If there's one constant in the Terminator franchise, it's killer robots. If there's two constants, it's that there's no such thing as a fixed timeline, with the franchise having contradicted itself on a continual basis since its second installment. The latest film, Terminator: Dark Fate, is billed as a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and ignores the subsequent sequels. But for fans who have spent years thinking about all the stories told using this property, it's time to sort everything out once and for all. What counts? What doesn't? Read ahead.
What happens: In 1984, a cyborg sent back in time from the year 2029 arrives with the mission to kill Sarah Connor, the woman destined to be the mother of John Connor, a resistance leader that will ultimately threaten Skynet, the AI despot overlord of 2029. The cyborg is stopped by Connor with the assistance of Kyle Reese, a soldier also sent back from 2029 who — in a classic time paradox — ends up becoming John's father before dying.
11 years later, Connor and her son are attacked again, this time by a shapeshifting robot from 2029. A second time-traveling cyborg, this one re-programmed to be a good guy, arrives to help them. In the process of destroying the shapeshifting robot, one of the men most responsible for the future creation of Skynet is killed, leaving it unclear whether or not the emergence of Skynet in 1997 will happen as Kyle Reese had previously stated.
Technically, this is at least two timelines — the one Kyle Reese and his fellow time travelers came from, and a second timeline after the scientist partially responsible for Skynet thanks to researching parts from the T-800 in the first film is killed without completing his work — but we'll put them all together here for the sake of centering Sarah and John Connor in the narrative.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles | Courtesy of Photofest
THE TV TIMELINE
As seen in: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles 2008-2009
What happens: In 1999, Sarah and John Connor are still on the run and under attack from evil time-traveling robots sent by Skynet in the future; it turns out that the events of Terminator 2 delayed Skynet's activation until 2011, but that it will nonetheless take over the world and decimate humanity. The Connors are assisted in their survival by a re-programmed time traveling cyborg from 2027, two years prior to the future origin point of the original time traveling cyborg, and together the three travel through time to 2007, where they discover not only more time traveling evil robots, but also more time traveling resistance fighters, including Derek Reese, the uncle to Kyle Reese.
The series ends as John Connor travels forward in time to the point where Skynet has taken over the planet, only to discover that his journey has somehow ered the timeline to the effect that he is no longer the leader of the human resistance.
What happens: Following the events of Terminator 2, the emergence of Skynet has been postponed but not, it seems, cancelled. In 2007, John Connor has been living for some years in secret following the death of his mother Sarah at some undisclosed point in the last decade; nonetheless, he comes under attack from another time-traveling evil robot sent to kill members of the future human resistance, including his own future wife, Kate Brewster. Although they manage to stay alive, Connor and Brewster cannot prevent the rise of Skynet, which fires nuclear missiles across the world, creating the robotic despot future central to the franchise.
In 2018, the robot dystopia has been in existence for more than a decade, and Connor and Brewster are the leaders of the resistance when they discover a cyborg who appears to be self-aware and not part of Skynet's plans. This turns out not to be the case, with Marcus, the cyborg in question, actually a sleeper agent intended to kill Connor during a sting operation having lured him into a false sense of security; learning of his fate, Marcus turns on Skynet, and ultimately sacrifices himself so that Connor can live.
What happens: In 2029, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother and ensure his birth, as seen in the original Terminator movie. Reese somehow lands in an ernate timeline where the first time-traveling cyborg actually arrived decades earlier, and helped raise Sarah Connor in the first place. Sarah Connor, along with the first time-traveling cyborg — named Pops — and Reese ultimately travel to 2017 to defeat Skynet once and for all, only to discover that a Skynet is actually a new global operating system called Genisys, and b John Connor is now an evil time-traveling robot himself because he was injected by nanites in the future. They prevent Genisys from coming online, but do not destroy the AI completely.
What happens: In 1998, John Connor is killed by an evil time-traveling robot a few years after the events of Terminator 2. In 2020, both an evil time-traveling robot and a cybernetically-enhanced human arrive from the year 2042, with the intent to find Dani Ramos, who — in the year 2042 — will be a significant figure in the fight against Legion, the AI despot overlord of the future. Grace is assisted in keeping Dani alive by Sarah Connor, who has spent the 22 years since the death of her son fighting off other time-traveling evil robots, and Carl, the robot responsible for the death of John Connor. They are ultimately successful, but it is unclear whether or not the rise Legion — an AI specifically designed for cyberwarfare — as a despotic robot overlord has been averted.
James Cameron has plotted out a trilogy, now in doubt given the film's soft performance at the U.S. box office, but what if it lived on as a TV series?
[This story contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate.]
The future has changed. Not only is this change true of the in-narrative post-apocalyptic wasteland that sees mankind making its final stand against machines, but it's also true of the Terminator franchise, which seemed stuck in a perpetual state of mediocrity following the greatness of James Cameron's T2: Judgment Day 1991. For the first time in almost 30 years, we have a Terminator sequel that actually feels akin to Cameron's first two films, The Terminator 1984 and T2. For the first time in almost 30 years, the future of the franchise looks bright thanks to Tim Miller's Terminator: Dark Fate. At least, it looks bright in terms of story and narrative possibilities for the future. The box office tells another story, with the pic is stalling in its domestic debut, where it is expected to bow to around $27 million.
Audiences may be skeptical of a new installment after being burned by Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines 2003, Terminator Salvation 2009 and Terminator Genisys 2015. But should they take one more chance, they'll find themselves experiencing a story that's worth investing in and seeing continue. Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015, Creed 2015 and Halloween 2018, Dark Fate is a legacy sequel that feels like a recalibration of the franchise, a reconsideration of what Terminator is as a property in a way that recognizes the best parts of the past while forging ahead. Ignoring the previous entries post- T2, Dark Fate presents itself as the true Terminator 3 and opens with a major plot point that shifts the story in a new direction.
Given Dark Fate's box office struggles, another film sequel is likely in doubt.While the theatrical window for this Terminatorseries may be over, perhaps the franchise can find favor with audiences and continue on through a streaming series. Distributor Netflix already has a deal with Paramount, and seeing the continuing adventures of Dani Ramos Natalia Reyes and Sarah Connor Linda Hamilton play out in that format may be worth exploring. Let's look at where Dark Fate goes, and where such a series could go next if granted life.
Shortly after the events of T2 and the prevention of Judgment Day, John Connor Edward Furlong is killed by a Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger, a backup activated in result of the T-1000's failure. As Sarah Connor puts it, he was killed by a future that no longer exists. But Judgment Day still happens, just later down the line with the AI system Legion replacing Skynet, and the future of the Resistance no longer dependent on the messianic John Connor, but Dani Ramos. On the run from a new breed of Terminator, Rev-9 Gabriel Luna, Dani finds herself under the protection of an augmented human soldier from the future, Grace Mackenzie Davis, and a battle-hardened present-day Sarah Connor, who sees her younger self in Dani.
Terminator: Dark Fate | Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures
The ending of the film takes three major players off the board: Rev-9, Grace and Carl Schwarzenegger, the Terminator who killed John and without a mission grew a conscience in the intervening years. Mirroring the ending of the first film, Dani climbs into a jeep and sets her sights on preventing the dark fate ahead for humanity. But unlike Sarah was at the end of the first film, she's not alone. “You've got to be ready,” Sarah tells her. “I know,” responds Dani, echoing Sarah's final words at the end of that 1984 film. While Dark Fate smartly avoids a post-credit scene, permitting the pic to serve as a conclusion to the series, story writer and producer James Cameron has said that the installment works as both a conclusion of a trilogy started in 1986 and the beginning of a new series, with two more entries should audiences oblige. Dani's training under Sarah will obviously be a central element going forward, but there are other threads introduced in the film that are worth considering.
First, there's the question of Legion. How did the defense system come about, presuming that Cyberdyne Systems isn't responsible? Cameron likes to employ biblical references in his Terminator films and Legion evokes the New Testament story in which Jesus exorcises a man of a multitude of demons who collectively go by "Legion." The name of this new cataclysmic AI system my suggest that the threat to humanity isn't coming from just one self-aware defense system, like Skynet, but a multitude of systems working in unison... or perhaps not. Cameron recently said in an interview, “I feel like one of my major motivations on this film or coming back to the, hopefully franchise, was to explore the human relationship with artificial intelligence. I don't feel we did that in Dark Fate. I feel that we set the stage or we set the table for that exploration, and that exploration would take place in a second film and a third film. And we know exactly where we're going to take that idea.”
Terminator: Dark Fate | Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures
We've already seen humans working with benevolent Terminators, but are there benevolent AI Systems within a larger system that have different plans for humanity? Perhaps Judgment Day needs to happen so that mankind can ultimately be saved? In what would be an interesting twist on the series, and fit with Cameron's ecological concerns, Judgment Day could be a necessary event that is ultimately the only way to ensure the future of the human race. Dani and Sarah having to contend with the deaths of billions in order to ultimately ensure their survival as a species and heal the world's ecosystem could make for a fascinating turn of events.
Cameron also went on to talk about the theme of reincarnation at the center of the story, and how character types and conflicts repeat themselves until they reach their logical conclusion. We know that Dani is humanity's new hope, but is she only one of many possible John Connor figures? During the film, Carl reveals that he has spent that past 30 years sending Sarah Connor to coordinates where new Terminators would arrive from the future so that she could kill them and give her life purpose. But why were these Terminators sent? Are they all simply remnants of the future that no longer exists, or were they sent by Legion to target other important future figures? Dark Fate doesn't focus much on timelines, which helps give the pic a sense of urgency and narrative clarity, but there are questions that remain.
The nature of time travel in the Terminator films is iffy, as are the rules of time-travel media in general. But if John no longer lives to become the leader of the resistance, does that mean that Kyle Reese is never sent back and John was never born? Sarah reveals that she doesn't have any pictures of John and is starting to forget his face. It's a heartbreaking moment, but perhaps it's also hinting at a larger narrative point in that John never existed at all and only lives on through Sarah's memory and the existence of Dani, a thematic point that connects with James Cameron's exploration of cultural memory and reincarnation in Avatar 2009. And what about the T-800? The future shows that those Terminator models still exist as infantry, but have been surpassed by the Rev-9 and another Terminator model that has tentacled appendages. Has Schwarzenegger's presence in the franchise ended? Surely there's no need to send a T-800 back to kill Dani when Legion has clearly improved on that model. With John Connor and the T-800 seemingly out of the picture, the franchise could benefit from new characters. Cameron, though, has signaled that there's always a way to bringSchwarzenegger back.
One way in which Schwarzenegger could return is something that has been considered within the franchise for years. Who is the human base of the T-800? Was the T-800's appearance as an Austrian body builder simply a case of coding, 1s and 0s resulting in the most efficient model? Or was there a human inspiration? Schwarzenegger playing a human character could provide the actor with the opportunity to do something different within the franchise and add another relationship for Dani and Sarah to explore. And then there's Grace, who sacrifices herself to save Dani, although her younger self still exists in the present as a child. Much like Schwarzenegger in the first film, Mackenzie Davis is too welcome of a presence to imagine that she won't fit into the sequel in some capacity. Whether the filmmakers twist the T2 formula and reintroduce her as a villain, a Terminator modeled after Grace, Davis' importance in this new iteration of Terminator is just as important as Hamilton's and Reyes'.
It's been so long since we've had a Terminator film that felt worth continuing and there are a myriad of possibilities to go into, while avoiding the missteps of the three previous movies. The fact that Cameron knows where he wants to take the story inspires confidence as well, and if we do end up looking at this as a first installment, then we all know that Cameron only gets better when it comes to sequels. But as intriguing as questions of AI relations, timelines and Terminator models are, the most important thing for the franchise at this point, and the central reason why Dark Fate succeeds, is introducing characters we care about. However the unknown future rolls towards us in regards to the Terminator franchise, it's the characters that give all the science-fiction spectacle and action sequences weight and meaning. And if the Terminator franchise can relearn the value of human life, maybe we can, too.
In the late producer Robert Evans' book, which I was reading this week for a tribute post, he writes of pre-production, “Fighting is healthy. If everyone has too much reverence for each other, or for the material, results are invariably underwhelming. It's irreverence that makes things sizzle.”
Evans isn't necessarily some font of mystical wisdom, but I think he was onto something with the reverence thing. Ever since T2, the Terminator franchise has essentially been trying to recreate T2. It ends up being fairly myopic in scope because despite being a story about killer robots from the future who can time travel, all the films are confined to a relatively small time period with the same handful of characters. Only the explanations as to why this is get more complicated.
In Terminator: Dark Fate, Sarah Connor Linda Hamilton!, an augmented human played by Mackenzie Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's aging T-800, team up to stop a new terminator from a new company — The Rev-9! From an AI company called Legion! Played by Gabriel Luna! They're trying to stop it from killing Dani Ramos Natalia Reyes, a young woman who is important to the resistance in ways that aren't initially clear. This new Terminator movie is “irreverent” in the sense that Tim Miller from Deadpool directed it, so it occasionally has a snarky joke, but reverent in the sense that it's basically the same story as T2, only with the parts reshuffled.
All things being equal, this Terminator is probably better than the last two or three Terminators since T2. Terminator Salvation was mostly memorable for being bad that was the one directed by McG, who promised the film would “knock your f*ckin' balls up your ass”, and Terminator 3 and Terminator: Genesys I barely remember at all. This one has at least three strong characters. MacKenzie Davis looks almost like the basis for James Cameron's Na'vi in Avatar with her impossibly long neck and limbs, so the role of human 2.0 seems perfect for her, aside from her convincing acting.
Meanwhile, Sarah Connor is pretty dull when she's trying to remind us of T2 or acting “badass” Yaaas queen, dissolve my husk in molten metal!, but fairly compelling when expressing the complex emotions of having succeeded so well that she's no longer the key to humanity's future. When we meet her in Dark Fate, screeching up in a beat-up pick-up truck on a desolate Mexican highway, Connor has successfully averted Judgement Day, but still couldn't protect her son John from a rogue Arnold, a lame-duck Terminator “from a future that never happened.” Don't ask me to work out the timeline between T2 and this, we'd be here all day, making diagrams out of straws.
So now here she is, having sacrificed her son and spent her life on the run to save three billion lives for a future that doesn't even know who she is. A Sarah Connor who is now no longer the target of Terminators and kind of miffed about it, jealous of humanity's new “Mother Mary” marked for death — it's an interesting wrinkle.
Arnold's T-800, meanwhile, is an orphaned Terminator forced to live out his existence as a kind of half-human, where he has apparently developed a conscience and adopted a family. The idea of a Terminator turned family man is a bit of a stretch, and the jokes about it are too cute by half the T-800 now goes by “Carl,” deadpans “I am extremely funny” and runs a drapery business, but it's a clever attempt to explore both the nature of consciousness and time travel simultaneously. Not to mention the same fish-out-of-water appeal that Arnold sort of always has. How does he explain never eating? What does he do when his family is sleeping?
In Dani Ramos, we have a new Sarah Connor/John Connor character — the one the Terminator wants to kill. Is she the resistance? The mother of the resistance? The inventor of some future robot-killing technology? Dark Fate withholds the answers to these questions for most of the film, which is fine, I suppose, but the bigger problem is that she has no personality. Where Sarah Connor was a young woman trying to deal, and later a haunted veteran, and John Connor was the delinquent son of a troubled mother, Dani Ramos is... just sort of plucky. Big studio action movies could use a moratorium on “pluck.”
Meanwhile, the film seems convinced that it needs to sell Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor to us as “a badass” in all the generic ways we've come to expect — wearing cool shades, shooting guns from the hip, walking away from explosions without looking cool gals don't look at explooosiooons..., etc. Hey, she said “I'll be back,” I remember that! Connor's arc in Dark Fate is an interesting one. It doesn't need the hard sell. It eventually settles down and lets her be a person, but especially early in the film Miller shoots it like he's directing an ad for the movie rather than the movie.
As for Dani's antagonist, T2 gave us Robert Patrick's liquid metal T-1000, a big twist on the previous movie's Terminator and an excellent basis for a few different set pieces. In its place, Dark Fate offers the Rev-9, which can not only shapeshift like the T-1000, but also transform into gun hands sometimes??, hack into networks naturally, and separate its molten, T-1000 style shell and T-800 style metal skeleton into two separate killer terminators uh, sure?.
Aside from essentially being a rehash of the first two Terminators albeit mashed together, the Rev-9's properties are either inadequately conveyed or shift based on whatever the action set piece at hand requires. Character should drive story, not the other way around.
Do people, as producers seem to assume, really show up to movies to see big action set pieces anymore? Did they ever? More and more I just find them dull. The less narrative sense a big action set piece makes, the more any additional spectacle just sort of advertises its own pointlessness. If you watch the big rig scene in Terminator 2, it's striking how slowly the whole thing plays out compared to the set pieces in Dark Fate. It took the time to tell a story.
Dark Fate ends in a crescendo of screeching action that involves two C-130s smashing into each other in mid-air, a parachuting Humvee, and eventually an underwater Humvee tumbling through the wash of a hydroelectric dam while the characters fight inside it. It's meant to be exciting but mostly it's just tiresome. Why are they doing that? Hasn't anyone died yet? How do people die in this universe, exactly?
The scene feels like what it probably is: overcompensation for a story that doesn't quite come together in the end. Hey, people like explosions and shit flying everywhere, right? If we don't know what makes the new Terminator tick, it's hard to come up with an interesting way to kill him.
Despite some interesting wrinkles and a few jokes here and there, Dark Fate is what all Terminators since T2 have been to some extent: a little too reverent to T2 — not only about time travel but an attempt to perform it. The more you try to recapture the magic of something old, the less you notice the opportunities to do something new.
James Cameron's franchise has been both praised and attacked for decades, and 'Dark Fate' finally takes its critics head on.
[This story contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate]
In 1984, Linda Hamilton's portrayal of Sarah Connor in The Terminator felt like a game-changer. She wasn't a scientist or an astronaut like the female leads of most sci-fi films; she was an average woman, a waitress just trying to get by in life and maybe go on a date every now and then. The film's 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day,transformed Sarah Connor from '80s girl next door to '90s military badass, and though there was criticism regarding Connor's trajectory, she remained a woman that women rooted for. This is continued, and in many regards improved upon, with Terminator: Dark Fate, which situates its women front and center while acknowledging the sexism baked into the franchise's mythos.
At its heart, Terminator: Dark Fate is about the lives of three women, interconnected on the journey to stop Judgement Day from happening. There's Sarah, still coping death of her son, John Edward Furlong; Grace Mackenzie Davis, a young woman from the future enhanced by cybernetic technology; and Dani Natalia Reyes, our new take on Sarah Connor and the woman now meant to lead a new resistance against the machines. All three women, together, could easily show the progression of Sarah's individual arc, from average woman, to warrior to hardened cynic, but enmeshed within each one is both the personality traits Sarah personified and how they've come to represent women the world over.
The Terminator co-star Linda Hamilton. | Photofest
A key criticism of 1991's T2: Judgement Day was that it immediately presented a Sarah who has been transformed from regular person into a loud, brash, military personality. All traces of Sarah's femininity are removed, short of her all-encompassing need to protect John. And even then, there are questions about whether it is her maternal love for John that drives her, or the awareness of his Jesus-like grander purpose. Claudia Springer noted in the 2004 book Cyborg Cinema and Contemporary Subjectivity that Connor's masculine change in appearance “can be appealing as a feminist alternative to helpless Hollywood woman characters...it also represents a misogynistic rejection of all things feminine.” Back in 1991, the best way to make female characters strong was to turn her into a man, and though Sarah Connor remains the ultimate badass because of her portrayal in T2, it reminded women that one couldn't be feminine and a warrior.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day | Photofest
With Dark Fate there's an awareness of these flaws. The film opens with Sarah and John enjoying themselves. They appear to be having the mother/son relationship they've always dreamed of. It's a dream shattered forever with John's death but, more importantly, it shatters the myth that Sarah's life is tied to that of a man. It's presumed that John was the only thing that gave her life purpose, an element that's been echoed in every feature from T2 onward. John's removal from her nature opens a new door, one where Sarah might find her own female humanity that's been tamped down. It's frustrating that the film never gives Sarah more of an emotional breakdown regarding John's death, both what it does to her as a mother and as a woman who's been believing that he is the center of the universe. When she finally does break down, it's at the thought that, in all her time running with John, she never took a picture of him and is now beginning to forget what he looks like.
The script also acknowledges the misogyny inherent in the original film's premise. Sarah Connor derisively brings up how she's been a mother Mary figure throughout her life and how Dani is being punished because she has a womb. Sarah's resentment is an acknowledgement of the past films' issues and the problems of sci-fi and horror in general. Women have historically been penalized in features and literature for being sexual, being pure, or their decision to have children or not. But Dani is not the mother of the future, she is the leader of the future. The revelation is poignant, if not a little on the nose. But it's an attempt to rectify the flaws of the past.
Though Dani is initially presented as a Sarah Connor clone, her trajectory implies one wherein her character won't travel the same road as Sarah. In The Terminator, Sarah only seemed to have her friend Ginger, and her mother in her life. Dani has a close-knit family and interactions with her community. Losing her family galvanizes her to action, but she never abandons the traits that have made her who she is. Dani is compassionate and intelligent, like John and Grace. At the end of the film, when Dani and Sarah team up, both women are presented as warriors who are also women, never having to give up anything.
The next frontier for the Terminator franchise would be to see women write or direct. Dark Fate, form filmmaker Tim Miller, has five credited screenwriters — all men. It's one thing to tell a story about women balancing their empathy with a desire to be independent leaders, but it's another to allow women to tell those stories. Either way, Dark Fate hopes to change an old genre with a new narrative.
Note: This list will be amended to add Terminator: Dark Fate following the film's opening weekend.
In the early '80s, James Cameron the director of Piranha II: The Spawning was handed a modest sum of money to make a sci-fi actioner about a killer robot from the future. Before shooting commenced, its star, former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrote it off as “some s*it movie.” That movie, of course, was 1984's The Terminator, and it performed better than expected, though it was still bumped from its spot at the top of the box office in only its third week, by no less than the George Burns threequel Oh God! You Devil.
Thirty-five years later, it's the franchise that won't die, much like Ah-nuld's everlasting T-800. And that's not for lack of trying: The little genre movie that could birthed a bigger and badder sequel that many believe is better, and was even for a time the most expensive motion picture ever made. Since then there have been four more big screen returns to the well, none as profitable or as game-changing. That's to say nothing of a TV show, a lavish theme park attraction, and all that other consumer product arcade games, action figures, trading cards, etc. that comes with any brand worth its salt.
Are some of these latter day sequels better than the rest? Which is the series' apex: the rickety first or the cutting edge second? And why on earth won't it just die? As Terminator 6, a.k.a. Dark Fate, arrives, let's consider this unusually robust franchise through some good old fashioned ranking.
1. The Terminator 1984
Giving the top spot to the one that started it all may be a controversial choice, but it's really like flipping a coin. Or maybe it depends on your mood: Are you up for a down-and-dirty genre picture or a super-sized blockbuster? Perhaps more crucially, do you like your Arnold mean or relatively nice? When he made The Terminator, the future Governator was still a monosyllabic he-man, and — 1970's Hercules Goes Bananas aside — not exactly for kids. Twins and Kindergarten Cop were still half a decade away, and he wouldn't reveal his yen for post-kill quips until Commando, one year later.
This may be hard to imagine now, but at the time, Arnold was still able to pass as a blood-curdling Frankenstein's monster from the future. To moviegoers, he was either the ripped co-winner of Pumping Iron or the Teutonic übermensch of Conan the Barbarian and its goofier, less fascistic sequel. He was unknowable, and he was powerful, dangerous even when good. Cameron was partially inspired by seeing John Carpenter's original Halloween, and he turned the actor/muscleman's T-800 into an even scarier version of the era's slasher baddies — more fearsome than Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers because he was also a Reagan-era hard body with perfect abs.
The film itself is lean and mean, with no fat. Cameron didn't have all the money in the world, as he would by decade's end, so its visions of the post-apocalypse are brief and murkily lit. Its action is mostly relegated to car chases indebted to Walter Hill's minimalist 1978 classic The Driver: visceral, precise, calmly assembled yet harrowing, all at once.
Meanwhile, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor — the mother of the forthcoming human revolution against the machines their ancestors created — is far from the rifle-toting badass of the first sequel. She's just an average Los Angeles single, a lousy waitress unlucky in love, and utterly flustered when she discovers she's suddenly wanted by two men: an android dead-set on icing her and a revolutionary dead-set on protecting her. Hamilton's sweaty, raw-nerve performance in T2 is justly lauded, but she's as strong in the original. She's utterly believable as an everywoman who, despite being the lone survivor, is cruelly condemned to a bleak future. She, who has no military or survivalist training, has to turn her son into a peerless rebel leader. Everyone's life is in her lonely hands. Try to ignore what you know will happen to her in the next film, and you'll be devastated by that open-ended ending: her driving into a literal storm, unsure how the hell she's going to save the future.
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2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991
One could argue it was a punk move bringing Arnold's T-800 back only to make a him a good guy. One could also argue it's an inspired move, taking the series in a new and exciting direction. Still, the real reason it happened is because, for Arnold, a lot had changed. He'd crossed over into family comedies, even been named the chairman on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. If he was going to return to the franchise that made him a lovable A-lister, he'd shoot people, but only in the legs. This time, the T-800's many victims would live.
Either way, who'd kick T2 out of bed? Even at a then-pretty-long 137 minutes, the thing moves, one dynamic, intricate set piece following another, never slowing down once our heroes try to save the future by destroying [checks notes] an anonymous-looking office building in a corporate park.
As ever, Cameron is preachy about his big world concerns. “If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can, too...” But he's sly with the commentary that really cuts. In the original, the villain was that Reaganite superstud — a vision of perfection mowing down the weak back when greed was good, played by a Reagan supporter. Here, the danger comes from technology, and the forces that let it thrive: the corporations who seek to profit from it, the police and authority figures who try to protect same. Of course, T2 teems with cutting edge tech; in 1991 Robert Patrick's silver, slippery, shape-shifting T-1000 was seen as the future of CGI, which he was. But it's important to note he's still defeated by the old ways — by humans who never give up, and by an obsolete model of killer robot played by an actor who by then was already well into middle age.
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3. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines 2003
Terminator 2 ended on an ambiguous but optimistic note. Why ruin it? And why ruin it when the only person returning is Arnold? But for a movie that has few reasons to exist beyond the monetary, Rise of the Machines is solid stuff. Despite the elephantine budget, it's closer to the original — a lean genre machine, crisply directed by Breakdown's Jonathan Mostow. The only memorable things are a decent mid-film chase and a wacko Oedipal slip in which John Connor, now played by Nick Stahl, tells overqualified love interest Claire Danes, “You remind me of my mom.” But its pleasures are in its simplicity: It's a pleasant night out at the movies, and a nice send-off to Schwarzenegger, who was about to ditch the movies to follow his dreams of being a conservative politician ruling over liberal California, perchance never to return. If only the series had ended there.
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4. Terminator: Genisys 2015
You thought this list would simply go in chronological order, did you? Sadly, the fourth entry is a drag. And the fifth, while unnecessary and convoluted, at least has some fun, including with itself. The one with the most time travel tomfoolery and the most annoying name, it's the Back to the Future: Part II of the series, playfully revisiting and reworking the original — letting, among other things, old and gray Arnold spar with his younger, perfect, very naked self. But it's too busy by half, its attempts to be topical are shallow, and turning the now forty-something John Connor Jason Clarke bad is not the same as making the murderous T-800 good. Consider it a C+ for effort.
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5. Terminator: Salvation 2009
The Schwarzenegger-less fourth is the only one that spends its entirety in the post-apocalyptic future, finally really letting us see John Connor Christian Bale lead humanity's survivors against the robotic hordes. It should be rousing, it should be exciting, it should at the very least be compelling. And yet it's a humorless slog, despite being directed by McG, he of the amped-up aughts iteration of Charlie's Angels, going completely serious. At least J.D. Salinger liked it.
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Worth mentioning: T2-3D: Battle Across Time 1996
James Cameron, Linda Hamilton, and Edward Furlong didn't return for the third Terminator, but that doesn't mean the team never got back together. For ages, visitors to Universal Studios in Hollywood and Miami could take in this lavish spectacle, a combination of stage and screen that ends with Arnold's T-800 and Furlong's teen John Connor zipping to the post-apocalypse to battle some more robots including the “T-One Million”, all in three dimensions. It's still playing at Universal Studios Japan. That stuff is serviceable and what you'd expect, but what's actually interesting is the lengthy set-up.
The show begins as a commercial for Cyberdyne, the company that births Skynet, which unwittingly births Judgment Day. It brags about how they're taking over not only cutting edge tech products but the military as well — that pretty soon they'll be controlling everything, and that that should make consumers happy, not anxious. Not a lot of what the Terminator series depicted, of course, ever came true. But the notion of a future in which super-sized and short-sighted corporations own everything, and have effortlessly lulled consumers into selling over their identities and privacy and money, sure did. It's an idea the franchise's future sequels, from Rise of the Machines on, never meaningfully explored; they were too busy diddling with battle bots. The scariest idea in the Terminator series isn't Android Arnold with a gun; it's the possibility that our own Judgment Day may have already happened and we didn't even notice it.
Last month, box office analysts were projecting that Terminator: Dark Fate could end up with a record opening weekend, hauling in somewhere in the $40-plus million range. Turns out those estimates were a bit…generous. Because now that the latest Terminator movie has opened in advance previews, it looks like the Dark Fate box office is going to be a bit lower than projected.
What a difference a few weeks makes. In early October, I wrote up a story about Terminator: Dark Fate tracking towards a $40-plus million opening weekend, which would’ve put it on track to break previous franchise record holder, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which opened at $44 million. Now, however, on the weekend of the movie’s release, analysts suggest it might not even hit $30 million.
THR says that the film opened with $2.35 million in Thursday previews, which indicates it’s on track for a $28 million opening weekend. So what happened? Perhaps fatigue. Early reactions for Dark Fate started off strong, but they also started rolling in on October 20, almost two full weeks before release. Whenever a film launches its early reactions that early it can trip some folks up and cause confusion. Case in point: it already feels like the conversation around Dark Fate is over, even though it just opened.
Of course, that sort of logic only applies to film fans who obsess over this stuff. The average, casual moviegoer doesn’t pay attention to such things. Still, the reviews that eventually arrived for the film were mixed at best it’s sitting at a just-barely-fresh 68% on Rotten Tomatoes as of now. That could certainly deflate some excitement. Then you have to factor in the knowledge that Dark Fate is the latest entry in an altogether lopsided franchise. Most can agree that Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are great movies. Classics, even. But everything after that? Not so much.
Perhaps the lesson here is that Hollywood should just stop making Terminator sequels. Then again, things could turn out differently after the weekend ends. Maybe Dark Fate will end up surpassing these now-adjusted expectations and be a bigger hit after all. Or, if you’re lucky enough to live in one of the very few places playing The Irishman in theaters this weekend, you should probably go see that instead.