Even with a new Terminator film released, no one seems to care. It’s not like Jurassic World, which despite being the cinematic equivalent of a reheated Lean Cuisine has grossed almost $1 billion so far. No one seems to be clamoring for a new Terminator film. Genysis is being trashed critically and the studio had so little faith that anyone would actually see it that they spoiled the big plot twist in their marketing campaign. Even those who like it clarify their reviews with, “it’s not as bad as it could have been,” which really isn’t praise. A near fatal car accident isn’t quite as bad as a fatal car accident, but neither is something that should be experienced.
What’s also strange is that, despite Genysis being wholly dependent on nostalgia, there has been no usual re-examination of the first two Terminator films. No blogs written, no home video re-release, nothing. Part of the reason is the fact that it’s unnecessary. Genysis seems to recreate all the big moments of the first Terminator and Terminator 2.
But it needs to be reexamined. Terminator 2 was among the most popular films of its time – and all time for a while. It seemed to be the last real gasp of the ’80s style of filmmaking, where auteur directors were given an opportunity to make large budget blockbusters based on their unusual premises. (Jurassic Park may be the very last example.) Now, most auteurs settle to scrape together funds for personal projects while big budgeted directors are forced to follow specific formulas.
Terminator 2 is a sequel that does nothing you would expect.
Taken without any knowledge of the plot, everything about it is a surprise. It’s not even the same genre as the previous entry. While The Terminator was a horror/slasher film, Terminator 2 is a cyberpunk western featuring the traditional white hats, black hats, and the normal townspeople caught up in the game.
This time, one of the most fearsome villains in cinema is the stoic John Wayne character. He can only speak in short sentences and, in what becomes a plot point, does not shoot to kill. The new terminator is an even more fearsome creature who more easily blends into a crowd than a hulking Austrian. The T-1000 talks even less than his counterpart and moves like a bird of prey. He’s the sort of character Lee Van Cleef would have played.
The T-1000 has traveled back in time to assassinate ten year old John Connor (Edward Furlong) the future leader of the human resistance against the machines. Arnold Schwarzenegger (do you care what his character name is?) has been sent to protect him. John uses Arnold to rescue his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) from a mental institution and to try to stop the end of the world and the rise of the machines.
Right away, we see the change in scale for this film. Director James Cameron, for once, was not content with repeating old stories. He expanded his scope, first with his effects, and then with his story.
I’m usually very bored with special effects. They don’t do anything in relation to the story. Terminator 2 is one of the few films where the effects are not only necessary, but awe inspiring. The T-1000 is a creature that could not exist without CGI, and this is a film that still heavily relies on practical effects.
What’s also fantastic is just how I feel like the intense action matters. It’s not because we get to see clean up crews putting out fires caused by Arnold. It’s also because I feel for the people as they are harmed by the carnage around them.
This increases the stakes for me, on both fronts. It’s not only about watching Arnold mow down police cars with a minigun. (Although this is a great image.) I need to care about the protagonists and what they’re doing. I was tense as I heard Sarah talk about how “she was bleeding, bad” and understand why John would teach Arnold not to kill people.
It reminded me again of the great revisionist westerns of the past. The characters were more morally ambiguous, but that meant their decisions to be the hero meant something for them. Arnold didn’t have a choice, but John and Sarah did in whether or not they would risk their lives, knowing that another killing machine (not to mention the cops) were after them.
Also, I admire the changes in scope to the story. It is not just a retread of the slasher tropes that built The Terminator. Terminator 2 takes the Blade Runner approach towards machines and androids. But unlike Blade Runner, the machines actually seemed more mechanical. Could Arnold actually learn to be human? In the theatrical version, this is haphazardly handled as a natural progression in his character. (One line has Arnold saying that he learns naturally, and that’s it.) The vastly superior director’s cut adds even more Phillip K Dick to the film, in which the decision to become more human is a conscious choice made by Arnold. Even the ending is reminiscent of the final speech by Roy Batty. But Arnold does it with only two sentences, saying far more about his programming and his perception of the world as he realizes he (and other machines) can’t feel sadness over the loss of someone they know.
It’s a fantastic moment of acting and writing from the last place I expect. And it was something that was not possible in the first film. Terminator 2 is full of moments like that. I didn’t expect this to actually be skillful, subtle filmmaking using a huge nonactor and one of the largest budgets in history.
But there are two huge problems with the film that prevent it from being one of the greatest blockbusters ever made.
The first is Edward Furlong’s John Connor. Put simply, he’s an annoying little SOB who makes me root for the machines to destroy us all. He acts like an entitled ten year old who is obnoxiously grounded in early 90s slang. (The film actually takes place in 1995, but you wouldn’t know it from how the characters looks and talk.)
I don’t blame Furlong for this. Newt from Cameron’s Aliens was equally insufferable – he was likely just doing what Cameron told him to do. But Cameron has set up this character to be the most important human being in history. Do I have to listen to him explain the linguistic usage of “no problemo?” I don’t think that someone like, say, Winston Churchill talked like Bart Simpson when he was younger.
What’s also strange is how the theatrical version of the film eliminates the great character arc moments. One of the best scenes is when John prevent Sarah from smashing Arnold’s CPU. It’s the time that she realizes that he needs to be the leader of men and he realizes that it is possible to convince people of his point of view. It’s an important scene and its absence means that John remains an average ten year old delinquent who is insufferable to listen to.
The second is how many plot holes are introduced in the third act with the attempts to destroy the machines and prevent humanity’s extinction. By preventing judgement day, John Connor is negating his own existence. No one will come back from the future to father him. Of course, if that doesn’t happen, that also means that no one will prevent the world from getting destroyed. Which means Connor will still exist, but the still won’t get destroyed.
And so on and so on.
How does time travel work in this universe? Terminator 2 doesn’t say. Now, this wasn’t an important question in the first film. In fact, the bizarre nature of cause and effect was just one of the clever touches The Terminator had. Terminator 2 introduces the possibility of an alternate future, which also introduces all these paradoxes. I’m also receptive to any explanation the creators may have about this. But, in Terminator 2, there were no explanations.
Of course, no one cares about the moments when that internal logic screws up. For example, late in the film Arnold’s arm is crushed in a steel factory. He removes it to keep on going. This is EXACTLY the piece of the first Terminator that was left behind in the first place and inspired the creation of Skynet. But no one notices. No one also cares about the fact that there is now a photographic record and witnesses of the Terminator (do you think that psychiatric hospital didn’t have security cameras?) that could also inspire all sorts of computer scientists. Heck, considering what Cyberdyne is involved in, maybe they already had a prototype of the liquid metal?
Maybe that was their way of setting up the film for another sequel in which Sarah and John realize that their destiny is inevitable and they will have to fight the machines after all. Otherwise, the film makes no sense. But this is the exact opposite of what everyone says in this film, which eliminates any impact it may have.
And the sequels we’ve received a limp mush. Terminator 3 is basically a remake of 2, with a female terminator and an adult John. Salvation, which takes place entirely in the future, is a train wreck of story telling. Genysis, which I admittedly haven’t seen, looks like a way to somehow reboot whatever life is left in this franchise. But even that looks disastrous, with Schwarzenegger showing up and John Connor being recast as the villain of the piece. It also further messes up the timeline. Is there even cause and effect in this universe? How does point out A lead to point B? Is it all just a bunch of wibbly wobbley, timey wimey stuff? It’s been 24 years and we still don’t have answers to these question.
There has been one good continuation of the Terminator franchise and that’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Airing on FOX for two seasons, the TV show answered a lot of questions and closed a lot of plot holes. First, it’s the only story where they acknowledge a time machine exists. Skynet didn’t just make two attempts to save the future – it sent back numerous Terminators to kill John Connor and help stock pile supplies and ensure things happen they way they’re supposed to. It acknowledges some version of alternate timelines, where two people from the same future have different memories of events. Finally, it really explored the familial relationship between John and Sarah. They have moments where they act like mother and son. They also have moments where they secretly grow frustrated with each other and wish to cast of the shackles both are placing on each other. It was a fantastic drama series that was the proper continuation the franchise deserved.
So of course it got cancelled after thirty episodes, just as we entered a future where no one has ever heard of John Connor.
I guess the ultimate lesson of Terminator 2 is that, no matter how good your film is, its going to look bad if you try to start a franchise. Terminator 2 is filled with spectacular moments, but some pretty big plot points collapse if you put too much thought into them. (Especially if you’re not watching the director’s cut.) The film needed a sequel to fix numerous plot holes that were created in the story. There have now been three film sequels. One was a mediocre rehash, one was abysmal, and one I haven’t seen but which does not look the least bit encouraging. The one time we got a good continuation to the story was so wonderfully received that it was barely watched and cancelled on a cliffhanger. It’s obvious that creating a long running franchise from this material was impossible. Maybe it should have just ended after the second film.
Or maybe we should have ended with Sarah Connor’s drive into the sunset, letting the fans speculate instead of having Hollywood producers spend hundreds of millions of dollars to show us nothing.