We’re sealing our Dark Fate by reviewing all the Terminator movies. Yup, all of them.
The sixth installment of the Terminator franchise barrels into theaters this weekend. The series certainly has had its ups and down, going from the Academy Awards for T:2 to the Golden Schmoe’s (for Worst Film) for Terminator Genysis. The films have remained profitable, though exploding budgets for the last three entries are a far cry from James Cameron’s shoe-string budgeted opus, The Terminator.
In anticipation of the new film, Dark Fate, we break out our copies of the first five films and see how time travel to the year 2019 has effected our opinions of them.
The Terminator Franchise.
The Terminator (1984)
In the future, Skynet, a sentient computer in charge of military protocols, deems humanity a threat, and initiates Judgement Day. Most of the population dies in a fiery holocaust in 1997, but a man named John Connor leads a rebellion that is poised to destroy the Skynet mainframe.
The machines use time travel to send a last ditch assassination robot, the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), back in time to kill the mother of John Connor, Sarah (Linda Hamilton.) Future John sends a young soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Beine) back in time to protect her.
Pro: Cameron paces the film perfectly, allowing brief moments of respite and character development before having his walking murder machine relentlessly reappear. The film is basically a slasher with sci-fi trappings, with Arnold causing the sort of terror and dread of a Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. The biggest strengths of the film are the fantastic characters, with Hamilton, Bein, and Schwarzenegger making each of their roles iconic.
Con: The series shows a marked reliance on twists in causality, where attempts at preventing something actually causes it. It’s mostly incidental here, but becomes a real headache in the series as a whole. A few of the facial prosthetic are sub-par.
Time Travel: Timeless. The Terminator holds up well in retrospect. The film quality and sound work are uneven, but they always were like that. A low budget horror film, it was always meant to live and breath despite its limitations. All the things that worked in 1984 still work today, and the practical effects are still impressive in places.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Just before being shut down, Skynet launches one last robot, an experimental liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick). It attempts to kill a juvenile John Connor (Edward Furlong), knowing that Sarah (Hamilton) is out of his life by that point. The resistance sends a reprogrammed T-800 (Arnie) back to help, knowing that a normal human soldier would stand no chance.
Pro: Linda F@cking Hamilton. Hamilton plays one of the toughest mothers in cinematic history, turning Sarah Connor into a legendary character. Robert Patrick manages, with few lines, to make the T-1000 nearly as iconic and scary as the original T-800. The budget increase leads to better effects, better sound work, kick-ass music, and an all around bigger bang.
Con: The time travel loops are becoming incredulity straining. Why not send the T-1000 back to 1984 and make sure the first attempt works? If John being alive in the future is proof the first failed, then you know the second fails too CAUSE HE’S STILL THERE. The speculative elements still feel heady, but are showing their lack of rigorous vetting. Edward Furlong is annoying as young John Connor; essentially a Bart Simpson clone. Arnie has some ill-conceived comic relief bits.
Time Travel: Blast from the Past. Most of Furlong and Arnold’s scenes are cloying and sentimental. They’re saved by a strong ending, but still distract. A few special effects suffer from bleeding edge syndrome, but were fixed in a digital restoration. Like Alien to Aliens, the franchise swaps most of the horror for action, but the action is pretty great. With the new coat of paint, this film still works well.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
The events of T:1 and T:2 result in a shift in the timeline. Now Skynet becomes active a decade later than it normally would have, but is not centralized. Unable to find John, it sends a hybrid of the last two T models, T-X (Kristanna Loken), to kill other key humans in the resistance. Another T-800 (Schwarzenegger) is sent back and inadvertently finds John (Nick Stahl) while looking for his future wife Kate (Claire Danes).
Pro: Umm…hard to say. Some of the action sequences are good. The twist ending is the only one that actually feels like it wouldn’t fracture the timeline. Claire Danes does a solid job, despite Stahl playing a pretty pathetic John Connor.
Con: Everything? The roles are nowhere near as well crafted or executed as the first two. The plot mostly spins its tires. The T-X is not a markedly new or different threat and Loken doesn’t give it much life. A misfire across the board.
Time Travel: Exiled to the Past. Seeing as Dark Fate retcons this turkey out of existence, Rise of the Machines justly lies discarded on the scrap heap of Terminator history. Even enthusiasts can find much better in other films in the main Terminator Franchise, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles do a better job of filling in the rise of Skynet storyline.
Judgement Day has come, and John Connor (Christian Bale) leads humanity in a desperate fight against the now decentralized Skynet. Trying to liberate human survivors, they discover the machines’ plans to release infiltration robots – T-800’s – much earlier than John was led to believe. A survivor of the facility’s research project (Sam Worthington) offers help but John distrusts him. They are forced to work together when Skynet captures Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin)…the man who is supposed to save Sarah and become John’s father.
Pro: Finally, a Terminator movie made with a game-plan. You’d think a series about time travel would have had more foresight. This movie is set up to be the first of three that (presumably) all take place during the resistance. The characters are strong, though so many need to be established and positioned that some get short shrift. The imagery and CG, while Transformers-esque, feels unified and organic to the new tone and themes.
Con: As the first of three, there’s a lot of exposition to get through. It can drag in places, and whipsaw you around in others. The CG has that brittle look of Michael Bay, but is not as bad. The brown and gray coloration may be off-putting to some. Bale is mostly forgettable compared to Worthington.
Time Travel: Unjustly Marooned in Time. Terminator Salvation is one film that took a while to grow on me. Unlike other entries in the Terminator Franchise, this one does something new. It doesn’t get it 100% right, but I like the gamble. After a second and third viewing, I really found myself wanting to see how this would have developed in a trilogy.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
As Kyle Reese (Jai Courney) prepares to head to 1984 to save Sarah, he witnesses John (Jason Clarke) get attacked and experiences a prophetic vision. In 1984, he discovers that Sarah (Emilia Clarke) and a reprogrammed T-800 (Arnie, duh) have been fighting off Skynet assassins for years, eventually salvaging enough parts to make their own time machine. Kyle, realizing his dream’s meaning, tells them that the timeline has switched and that they should head to 2007, not 1997, to stop the new cyberspace version of Skynet.
Pro: This film is self aware. It takes the best bits of the first two movies and attempts to make a meal out of the hash that was T:3. Its re-imagining of the first two film’s iconic moments feel exhilarating, and deft homages abound. Emilia Clarke takes up the mantle of badass female lead well, Arnie finally makes his comic relief work, and Matt Smith (Dr. Who) has a nice turn as a creepy cyber villain.
Con: The second half runs out of ideas to re-imagine and instead feels ad hoc and half-baked. At the end of the day, we’re still just getting The Terminator re-done again. This was the film that cemented my opinion that I hate every role I’ve seen Jason Clarke in.
Time Travel: Stuck in a Time Loop. Genysis has a lot of fun with the bananas time-travel mess of the series and shows real enthusiasm for the best bits of the Terminator Franchise. It just doesn’t really do enough to break the series out of the rut it’s in. Here’s to hoping Dark Fate actually moves the series onto new, imaginative ground.