s THE TERMINATOR opens with the following text:
“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…”
Oh wait, did we say “final battle?” Really, right out of the gate? Yes indeed, and in fact throughout the film, there are more clues that the film was originally intended to be a one-off. Kyle Reese tells Sarah Connor that they are in fact on the verge of winning the war against the machines. That John Connor discovered Skynet’s time machine shortly after the Terminator was sent back. Reese was sent back afterwards with the understanding that after he was through, the machine’s one and only time machine will be destroyed – “Nobody goes home. Nobody else goes through.”
But all of that torpedoes the potential for a franchise so let’s just forget about that for now.
Because as we all know, THE TERMINATOR was not just a one-off and Schwarzenegger’s line “I’ll be back,” soon became an invitation to do more and more sequels.
In this first of two installments, we will look at the TERMINATOR franchise when it was in the hands of its original creator, remembering the two films that started it all.
RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA
- What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
- In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.
THE TERMINATOR (1984) – In writing these reviews, this is my least favorite part. It’s the part that is seen by some to be mandatory, where I relate a brief synopsis of the film’s plot. This is fine when dealing with anything that even borders on obscure. But in the case of THE TERMINATOR, it seems even more pointless than usual. After all, the people reading this article that are still unfamiliar with James Cameron’s 1984 film are probably few and far between.
Nevertheless, this is the little film with the big premise. An unstoppable cybernetic killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill the young and anonymous Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Connor is all-important because it is her as yet unborn son who will one day turn the tide against the machines and win the war for humanity. Birth records are apparently hard to come by after the apocalypse and hence, the Terminator goes about killing everyone in the phonebook named Sarah Connor (I imagine there would have been a major wrench in the works if Sarah Connor’s number had been unlisted.). He finally settles on his correct target, but Connor is being protected by another time traveler, a resistance fighter from the future named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).
There is no part of THE TERMINATOR that has not become iconic. Though the studio viewed it as a low-budget action film with little possibility of staying power, the people behind this little film treated it as if it were the jewel in a golden crown. It’s a film that straddles several different genres, often cited as an action or science fiction film but with a plot that is classic horror. Because of the care and skill taken by everyone both in front of and behind the camera, THE TERMINATOR created an immense impact. Defying expectations, the film not only stayed relevant at the box office, it is now correctly regarded as a classic more than three decades after its release.
By explicitly setting the film in 1984 rather than the “present day” stomping ground of other time travel films, they ensured that the film would not age. Even the big hair and headphones sex seem to be aspects or even humorous commentaries on the time. And yet, the film delivers on every other level too. It’s one of the all-time great action films, with incredible sequences done for little money. It delivers as a love story, with Sarah and Kyle becoming the perfect tragic couple. And it delivers on heady sci-fi as we imagine a future where our dreams of automation have been turned against us. But even in this film, this is merely one possible future and the groundwork would be laid for something even more ambitious. The Best.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991) – Ten years after the events of the first film, Sarah Connor has transformed herself into a pragmatic survivalist in preparation for Judgement Day, the day Skynet’s machines wage war on humanity. A decade spent with her son, in which she trained him to be a warrior with the help of several unsavory characters, has resulted in her being committed to a state psychiatric hospital. Her son, John Connor (Edward Furlong – who is clearly of puberty age but never mind) is a juvenile delinquent who has been tossed from one foster home to the other. But thinking John is vulnerable when apart from his mother, Skynet sends a newer better Terminator back in time. The T-1000 (Robert Patrick) is made of liquid metal, is even harder to kill and has one mission: kill John Connor before he can grow up. In response, the John Connor of the future sends back a reprogrammed T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to protect John and eventually his mother. While trying to evade the new threat, the group hatches a plan to stop Skynet before it can be developed and thus prevent Judgement Day from ever occurring.
Let’s face it, this movie never made much sense. There’s really no need to send a Terminator back to a time when John Connor is ten years old. After all, wouldn’t he have been even more vulnerable if they had sent it back to a time closer to 1984 (This is remarkably one of the things GENESYS gets right)? John is a ten year-old who appears and behaves as if he’s older (even the next film would get confused by this) and since Sarah Connor is meant to be 29 years old, her character experiences the opposite problem. John Connor is in a sense setting on a course of action that could conceivably wipe out his existence and (SPOILER ALERT) I still say the timeline should have been somehow reset when Cyberdine blew up. After all, the Terminators wouldn’t exist and neither would John. But wait, then Sarah wouldn’t have met Kyle Reese, which would mean she would have no reason to go to Cyberdine, which means… never mind. Time travel is weird.
And that’s the point. Cameron gives us a film that makes us think about certain things but not care about others. And it works. The action sequences and special effects are still pretty amazing. Keep in mind that in 1991, we had never seen anything quite like this before. But TERMINATOR 2 is not just a bigger movie in terms of its special effects; it’s a bigger movie in the themes it tackles. Instead of resigning themselves to the inevitability of Armageddon, our heroes decide that no one can dictate their destiny. They take the reins on their future and try to secure a better world for everyone. The line from the first film, “The future is not set, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves” becomes the cornerstone of the franchise’s philosophy.
TERMINATOR 2 also tackles the family dynamic in a way most films are unable to. John Connor finds himself drawn to two wildly different adult figures. His mother is very human, but also an aggressive warrior with serious psychological issues which have made her unwilling or unable to tell her son how much she loves him. Meanwhile, John is teaching the T-800 to be human and yet it is the machine that takes on the role of a parental figure, giving him the dedicated companion he deserves. Apart from our central heroes, we have the figure of Miles Dyson. In a scene added for the Special Edition, we see how his tireless dedication to his work is costing him time with his family and he learns almost too late that ambition will betray you in a way family won’t.
So interesting is TERMINATOR 2’s narrative that we don’t even care that we lose the T-1000 for nearly an hour. It’s a great and ambitious film with lots of big moments, whether people were fighting or not. It started a trend where each consecutive film James Cameron made from this point forward was the biggest of all time. Looking back, Furlong’s wiseass character can grate a bit. But even this serves as the character’s own defense mechanism. TERMINATOR 2 is the rare action film that strips the machine from all of us. Highly Recommended.
While it seemed like the story was pretty well wrapped up in TERMINATOR 2, there were rumors of a third film throughout much of the 1990s. But it wasn’t until James Cameron gave the go-ahead to Arnold and company that we saw three fresh takes on the saga in twelve years.
Be sure to check out part 2 of our retrospective where we’ll check out the rest of the sequels including the latest, TERMINATOR: GENESYS.