Luke Owen looks back at the Terminator franchise…
30 years ago, the brilliant mind and visionary genius of James Cameron gave birth to a cinema icon – Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, the T-800, The Terminator. It was a movie that blended science fiction, action and horror and helped launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator was tense, it was thrilling and, above all, it was perfectly executed.
Set in 1984, The Terminator sees bright-eyed and bushy-haired Sarah Connor being targeted for termination by a machine entity called Skynet, a system from the future who have managed to wipe out human existence thanks to its army of Terminator cyborgs. However, there is a human resistance that is rising up – and it looks like they are about to win thanks in part to the leadership of Sarah’s son John. Skynet’s plan is simple: send a Terminator back to a time before John Connor was born and kill his mother while she’s weak and vulnerable, thus erasing his existence and altering the fate of the war. The human resistance has other plans though, as they manage to send back a soldier named Kyle Reese to protect her at all costs.“What yeeeeaaaar?!”
The Terminator‘s genius lays in its simple motif – man versus machine. Even going back as far as the late 50s and early 60s, filmmakers and writers were pitting man against machine due to society starting to depend on them more and more. Manufacturing warehouses were seeing less and less human employees as technology took over, allowing machines to do all the work for them. Rod Serling in his classic TV series The Twilight Zone addressed this in various episodes over its five seasons, most notably “A Thing About Machines” and “The Brain Centre at Wipples”. By the mid-1980s, technology was becoming ever more apparent as was our need to depend on them, shown brilliantly during the climatic scene in which Sarah Connor evades the Terminator’s advances through a maze of manufacturing machines, even finishing the Terminator off with a manually operated hydraulic press.
But what really sold the movie was the monster himself, the Terminator. Played by a relatively unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator would become the role he was most synonymous for – even giving him his famous catchphrase, “I’ll be back”. In the years since the movie’s release, many have stated the reason Schwarzenegger was so good in this robotic role was because the man is not a competent actor, but this simply isn’t true. Schwarzenegger brings the Terminator to life through his movements, monotone voice and blunt-delivery, all through choice with brilliant direction from Cameron. He’s inhuman through choice, not through defect like some actors. This is actually something that would be missing from future instalments as they would try and “humanise” this once-unstoppable killing machine.
Everything about The Terminator works – from the excellent script by Cameron, superb leading performances from Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton and a wonderfully futuristic, yet current techo-synth soundtrack from Brad Fidel. Every element of Cameron’s The Terminator comes together perfectly and even the stop motion work from the legendary Stan Winston holds up to this day. Who can forget that shot when the Terminator, stripped of his human skin, rises from the fire?
Released in the fall of 1984, The Terminator shot in at number one at the box office, with $4 million on its opening weekend. Having been made for just $6 million, this was a great success for the movie and it would eventually go on to make $70 million worldwide (around $159.9 when adjusted for inflation).
Despite its success, a sequel for The Terminator would not come until seven years later due to various legal disputes over ownership rights. Once they were resolved in the late 1980s, James Cameron directed and released Terminator 2: Judgment Day – a movie that not only amped up the budget, but also turned up the volume on action, drama and thrills.
John Connor has now been born and is a tear-away kid living with a foster family due to his mother’s incarceration following attempts to take down Skynet before it even launches. John, feeling like his mother is a wack-job, resents his upbringing and lessons of being “a great leader” and opts instead for a life of crime and hanging out with kids with ginger mullets. Sadly for him, Skynet has sent back another Terminator, this time the more advanced T-1000 – which is made of liquid metal – to kill him as a child. The ever-resilient human resistance however send back another protector – this time a re-programmed T-800 who will stop at nothing to ensure the safety of the future saviour of humanity.
The decision to turn Schwarzenegger’s Terminator into a good guy was really down to two factors. Firstly, Cameron was keen to not just repeat the same movie he’d made a few years earlier as that was be a redundant task – so rather than repeating Man v Machine, he pitted the unstoppable force against the immovable object. The second reason, which was probably the biggest factor, was that Arnold Schwarzenegger was now a household name and a movie mega star. Since The Terminator, he had been leading man in Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, Running Man, Red Heat, Total Recall and even family-friendly comedies Twins and Kindergarten Cop. There was no chance in Hell that Arnie would risk all of that by playing a villain – something he wouldn’t do again until the ill-judged Batman & Robin.
But even though Terminator 2: Judgment Day lacks the creative depth of its predecessor, it more than makes up for it with its action set pieces. Moving away from the horror elements of The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an all-out war of car chases, fight scenes, shoot outs, nuclear explosions and a phenomenal, if gratuitous set piece where the Terminator blows up numerous police cars with a machine gun for no other reason than the script required an action beat. What it lacks in story, it bowls over with explosions.
And why the Hell not? The budget had been bolstered to an unprecedented $94 million, which escalated to $102 million by the end of the production. The reason for this was not just the inflated asking price of hiring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also the ground-breaking CGI and visual effects on the T-1000. Cameron has always been a director to push the limits of filmmaking and his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day is simply stunning. So good are the effects that, like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, they hold up better and look more convincing than a lot of modern blockbusters. There isn’t a moment in Terminator 2: Judgment Day where you question the plausibility or realism of the T-1000, because he looks real and the under-appreciated Robert Patrick does a stand-up job of bringing him to life.
The argument over which is better between The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is hotly contested to this day and there are arguments for both sides. If you want a well-told, well-thought out science fiction time travel tale, then The Terminator is unequalled. But if you want a balls-to-the-wall in-your-face action extravaganza that also has a solid amount of heart, then Terminator 2: Judgment Day is your best friend – even if it’s a best friend that slowly throws itself into molten lava leaving you with a simple thumbs up gesture. And like Alien and Aliens, no matter which one is your favourite it’s impossible to disagree that they’re both amazing films and some of the best of the genre.
Released in July of 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day took an impressive $31 million and would gross a worldwide total of $519.8 million (over $1 billion in today’s money). So successful and popular was Terminator 2: Judgment Day that it spawned a 3D attraction at Universal Studios, directed by James Cameron with Arnold Schwarzenneger, entitled T2 3-D: Battle Across Time and an arcade game based on the movie was well received – even with some rubbish home console ports. The SNES tie-in game however left a lot to be desired. The movie was parodied in Wayne’s World and Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero (with Robert Patrick reprising his role both times) as well as various episodes of The Simpsons. Twenty-three years later, X-Men: Days of Future Past nodded to its legacy when Wolverine replicated the infamous, “I need you clothes, your boots and your motorcycle” line when he arrives in the 1970s from the future.
With this success of the franchise in the palm of their hands, there would eventually be more sequels. But with the cash udders drying up quicker than anyone could have expected, The Terminator‘s fall was on the way…