Editorial: It's Time to Say 'Hasta La Vista' to the 'Terminator' Movies
by Dan Marcus
July 2, 2015
Is it time to finally say "hasta la vista" to the Terminator? With the release of Terminator: Genisys, it might very well be. This summer, like most moviegoing summers, is the summer of sequels. Earlier this year we got Jurassic World, the fourth installment in the long-running Jurassic Park series. Sure, it is stomping through box office records right now, but did that series really necessitate three sequels? The quick answer is no. Similarly, the new installment in the Terminator series, dubbed Terminator: Genisys, opens this week (and already opened in select special screenings Tuesday night). It is the fifth installment in the series – a series where each film gets progressively more terrible than the last. With Genisys opening this week, let's look at why studios – and to a lesser extent audiences – still crave more Terminator movies, even while the science fiction franchise has devolved into a disappointing series of diminishing returns.
James Cameron started the Terminator series with The Terminator in 1984, a movie that was very emblematic of the time. The style, the soundtrack, the cinematography – it very much has a 1980's aesthetic. The action films of the 80's were unique in the sense that the filmmakers and to some extent the studios didn't care as much about the violence. So films like The Terminator could have grotesque violence and get away with it. Nowadays, most action films are rated PG-13 – although arguably you can get away with a lot more with a PG-13 rating as of late, blurring the line between the R and PG-13 rating. However, most modern action films are sanitized when it comes to hardcore, very graphic violence – especially the later Terminator movies (Terminator Salvation was criticized at the time of release for being PG-13 and not R).
The Terminator was also unique at the time because it had such a high concept premise, while also easily digestible to most general audiences. It also helps that the movie is essentially one big, long chase – in the vein of other popular action films of the 80's, like Mad Max or Death Race. You could argue that most of the Terminator films (at least four out of the five) have had the same basic premise: a terminator gets sent back in time to change the timeline and kill off the Connor bloodline. In many ways, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is essentially a big-budget remake of the first movie. It was as if Cameron had better tools and more money to do things he couldn't have done in the first movie. You could also sense Cameron was pushing boundaries – doing things because he wondered if they could actually be done. T2 was revolutionary for many reasons – primarily being the visual effects, but it also had stellar action sequences and at its heart an emotional story. While The Terminator was more of a gritty, lean, straight thriller – T2 was a grandiose action blockbuster with a lot of heart. Many fans could probably agree that the one thing the latter two Terminators were missing was exactly that: ironically enough for a movie series about machines, a heart.
James Cameron seemed to be done with the series after T2. As he said, he had told all the story he wanted to tell. However, nothing is finite in Hollywood – the studios don't believe in definitive endings. No different than Universal continuously wanting to make Jason Bourne movies even though the series wrapped up beautifully with The Bourne Ultimatum, the studio that owned the Terminator rights at the time was determined to make more Terminator movies. With Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, you had yet another remake of the first two movies: a terminator gets sent back in time, followed by yet another, more advanced terminator to kill off the Connor bloodline (trust me, it's as repetitive to type as it is to watch the movies). For me, Terminator 3 encapsulates a big problem I have with the Terminator series – a series that never should have been a series to begin with. Terminator 3 isn't a terribly bad movie – although it's not really a great one, either.
However, it milks just about everything the series has to offer – terminators fighting each other, trying to kill off the main characters while a Connor tries to stop the inevitable. What was refreshing about Rise of the Machines was actually the ending, which felt oddly fitting for a series that's main purpose was to stop the inevitable, only for that to blow up in our heroes' faces. However, Terminator 3 is just a retread of the first two movies, just with bigger action and more flashy visuals. It lacks the grittiness of The Terminator and the heart of T2. If the series had stopped at Rise of the Machines, the Terminator series might have been remembered more fondly. Many trilogies have a great first chapter (The Terminator), an even better second film (T2) and a disappointing but solid finale (T3). However, Hollywood couldn't let the series die – so we saw yet another Terminator film, this time albeit slightly different.
I give Terminator Salvation props for trying something different – it's the first movie in the series not to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger (besides a quick reference) and is set in the Future War, which is something apparently some fans really wanted. What Salvation proved (besides that Arnold is really the glue that held the previous movies together) is that the Future War worked best as a narrative background – not as the main narrative focus. When you set an entire movie around it, it becomes significantly less interesting. Salvation actually has some decent ideas but it unfortunately has some fairly bad execution. I thought after the failure of Salvation that Hollywood would finally let the series rest, but of course they would try to resurrect the series once Arnold was out of public office. On top of the financial and critical failure of the last two Terminator movies, there's also The Sarah Connor Chronicles – a television show developed by Fox that ran for two seasons. I won't go too heavily into that show because it ignores T3 and doesn't fit with the timeline or continuity established by Salvation – if anything; it only muddles the Terminator continuity even more.
So why does Hollywood keep going back to the Terminator well, even though the movies keep on under-performing and the quality keeps on dropping? I think the answer is simple enough: Studio executives and audiences want to recapture T2. It's a great film – a film that has the action spectacle that audiences love and expect from a movie called Terminator, but also the heart and emotion that connect audiences to the characters and the story on a fundamentally deeper level. Most people might've forgotten this but at the time T2 was a cultural event. The film had a huge impact on pop culture – that summer, the Terminator was everywhere. The marketing was extensive and vast. From t-shirts to toys to arcade games to posters to tie-ins, Terminator was huge. It was something to behold, especially since you don't typically see that kind of marketing push for an R-rated movie in this day and age. It also makes sense given T2 was undoubtedly the biggest film to come out in 1991. In the summer of 2015, Terminator: Genisys will likely just be another summer movie before Ant-Man comes along and washes Genisys out of the public spotlight.
T2 has been cemented into our culture forever. Studios and audiences want more of that – but they likely won't ever capture that lightning in a bottle again. The glory days of the Terminator series are likely behind us. Early reviews have been pretty scathing for Terminator: Genisys so far. Replicating T2's kind of massive success is likely going to be near-impossible. Especially if you look at the previous Terminator films, which have struggled in some shape or form to recapture the success of the first two movies. That's not to say future Terminator projects won't be good – but the likelihood diminishes with each and every mediocre installment. The series should have ended with Terminator 2.
Will Genisys be successful? Even though the reviews aren't promising, it could still make a dent at the box office. However, I say let the series die here and now. The best possible scenario for the franchise is for Genisys to underperform at the box office and for the rights to revert back to James Cameron. At this point, if anyone should make a new Terminator project, it should be him. He likely won't – and that's probably a good thing. It's high time for us to say "hasta la vista, baby" to the Terminator series once and for all.
What do you think? Should Terminator: Genisys be the final Terminator movie? Or do you want to see more movies in this franchise? Sound Off in the comments below!