Overlooked & Underrated: The Loose Trilogy of The Terminator (1984), Terminator Salvation (2009), & Terminator Genisys (2015)

At the very beginning of this month, audiences witnessed a rather ironic/curious occurrence in the history of film franchises: a sequel’s subtitle describing the ultimate fate of its franchise as a whole. I’m speaking, of course, of Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), the sixth film in the Terminator Franchise, & to date the lowest grossing/most heavily criticized entry in this ever struggling series. There’s various potential reasons as to why this may have occurred, one being franchise fatigue. Another would be the co-opting of the film into the culture war that’s been at work, mostly through social media, having dominated this medium from the middle of the 2010s, till now.

But perhaps it really just amounts to an IP (intellectual property) having had its day, & the series forgetting its roots, whilst vainly attempting to recreate the success of the time it was truly a hot spot of pop culture in general. The latter sentiment could generate a whole other article if I put my mind to it, & perhaps I shall, one of these days. But for now, I’d rather explore the idea that, maybe, in some way, The Terminator, & two later sequels, Salvation & Genisys, make a more narratively compelling trilogy of films.

Fan poster for The Terminator (1984), done by artist Elswyse, plus the theatrical posters of Terminator Salvation (2009) & Terminator Genisys (2015)

The best place to start with all this would be from the very beginning, not just with the literal first film of the Terminator series, but my memories of it. I really became a fairly hardcore Terminator fan sometime around the release of the third film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, released in 2003, when I was 12. Frequent viewings of the first three films on DVD would follow, the second, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), being viewed properly & in full for the first time in this format. Prior to that though, I remember catching glimpses of the original Terminator during local TV showings, the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s titular cyborg has to dispose of what remains of his organic eye in a sink, exposing the red, mechanized one beneath, in turn prompting him to don the famous Gargoyles’ brand sunglasses to keep the eye a secret, but also cementing him as an emotionless killing machine for the rest of the film.

Another early memory was my father’s emotional reaction to the scene under an overpass, where future soldier Kyle Reese & Sarah Connor (the cyborg’s prey) discuss what Sarah’s son, John Connor, is like, particularly how she reminds Kyle of him. Viewing the DVD of the film proved an amusing experience for a while, as the first couple of times I attempted to watch it with Dad, it was on an old IBM desktop computer, & both times we were pulled away to do other things before finishing it. I finally got to watch the movie in full when I was suffering from a fever during some winter night around 2004 or 2005, & I had discovered that we owned an old CBS Fox VHS release.

 Now I was able to see the events that transpired after the brutal L.A. police station shootout/massacre, innocently shocked & eventually adolescently aroused by the intimate love scene between Kyle & Sarah, & anticipating the iconic endoskeleton being exposed after a fire burns away the deceptive flesh of the seemingly invincible killer. This beginning of the film’s finale is specifically amusing, as I at first believed the brief shot of the Terminator’s face melting, with only the charred outline of its skull being visible, was all that we got to glimpse of what lied beneath the surface. However, much like audiences in October of 1984 must have experienced while they watched in a theater for the first time, I witnessed the endoskeleton rise up from the fire, a nightmarish emblem of death that continued the pursuit of its targets, all the while brought to life by Stan Winston’s animatronic puppetry in close-ups, & stop-motion animation in full body shots, a true treat for the Ray Harryhausen fan (me) watching it unfold.

 The original Terminator has remained my favorite of the six films we’ve received over the years, & I can’t explain why this is in any other way then to say it’s all due to how the film makes me feel, which is the same feeling I get when the term “classic” springs to mind. To some degree, this may be why the film is often overshadowed by its technically superior first sequel, but on the flip-side of that, I’d argue part of what shot T2 to pop-culture legend status was the history-making special effects at work in said sequel, but not much else. Again, another topic to dissect, for another day. Terminator is such a thoroughly unmistakable slice of the 1980s, with its pop music playing in the Tech Noir club or composer Brad Fiedel’s brooding synth score, the slasher/horror vibe, & grungy cyberpunk future. A potent cocktail mix of retro science fiction/horror & wondrous romance-laced time travel shenanigans is how I’d personally describe the film, & if that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.

One of James Cameron’s early concept paintings for The Terminator (1984), in some ways, basically describes the entire film

And now, to the surprise of some readers I imagine, I’ll point out how the fourth entry in the franchise, Terminator Salvation (2009), could, technically, be the second film in the series. Wha? Has the author lost his mind, you say? It should be noted that Salvation is actually the only one of the sequel films to follow in continuity with T3, seeing as how Genisys (which we’ll discuss in a minute) & Dark Fate both perform a retcon to the franchise continuity, asking that viewers pretend they are the “actual” Terminator 3. The only connective tissue that Salvation maintains with T3 is the date when Judgment Day occurs (the summer of 2003), the inclusion of John Connor’s wife, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), & the concept of nuclear-powered Terminator fuel cells. These are largely Easter Eggs (references for fans of the material), that only observant viewers of T3 will notice. What this T1 fan has noticed over time though, is the immense reverence that Salvation has for the inaugural chapter in Terminator’s history. From the opening titles, we see a visual homage to T1’s own opening, the credits appearing as entries being typed on a computer, whilst the title itself looms in the background, zooming out & appearing in full once the credits finish. A minor goof occurs with Salvation though, in that its title is part of the typed-up credits, but also appears at the end in similar manner to T1, thus making it be stated twice. However, we’ll forgive this small hiccup for the sake of the overall sentiment being expressed.

Much to the chagrin of fans of T2, I must point out the fact that the redundancy the franchise has suffered began with this very first sequel, cementing the concept of time travel & a predator/prey chase that ensues through the whole film. Only minor character advancements, & an upgrading of the Protector & Terminator characters distinguish it from its predecessor, which repeat themselves again in T3. Salvation, however, shows us something the franchise only briefly hinted at in previous installments: The Future War Against the Machines, led by John Connor. Though it is in its early days (2018 instead of the end of the 2020s), the setting makes for a stark contrast to what came before. Here are all the things that Kyle Reese told Sarah Connor would be waiting to hunt & kill what was left of mankind in the ashes of nuclear holocaust: flying HKs (Hunter-Killers), T-600 Terminators with rubber-skin trying to mimic the appearance of their human prey, death camps created by Skynet (the artificial intelligence that set the world ablaze with nukes) & a starving, miserable Human Resistance barely hanging on.

If one is to jump from The Terminator straight into Salvation, they will avoid the goof T2 enacted by having Sarah & a then teenage John destroy the CPU of the Terminator left behind in the finale of T1. What one realizes in the final moments of T1 is that if future soldier Kyle Reese & the Terminator he was sent back to protect Sarah from had not been sent back in time, there would not be a John Connor, nor a Skynet to bring the Future War to fruition. Kyle fathers John with Sarah, & the CPU of what remains of the Terminator is reverse-engineered into Skynet. With the latter destroyed, & John no longer burdened with leading the Resistance, the events that lead to Kyle’s journey back in time no longer occur, & therefore none of it does. The time-loop is crucial for anything following it to adhere to.

Also in comparison to its predecessors, Salvation has a much more satisfying introduction for John Connor (Christian Bale). Rather than a punk kid realizing his mother’s ravings are true, or an adult hobo aimlessly trying to escape his destiny, if one’s first impression of John is him landing in a helicopter upon a battlefield, firing a gun directly in the skull of a crushed T-600 to finish it off,  Leader of the Human Resistance material comes across far better than either of the former two iterations. With the mission to protect Sarah from the Terminator having long been successfully completed, the objective of Skynet now becomes to either terminate John himself, or, to terminate his father, Kyle, a character who was pretty much forgotten in both T2 & T3, minus a deleted dream sequence from the former. Bringing Kyle back to some kind of focus reminds the audience of his importance, & even small things like how Kyle secures his weapon from potentially being snatched out of his hand (an Easter Egg from T1) are shown to the keen-eyed viewer.

Left: John Connor (Christian Bale) eyes an endoskeleton in a Skynet facility; Right: Connor finishes off a T-600 Terminator after landing on the battlefield; Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009

Before we start diving into the last film in discussion here, Genisys, it’d be best to get the elephant in the room out of the way, said elephant being the fact that Genisys has a few noticeable references to T2, something that could jeopardize this re-visioned trilogy I’m constructing. First up is the date when Judgment Day occurs: August 29, 1997, the exact same as T2’s given date for the catastrophic event. Also present is the iconic T-1000, the liquid metal successor to the T-800, aka the original Terminator model. And finally, a blink & you’ll miss it appearance by the Danny Dyson character, the son of Miles Dyson, who in T2 is the man responsible for heading the research that creates Skynet.

 The date is the most crucial piece of T2 continuity present, as it effects how Salvation plays out if it still exists without the new date from T3. The T-1000 would lack a bit of familiarity without the memorable introduction from T2, but the Genisys introduction is an effective one, highlighting the threat the newer model still possesses. Without the T2 context, the Dysons no longer are a reference & are just side characters helping further the new plot with Skynet, thereby being the most easy “fix”. Salvation wasn’t without its own T2 references, the most important being when John attempts to commandeer a Moto-Terminator, which is basically a motorbike with a CPU & machine guns. During this capture, the song You Could Be Mine by Guns & Roses is played on a boombox to lure the Moto-Terminator to John. This song also plays in T2 as John rides to the local mall on his motorbike.

These noteworthy Easter Eggs & nods to T2 having been noted, Genisys also creates a new scene for John & Kyle to meet, effectively repeating the scene from Salvation where John saves Kyle from a Terminator, though under a different circumstance, & with a younger Kyle in Genisys, contradicting one another a bit.

Promotional poster featuring actor Lee Byung-hun as the T-1000; Copyright, Paramount Pictures, 2015

These discrepancies aside, Salvation actually flows into Genisys very well, since the former ended with the Resistance flying off in helicopters into the horizon, aiming to take down what remained of Skynet’s global network. Genisys has a now adult Kyle Reese fighting alongside John (Jason Clarke) as they edge ever closer to the fateful point in time where Skynet is defeated, & in its last ditch effort to save itself sends the original T-800 Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah before John is ever born. Kyle’s opening narration references John’s initial status as a false prophet, at least according to skeptics, which was an important element to John’s reputation in Salvation, as he attempted to climb the ranks of command. We also finally get to see the time-displacement equipment, first described in T1. As expected, the Terminator & Kyle are sent back to the Los Angeles of 1984. Upon arrival though (amidst mostly impressive recreations of scenes from T1), Kyle discovers not all is as it seems, as he is attacked by the T-1000, but then saved by Sarah & a reprogrammed T-800. Sarah is no longer the helpless waitress from T1, & the reprogrammed T-800, whom Sarah refers to as “Pops”, has been raising & protecting her ever since she was 9 years old in 1973, her new attacker being the T-1000. The trio evade a tag-team attack by the T-1000 & original Terminator. Once the duo are defeated, Kyle insists that Pops & Sarah’s plan to travel forward in time (using a “homemade” time travel sphere) to the date of Judgment Day should be changed, as flashes of new memories happened while Kyle traveled to the past.

This is where the modern cinema effect on the story comes into play, as in order to remain “relevant” to a modern audience (circa 2015), the ever present app-based social media technology of our current era becomes part of how Skynet comes to be, now under the name of “Genisys”, a globally launched media app. Sarah, Kyle, & Pops’ new destination date is in 2017, when the app is supposed to launch. And, for a final surprise to both Sarah & Kyle, they discover that John himself has been taken over by a new nano-technology, having been personally infected by Skynet itself, glimpsed by Kyle as he was hurtled into the future. John, now a “T-3000”, aims to get Skynet, as Genisys, operational by any means necessary.

Genisys has its misgivings, namely the need to adapt to a modern audience’s tastes & current level of technology (plus further sequel-baiting through a MCU-like mid credit sequence), but what seems to always be overlooked, with both it & Salvation, is all the love for T1, here manifesting through the interactions of Kyle & Sarah. Both characters are played by younger actors, Emilia Clarke managing to channel a younger Linda Hamilton the most effectively. The rather meathead looking Jai Courtney doesn’t fit the image of the skinny, blond individual we saw played by Michael Biehn in T1, but he does a competent job acting as the character.

 The true potential component linking all three of these films lies with John Connor. In T1, he is merely a legend, a figure left to the audience’s imagination. In Salvation, he’s a soldier climbing the ranks, gifted with knowledge from his mother’s audio tapes of the Future he now fights in, plus an inspiration to his fellow Resistance fighters, allowing him to eventually become the Savior of Humanity. Even his unfortunate turn in Genisys is foreshadowed beforehand in Salvation, as Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), an inmate turned cyborg who believes himself to still be human, ultimately proves his humanity by giving his own “super” heart to a dying Connor, laying the foundation for John to become something more than human. John’s ironically compromised status, from Savior of Humanity to Skynet’s ultimate weapon allows for everything to come full circle back to Sarah & Kyle, who started the journey in the original Terminator, the defeat of Terminator John freeing them from their original fate. If not for the sequel baiting (which proved useless), Genisys would tie it all together, despite throwing a new loop hole into the timeline. Also present throughout, is the original Terminator T-800, Model 101 (the outer skin) itself. First in the debut, secondly ahead of “schedule” in Salvation, & then again at the beginning of Genisys.            

I’ll never die on the hill that says that Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) should be outright ignored, but hopefully I’ve painted an adequate picture of how my three favorite entries in this series connect to one another.

Top: The original fate of Kyle Reese in The Terminator (1984);
Bottom: A better fate for both Kyle & Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys (2015); Copyrights MGM & Paramount Pictures

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