Why Every ‘Bad’ Terminator Sequel Is Actually Good
The world didn’t end on August 29, 1997, but for The Terminator franchise it might as well have.
August 29 was the date foretold in the first two Terminator movies as “Judgment Day,” when Skynet initiated a nuclear holocaust and attempted to wipe out all of humanity. The heroes of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day work to prevent those events from ever taking place — and at the end of T2 it appears they succeeded. 1997 came and went. The Earth kept spinning. Not even the Y2K virus activated Skynet’s programming.
Then, in 2003, the evil robots came back. In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, John Connor (Nick Stahl) learns that he and his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) didn’t stop Judgment Day, they simply postponed it. At the end of that film, Skynet comes online and initiates an apocalyptic nuclear war. Then came Terminator Salvation in 2009, set in the aftermath of Judgment Day, and Terminator Genisys in 2015, which recreated events from the first two films with a mostly new cast, as Skynet (now played in human form by Matt Smith) attempts to rewrite history so that it comes out as the victor.
For some Terminator fans, this trilogy represents a fate worse than Judgment Day; the long-running and systematic degradation of a beloved franchise. And while I am not crazy enough to argue that any of these movies can hold a neural net processor to the two original films, I am crazy enough to argue that all of these movies have merits, and that, as a whole, the Terminator franchise is a lot better than its reputation.
Ahead of Terminator: Dark Fate, here is why each of the previous “bad” Terminator sequels is actually somewhere between “not as bad as you heard” and “legitimately good.”
Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines (2003)
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
The Premise: The day Judgment Day was supposed to occur came and went without incident. Sarah Connor has died, and John Connor now lives off the grid to avoid detection by any surviving future killbots. When he pops back up on their radar, Skynet sends the T-X (Kristanna Loken) to eliminate Connor and his future lieutenants, and to upload the virus that brings about Judgment Day. Humanity sends back their own T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who tries to protect both Connor and his future wife Kate Brewster (Claire Danes).
Why It Has a Bad Reputation: Some of the comedy is very broad, including a spoof of the famous scene from T2 where a naked Arnold enters a bar and takes a biker’s leathers. (This time, he walks into a bar on Ladies’ Night, where a leather-clad stripper is entertaining the crowd, and the women in attendance think he’s an extra attraction.) Nick Stahl’s John Connor is, by the nature of the arc he’s given, at best a passive hero and at a worst a whiner who repeatedly complains about his destiny. He seemed like a braver and more noble leader back when he was a little kid played by Edward Furlong.
Why It’s Not Bad: For one thing, it has one of the darkest and ballsiest endings in any Hollywood movie this side of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The Terminator saves John and Kate — sort of, delivering them not to a place where they can prevent Skynet’s ascent but rather one where they can simply survive it, an ancient fallout shelter built during the Cold War. As John tentatively takes his first steps toward command with Kate at his side the rest of the entire freaking world is blown into oblivion. Roll credits!
Before its admirably bleak ending, Terminator 3 also features some impressive action set pieces — none quite up to the level of a James Cameron-directed sequence, but at least in the same league. (Rise of the Machines was directed by Jonathan Mostow, a skilled technician with several solid action pictures to his credit.) The inventive “crane truck chase” follows the T-X as she tries to catch John and Kate while the T-800 dangles from the back of a truck’s enormous arm, knocking over ambulances and smashing through an entire row of buildings.
The Terminator’s heavily fortified chassis might have looked almost identical to the one that appeared in Terminator 2, but Schwarzenegger himself was not as invincible as he once was. In 1997, he underwent heart surgery to fix a congenital heart valve. Although the surgery was a success, and Schwarzenegger resumed his pumped-up lifestyle, the movies he made after the surgery reflected a newfound interest in his own mortality and weaknesses. That includes Terminator 3, where the T-800 announces that he is an “obsolete design” in the face of the T-X. In one scene, he even performs the equivalent of Terminator open-heart surgery on himself:
While Rise of the Machines arguably has too many goofy moments for a story that ends with the destruction of the entire world, there’s something weirdly poignant about this broken-down robot shuffling along in the face of a newer, tougher model. If this had been the last Terminator, it could have been even more moving. But, somewhat regrettably, nothing is ever the “last” Terminator...
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Directed by McG
The Premise: John Connor (Christian Bale) is a ranking officer in the Resistance, fighting an endless war with sentient machines in a post-apocalyptic future. As humanity prepares for a new strike on Skynet, a death row inmate from 2003 named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) wakes up in the future, seemingly no older than the day he was “executed.” John and Marcus team up to destroy Skynet headquarters, and rescue a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who John will eventually send back in time to save (and, uh, impregnate) his mother (as seen in The Terminator).
Why It Has a Bad Reputation: While each of the previous films included a scene or two set in the future after the machines have taken over, Terminator Salvation is just set in bleak post-Judgment Day timeline. It’s also the only Terminator without Schwarzenegger (apart from a brief CGI cameo as a T-800 that fights John Connor inside Skynet headquarters), and Bale’s John Connor, who’s a fearless, battle-hardened warrior, is almost impossible to square with Nick Stahl’s spineless, whiny John Connor from the prior film. It all adds up to a Terminator that doesn’t feel like a Terminator in any meaningful way, despite all the killer robots. If this movie was called pretty much anything other than “Terminator Salvation,” its reputation would immediately get about 30 percent better.
Why It’s Not Bad: Like Rise of the Machines, even when everything else fails Salvation at least delivers on the level of action. There are several memorable set pieces, including an impressive helicopter crash done in a faux long take that sees Bale’s Connor take off and get shot down, crawl from the wreckage and engage a Terminator, all without a visible cut.
The long takes are certainly showy, but they also do a good job of emphasizing the power of the sentient machines. Salvation gives you a decent sense of what it might be like to fight someone who never relents and never needs a break to catch its breath, and in those moments it’s completely terrifying. In its best scenes, there’s an intensity to this movie that replicates the energy of the James Cameron pictures.
The only issue is there are also moments that don’t replicate that intensity, most of them involving the human characters. Good or bad in any given role, Christian Bale is almost never boring; Salvation is the rare exception. He’s a credible action hero, but he about as invested in future humanity’s war on machines as an old stapler.
In other words, whether the scene calls for quiet emotions or explosive brutality, this is the only Terminator that feels like it was directed by a robot. Given the series’ themes, that might not be a completely bad thing. But it’s not a great thing, either.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Directed by Alan Taylor
The Premise: The Resistance, led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) is on the verge of defeating Skynet once and for all. They send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time, but at that very moment a new Terminator (Matt Smith) attacks John, and somehow — it’s never fully explained in the film — alters the timeline. Kyle returns to 1984 and finds a Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) more like the one in Terminator 2; she’s tough, daring, and needs no rescuing. Joined by an older Terminator (Schwarzenegger) that was sent back in time to protect Sarah from a young age, they travel into the near future to stop Skynet from going online (for the umpteenth time).
Why It Has a Bad Reputation: Terminator Genisys is one of several purported blockbusters released in the middle of the 2010s that took box office success as an inevitability, and deliberately left their stories unresolved in order to tease viewers with potential sequels. Genisys doesn’t just end on a cliffhanger; it ends on like three or four cliffhangers. The film underperformed, and the sequels were canceled, dangling all these plot threads. Unless someone can pin down writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier and force them to tell us what they had in mind, we’ll never know where any of this stuff was supposed to go.
It didn’t help matters that Genisys recast iconic Terminator characters with new (and not always better) actors. There’s nothing wrong with Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney, but they’re no Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn. (Lee Byung-hun is probably the best of the new bunch, subbing for Robert Patrick as the T-1000, but his role is limited to a handful of scenes.) Comparisons to the original cast are inevitable — and mostly unflattering.
Speaking of unflattering: Any time you bring Genisys up in even the mildest of positive terms on social media, someone will inevitably tweet back one of Terminator Genisys’ early publicity pictures — featuring the new cast in a variety of ridiculous poses, wielding weapons while flashing exaggerated scowls and grimaces. (The one of Jai Courtney screaming while shooting a rifle directly into the ground is particularly bad.) These photos became an instant meme, and the bad taste they left in fans’ mouths never went away. And they’re terrible! But they’re also not the movie, and I’m not entirely sure why they should be held against it.
Why It’s Not Bad: There’s something very appealing about a sequel/reboot promising you a remake of a movie you love, and then subverting all your expectations. The early scenes of Genisys set up a beat-for-beat remake of the original movie, with Kyle Reese returning to 1984 on the trail of Schwarzenegger’s T-800. Then, out of nowhere, there’s one plot swerve after another: An older Terminator kills the original Terminator Terminator! The T-1000 shows up in 1984! Sarah rescues Kyle! John Connor is the secret villain! Everyone jumps into the future! No one had ever gone forward in time in a Terminator before. Unpredictability goes a long way in my book, and Terminator Genisys is mighty unpredictable.
Some of the stuff that is predictable works well. A lot of it involves Arnold, and might only be of interest to scholars of his work — a group whose membership I concede may be limited to the author of this article — but for Arnoldologists, it’s super interesting. Genisys, which was made a dozen years after Terminator 3, continues that film’s themes about mortality, although now the T-800 insists it is “old, not obsolete”. It also takes one of the most persistent themes in all of Schwarzenegger’s work — a man with multiple identities at war with himself (See: Total Recall, True Lies, The 6th Day, Kindergarten Cop, and many more) — and turns it into a literal fight, with the 2015 Arnold duking it out with a CGI recreation of the Terminator circa the original movie:
A lot of Schwarzenegger’s post-governorship of California movies are drenched in regret, with Arnold playing characters who obsess over past failures. (Think of Sabotage, where Schwarzenegger couldn’t prevent a cartel from murdering his entire family.) In real life, Schwarzenegger had plenty of youthful (and not-so-youthful) mistakes to feel contrite about. In Genisys, he gets to beat up his younger self for being an emotionless, robotic jerk. Whether audiences picked up on this stuff, it was there. While I hope Terminator: Dark Fate is better than all of the movies in this piece, I also hope it doesn’t lose the autobiographical streak that carried through these unpopular and under-appreciated sequels.
Gallery — Our Favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger Faces: