It’s a tale old as time: woman is fated to give birth to the saviour of the world, a cyborg is sent back in time to kill her before she gets the chance to even conceive, woman ends up fighting for her life, her unborn child’s life, and three billion others. Whether you’ve ever seen a Terminator movie or not, you’ve likely seen Arnold Schwarzenneger’s most recogniseable character (arguably) in multiple places. Writer/director James Cameron’s first proper foray as a director in 1984 set a new precendent for sci-fi movies, with its original story (though with clear influences from the stories of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick) and pushing of computer generated imagery (CGI) and VFX boundaries, helped along by industry stalwart Stan Winston (he would be involved in every Terminator movie up until his death in 2008). For someone not quite into the world of Skynet and Genisys all they comprise of, it can be confusing on the surface: what happened when? And to whom? And why? Well, with the latest installment in the franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate, releasing in cinemas worldwide, here’s a little catch-up to all five previous movies in preparation for the return of some familiar faces…
The Terminator (1984)
Director: James Cameron
Hitting the ground running, The Terminator has an imaginative and creative premise, as nineteen-year-old Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) finds out she is being hunted by a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenneger), a robot from a future where machines with evolved A.I. have turned on humanity, all because she will one day give birth to John Connor, the man who will lead the human resistance. Also sent back from the year 2029 is a solider named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) as Sarah’s protector. The story is surrounded by intense action and VFX that was astounding for the time (it hasn’t aged all that well, but it still looks a billion times better and is far easier to become immersed in than much of the CGI we get these days!). The 80s setting could not be more apparent, with the epic use of synths (but with an excellent, tension-building score, thanks to Brad Fiedel, particularly the main theme that will become almost as famous as Arnie), the outfits and the hair styles (oh dear god, the hair styles!), making you very aware of the age of this film. But it by no means makes it less likely to remain a timeless classic: the film is very clear about the fact it’s 1984! There’s no huge build up before the arrival of Schwarzenneger’s T-800, it’s straight into it, and any plot building and exposition comes afterwards, which is quite refreshing to watch after all we’re spoonfed from most movies these days. A really fantastic start to the franchise, especially as it introduces so many potential story arcs and angles for future installments – not always a good thing, but there’s so much we want to know after seeing this movie. (Also, a very young Bill Paxton cameo! Rest in peace, Mr. Paxton!).
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2) (1991)
Director: James Cameron
Judgment Day has always been slated as the best in the series, and it’s easy to see why. Sarah Connor (Hamilton) is in an institution, after being deemed clinically insane for the story she tells about Terminators and the future. Her son, John (Edward Furlong), is in a foster home and is something of a delinquent. When a reprogrammed Terminator (Schwarzenneger) is once again sent back to the Connors, he is tasked with protecting them against the upgraded version of himself, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). This time, Sarah is set on destroying the source of the impending war against the machines, therefore saving three billion lives as well as hers and John’s. Judgment Day has certainly upgraded on its graphics and VFX (what a difference seven years makes), but it’s also refreshing to watch something not heavily reliant on CGI (though the T-1000 effects work just fine) – there’s still a lot of tangible animatronics and VFX which hugely adds to the film’s entertainment value. Unlike many sequels, the plot actually works and furthers the story that began so strongly in the first film rather than hindering or humiliating it: there’s a huge difference between Terminator Sarah Connor and Judgment Day Sarah Connor (frankly showing off how good at character development James Cameron is), elements of comedy that are perfectly timed and great at breaking the tension, and it’s all topped off with insane stunts, particularly with a helicopter and vehicles near the end. The multiple award nominations and wins, including BAFTAs and Oscars, were thoroughly deserved, and Terminator: Judgment Day will always remain high on lists of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (T3) (2003)
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Now we’re about to go swiftly downhill, as Cameron takes a step back from his own creation. It’s ten years post-Judgment Day, and John Connor (Nick Stahl) doesn’t really know what to do with himself. That is, until the new and improved Terminator model, the T-X (Kristanna Loken), arrives to start killing off other members of John’s future resistance team (a future that was supposedly avoided but apparently not?). This includes his future wife, Kate Brewster (Clare Danes), and John himself. T3 overall pulls away from what we came to love about the original storyline – there’s too much digging into outside stories that are, frankly, of no interest to audiences previously invested in the Connors. Other than Kate, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, either. There’s no mention whatsoever of Kyle Reese, which is odd when, as you will have realised by now if you’ve watched the previous movies, he is quite an important character (not to mention that there’s rather a massive plot issue surrounding his involvment in the franchise that still needs addressing). The focus seems to be more on stunts and spectacle now rather than plot and character, though the CGI doesn’t seem to have improved, even though there’s more of it in use. One of the biggest disappointments is the character of John Connor – he’s nothing like the sassy kid we loved; he’s weak, far from the soldier he’s supposed to be. T3 does have its moments, mostly thanks to Arnie and his one liners that would have been terrible if delivered by anybody else, and the ending isn’t entirely awful, but overall Cameron’s departure is keenly felt in this installment.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Oh dear. Just when you think/hope it couldn’t get any worse, it does. Salvation barely has anything of a plot to report, and what there is is frankly confusing: Judgment Day has happened, and John Connor (Christian Bale) is leading the resistance, as had always been the plan. When he and his fighters learn that Skynet is creating the T-800 machines, they plan to take it down. Along the way they come across Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a guy who was once on death row but offered his living body up for robotic experimentation, turning him into a cyborg (this happened in 2003, the year now is 2018). Marcus joins the fight against Skynet as they target John and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), with John’s priority being the destruction of the T-800 factory so as to prevent a specific T-800 going back in time and attempt to murder young John. Does anything about this plot actually sound enticing? Not really. The story now is at a point where it’s just creating a standard war movie, man versus machine; there’s no real continuation of anything, and most of what happens is thoroughly expected anyway. The whole film has been coated with a darker filter in order to give it that feeling of a desolate future, but it just enforces the fact it’s completely devoid of colour and anything interesting to look at. The good points are Danny Elfman taking over on the score (and doing a pretty good job of it), the technology for CGI finally at a point where it can look semi-real, and Anton Yelchin’s performance. His Kyle Reese is possibly the only interesting and engaging character in the whole film, and Yelchin (may he rest in peace) is a perfect Reese. Christian Bale gives a fairly good performance, but he’s not John Connor – this one is dead inside, to the point where you wonder how he’s managed to garner such a following of devotees. His wife, Kate, portrayed here by Bryce Dallas Howard, has also lost her spark. Sure, it may fit in with the story and the depressing world they now inhabit, but these are supposed to be the people with hope that the hopeless look up to! Sam Worthington’s character is pointless and adds no value to the story whatsoever. And, ultimately, it’s really not the same without Arnie; the brief cameo he has as a T-800 does not count as there’s no meaning to it. There’s no humour whatsoever in this film and the whole thing is just bleak, disappointing and boring.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Director: Alan Taylor
Ok, things are starting to look up again. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to watching this after the travesty of Salvation, but I was surprised (probably because of the low expectations). Genisys sets something of a new timeline for the story, and brings back characters we’re more familiar with. In 2029, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends back his pal Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to protect his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke), in order to keep the timeline (or whatever it is at this point) intact. But something happens to John just as Kyle is sent back, something that has meant things have changed in 1984. Sarah is already aware of the future, and even has her own T-800 guardian, fondly nicknaming him Pops (Schwarzenneger). Together, Sarah and Kyle time travel to 2017 to stop Skynet, which is now Genisys, from becoming self-aware and stopping another Judgment Day. When a corrupted and now part-machine John Connor also comes back to 2017, the whole Terminator lore gets thrown on its head as Sarah and Kyle are hunted by the Genisys-controlled John. The plot, while a bit odd, makes more sense and is a bit more original since Judgment Day, thankfully. It does verge on Nazi territory, with the machines’ human camps and extermination of the race, which gives it a depth that hasn’t really been seen before. The writing overall is more self-aware, with one character pointing out a pretty convenient plot point. There’s improvement in general on story, dialogue and character. It’s nice to have Sarah back (particularly as a strong female lead), though slightly odd that it’s not Linda Hamilton for the first time (first time for the movies, anyway, and though it makes sense why she’s not, she is synonymous with the character). Emilia Clarke does a fairly good job of reprising the character, and it’s nice to see a more prepared and ballsy young Sarah, just as Jai Courtney does a good enough job of Kyle Reese (though it would have been good to have Yelchin back). We also get a little more story surrounding Kyle, which is nice to see, as he’s a character that deserves more exposure. Arnold is back (as he once promised), thank goodness, and he’s fully fitted with more one-liners (providing the comedy Salvation severly lacked) and an ever-endearing personality (or, strangely, a lack of?), and there’s a great Arnie v. Arnie scene that most of us have waited a for. The character of John Connor is still pretty bland and below par, but at least they did something different with him in this story. We’re still yet to see this hero we’ve been promised; any of the movies in which John’s featured as an adult have lacked what it is that makes John Connor, which is disappointing. What’s also disappointing is that Edward Furlong never returned the character, mostly due to his own personal demons, it seems. But, there are some pretty cool effects in Genisys, some of which involve John, so that’s something I guess.
As much as the series struggled without James Cameron, I think we can be thankful that people took the risk to keep it going. The general Terminator story is excellent sci-fi material, with plenty of tangents to go off of (always the case when it comes to movies involving time travel). At first, complicated themes involving science were written to be relatively simple and understood by the average moviegoer, but then poor writing took it down routes that got too confusing and a bit unnecessary. No matter which movie you watch though, there will still be many questions raised that relate to issues with timelines (particuarly whether the movies follow a theory of time being linear or cyclical) and the existence of certain characters. It’s also too much, by the time Genisys comes around, to have so many different actors play particular characters. It can totally throw us out of whack with the franchise. Thank goodness the rights to the Terminator franchise have finally reverted back to Cameron, who is back on writing and producing duties for the newest installment, Terminator: Dark Fate. Perhaps we’ll finally get some sense injected back into the series, with Cameron stating that Dark Fate will be a continuation from Judgment Day, meaning all other movies or TV shows will have occurred in separate timelines (convenient, but I’m totally onboard with it). So, essentially, if you want to remind yourself of the full story before heading to the cinema, you only need to watch The Terminator and Judgment Day – forget the rest, they don’t really do much to further the story, and they’re all so stuck in the fight that they’ve forgotten who they are as characters. Check out the trailer below for Dark Fate, with a full review here.
Hasta la vista, baby.