“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…”
This legendary intro text begins James Cameron’s 1984 seminal sci-fi horror classic: The Terminator. Now in 2020 we’ve had no less than five big-budget film sequels and uncounted hordes of spin-off material that includes television series, video games, books, graphic novels, comics, and even theme park rides. The titular silver cyborg and its red glowing eyes has become so iconic that it itself, as an object, is almost as well-known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose career was significantly boosted by portraying it.
Writer/director James Cameron went on to make the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, in 1991, which replaced the original film’s focus on horror with a more family-friendly, action feel. Arnie’s terrifying, remorseless killer made a reappearance as ‘Uncle Bob’, the reprogrammed protector of the bratty pre-teen John Connor, future resistance leader. Robert Patrick took the role as the new, faster, shinier, knifier, even-more-unkillable terminator machine from the future. Linda Hamilton reprised her role as Sarah Connor, mother of the future saviour of humanity, and showed how the ‘average waitress’ from the first film had matured into a hard-ass, uncompromising survivalist — arguably one of the best character development arcs of any film franchise. Terminator 2 pushed the envelope of cinematic CGI so far that one of the reasons for the long gap between the successful first film and the planned sequel was to allow the technology to mature enough to create the shape-shifting T-1000 (Patrick) necessary for the story Cameron wanted to tell. Terminator 2 is undoubtedly a brilliant film and shaped cinema in ways that we’re still exploring even today, 29 years later.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the sequels. While each film has its positive points, none of them have reached the heights of the first two. None have captured the claustrophobic terror of The Terminator, and none have matched the emotional investment or rollercoaster thrill-ride that Terminator 2 gave us.
Has the allure of time-travelling cyborgs worn off? Possibly. The curse of ‘franchise fatigue’ might well have set in. However, there’s another possibility: simply that Terminator 2 makes it nearly impossible to make a good sequel. Not because it’s just too good, but because it introduces unnecessary flaws into the mythology of the franchise that are extremely difficult to circumvent, and any films made afterwards need to navigate these plot-hole shark-infested waters in order to function as a sequel.
Every narrative has some plot holes and conceits.This is what we all understand when we sit down to enjoy any kind of media, be it video games, books or films. There will always be the possibility of picking apart the plot and imagining how things could be done differently. This is part of what’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’: we have to willingly excuse a certain amount of contrivance in order to enjoy the experience. Good media makes us forget about that, or simply not care. Clearly Terminator sequels fail at that job to varying degrees — but why?
The curse of time travel
The entire Terminator franchise hinges on the conceit of time travel. Smartly, the first film portrays its time travel is a one-way, one-time event. The human resistance fighter Kyle Reese, portrayed brilliantly by Michael Biehn, explains the mechanisms of time travel:
Dr. Silberman: “… called… the time displacement equipment?”
Reese: “That’s right, the Terminator had already gone through, Connor sent me to intercept, and they blew the whole place.”
Dr. Silberman: “How are you supposed to get back?”
Reese: “I can’t, nobody goes home… Nobody else comes through. It’s just him, and me.”
And later, after being asked by criminal psychologist Dr. Silberman why he didn’t bring ‘ray guns’ from the future to defeat the Terminator, Kyle says:
Reese: “You go naked, something about the field generated by a living organism, nothing dead will go. I didn’t build the fucking thing!”
Dr. Silberman: “Okay… but this cyborg, if it’s metal-“
Reese: “Surrounded by living tissue!”
This is pretty much everything we know of the time machine, and this is all we need to know to understand the rules of the Terminator universe. Reese has to fight a murder robot from the year 2029, using only ‘primitive’ weapons and resources from 1984, and with no hope of backup. He needs to protect Sarah Connor because her unborn son, John, will grow up to be the messianic leader of the human resistance and help defeat the machines. From dialogue between Sarah and Kyle we know the evil machine overlord Skynet was already beaten by John’s human resistance in 2029 and the time travel caper was Skynet’s last ditch attempt to win — by rewriting history! Presumably Skynet assimilated several episodes of The Outer Limits into its decision-making algorithm…
Reese relays a message that future John Connor made him memorise:
“Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years. I can’t help you with what you must soon face except to say that the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist.”
This is why John becomes a shining beacon of hope for the resistance: he’s literally a prophet, having some foreknowledge of the future and specific training to deal with the apocalypse he knows is coming. Even the exact date, because Kyle told Sarah all about the future, and Sarah told her son, so he grew up knowing the exact nature of the war he needed to fight.
It’s a single shot back in time. A one-off event that closes the loop on itself.
The issues with time travel are introduced with Terminator 2, and persist through all subsequent films simply because they all hinge on the idea that more time travel happened. They reopen the closed loop, and leave it firmly open.
In Terminator 2 we discover that Kyle Reese and the original T-800 cyborg (Arnie) were not the ‘only’ ones to be sent through. Somehow in Terminator 2 not only does Skynet send back another Terminator from 2030, but the resistance also has time to capture and reprogram an “older” model Terminator and send that back too. This same plot device is essentially used over and over again in all subsequent films (except 2009’s Terminator Salvation, a poorly-received post-apocalyptic war drama).
The main question for the audience becomes: if more time travel is possible (lots more, apparently) why send just one ‘good guy’ to counter each ‘bad guy’ that Skynet sent back? Why not send several, or send a battalion of future soldiers? Why not try a reverse of what Skynet tried, and simply send someone back to infiltrate Cyberdyne Systems, the company that made Skynet in the first place, and destroy it?
Wait! We have that film! It’s 2015’s Terminator Genisys, the fourth sequel. This film took an innovative and interesting run at the idea of re-writing time, given the inconsistencies introduced in Terminator 2. It features clever use of CGI to recreate parts of the original film and introduce the idea that further time travel shenanigans happen that alter those familiar events which in turn alters the future, which in turn alters the past even more. Terminator Genisys did well at the box office (sliding into second place behind Terminator 2: Judgement Day in the franchise rankings), but estimates suggest that it didn’t do well enough for the studio to invest in the planned sequels. Plus, fans and critics didn’t like it. Not even a little bit. It was savaged in the critical press and by fan-review aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes.
Interestingly, it was originally endorsed by James Cameron himself:
“I feel like the franchise has been reinvigorated, like this is a renaissance. The new film, which I think of as the third film [in the series]… If you like the Terminator films, you’re gonna love this movie.”
Later, when the film underperformed, he walked that back pretty quickly and set about making his own attempt to capture the unicorn that is “The Real Terminator 3”.
By its very nature, introducing more time travel to the franchise creates uncountable loopholes in the plot. These loopholes encourage the viewer to ask more than they should about the nature of time travel, and attempts by various sequels and other media spin-offs to close or exploit those loopholes don’t seem to make for very good films.
Too many Arnies
In The Terminator Kyle Reese explains the nature of the machine chasing them to a confused and terrified Sarah Connor:
“Outside, it’s living human tissue; flesh, skin, hair, blood, grown for the cyborgs… The six-hundred series had rubber skin, we spotted them easy, but these are new, they look human, sweat, bad breath, everything — very hard to spot.”
One of the things that make The Terminator such a taut experience is that the killing machine can pass as human. Initially even Reese didn’t know what the T-800 looked like; he had to wait until it moved against Sarah before he could identify it. This is deeply significant since its main job is infiltration, and it’s apparently very good at that.
Unfortunately in Terminator 2 we’re introduced to the idea that the look of the T-800 model is, in fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is reinforced by literally every subsequent film where every T-800 model we see is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we’re even briefly shown a production line in 2009’s Terminator Salvation where adult John Connor is attacked by a newly-minted Arnold Schwarzenegger.
While it’s nice to see Arnie reprise his role in Terminator 2, and with a new take on it (reprogrammed by the resistance to protect John Connor as ‘Uncle Bob’), this does raise some questions. Taken in isolation, it’s possible to imagine that the T-800 in The Terminator is just an edge-case design; one that just looks like that, because some people do — namely Arnold Schwarzenegger. However Terminator 2 asks us to believe that a super-intelligent AI that’s been battling humanity for decades hatches a cunning plan to mass-produce Arnold Schwarzenegger robots. Maybe the resistance in the future really is stupid enough to keep falling for it, though it’s hard to imagine why Reese would have trouble identifying the T-800 in The Terminator if they all looked like that. Plus, John Connor already knows what the T-800 looks like because of Terminator 2, so he would surely have told his resistance friends (and by extension Kyle Reese). He could even have done a little sketch maybe, had them pinned up… “Have you seen this robot?” posters everywhere…
In many ways the Terminator franchise has been bogged down by the almost pathological need to use Arnold Schwarzenegger in every film. That door was opened by Terminator 2, then blown off its hinges by all the other sequels.
Way too much time travel
If Skynet was already beaten in Reese’s time, as he fervently explains in The Terminator, then it feels a little odd that it had enough time and resources to continue developing innovative new designs (and a new time machine) to send an increasing number of more advanced robots back in time. It’s even harder to imagine the John Connor from Reese’s time entirely forgetting the events of Terminator 2 and forgetting to tell Reese to tell his mother that he’ll be sending a ‘good’ Arnie in a few years to help her defeat an even newer T-1000, and that in the meantime she shouldn’t go telling everyone about the apocalypse and get herself sent to an asylum. He had time to do so, since he made Reese memorise a message from the future… Puzzling…
2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines attempts to plug this gaping inconsistency by suggesting that Terminator 2 was a new timeline created when Kyle Reese and the Terminator came back in the first film. Essentially Skynet changed the future a bit, which is why Kyle didn’t have those kinds of messages for Sarah. In Terminator 3 the robopocalypse didn’t happen in 1997, because of the events of Terminator 2, but in 2003 — six years later than it did originally and in a slightly different way. The overall message is that you can’t prevent some sort of AI rising up and killing everyone, you can just kick it down the road.
Despite actually doing a decent job of continuing the story from Terminator 2 and patching up some of the gaping rents in the universe left by that film, neither fans nor critics loved the slightly campy Terminator 3, giving it average reviews. James Cameron described Terminator 3 as “great”, until he retconned his comments later down the line when Terminator Genisys came out. The gritty post-apocalyptic war-drama of 2009’s Terminator Salvation received a resounding ‘meh’ across the board.
I’ll be back. Again.
Fans of the franchise have blamed the previous lacklustre sequels on poor writing, bad concepts, poor effects, production problems, studio interference, poor directing, poor acting, poor casting… and so on. Even James Cameron has scorned sequels to his first two films, suggesting that if he’d been consulted he could have ‘fixed’ them.
So, in 2019 James Cameron brought us Terminator: Dark Fate. Both Linda Hamilton (the original Sarah Connor) and Arnold Schwarzenegger were cast together for the first time since Terminator 2. This was James Cameron showing everyone how to make a good Terminator 3… and fans were less than blown away by the oddly-paced, unoriginal action-adventure. It’s estimated that the film lost production companies Paramount and Skydance something like $100 million — very far from the success they were hoping for. Fans seemed apathetic, with the general consensus being “eh, it’s ok” as an average reaction.
So what went wrong? Why couldn’t even James Cameron himself manage to successfully make a sequel to Terminator 2, given a vast budget and near-unlimited casting options?
Had Dark Fate been made sixteen years ago instead of the intervening three films it might have done better. If you ignore the other films, it does a pretty good job of updating the Terminator universe to modern values, fears and hopes. But unfortunately for James Cameron, the other films do exist, and it’s clear that Dark Fate doesn’t really tread any new ground at all; it just cherry-picks the best bits from the ‘failed’ sequels and tries to make something new from the carcasses.
As a society, our ideas of artificial intelligence, robotics and our own ultimate apocalypse have changed and developed since the original film was conceived in the early 1980s. A new Terminator film needs to accept that the threat of sentient AI deciding to obliterate humanity for some reason feels more remote to us today than more immediate, onrushing disasters. Apparently the franchise can’t self-terminate; it may well be that the best fate for the Terminator franchise is to lower it gently into the molten steel of time.