It is October 26th, 1984. A low-budget dystopian sci-fi film starring an unknown actor with an unpronounceable last name is released in cinemas. Its distributor, Orion Pictures, doesn’t have high hopes, releasing it in October, sandwiched between the summer and Christmas blockbusters. It doesn’t make a large splash, generates a modest amount of money and is not subject to much discussion. Fast forward to 35 years later and it is credited with kick-starting the dystopian sci-fi genre, has spawned an immoderate five sequels to date and is widely hailed as one of the defining science fiction films of the genre.
The film in question was, as you may have guessed, The Terminator. A film that still holds up to day as one of the benchmarks against which science fiction cinema is measured. Sadly, it is a film that has also become synonymous with corporate exploitation, regressive sequels and filmmakers who just don’t know when to let go.
The Terminator “franchise”, as it has become, got off to a good start. Seven years after the original, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the “Empire Strikes Back” of Terminator films is released, surpassing its predecessor in terms of box office, critical acclaim, awards and badassery. As any good sequel should, it expanded on its predecessor’s themes, was decidedly not a total re-hash (looking at you, Die Hard 2), had a surprising (unless you watched the spoiler-ridden trailer) bad-guy/good-guy twist and actually made a cyborg/human relationship heartfelt. T2 is one of those films that you grin all the way through and still has something interesting to say about human nature. What more could you want?
For James Cameron, the answer seemed to be “nothing”. Despite few intermittent attempts to make a third instalment, he laid the franchise to rest a few years later and T2 marked the last Terminator film he was involved with (that is, until now). By the late ‘90s, it seemed the two films would remain just that – bar-setting, low budget father and larger, more explosive son. Alas, were it not for Hollywood greed.
The rights were sold in the late 1990s and Arnold Schwarzenegger returned for the 2003 let-down that is Terminator: Rise of the Machines. Taking a more humorous approach, it didn’t reach the heights of the first two films, but was bearable, despite a horrific performance by Claire Danes (yes, she of Homeland fame) and an equally, if not more, wooden performance by Nick Stahl. The only silver lining is Schwarzenegger, whose performance is the sole reason for sitting through this film.
Sadly the producers were undeterred and decided to move forward with a fourth film. Terminator Salvation was a disaster that no one was asking for and is (deservedly) universally panned. It lacked Schwarzenegger as he was serving as the Governor of California at the time, but it is doubtful that even his presence could have saved Salvation.
As has by now become fashion, the Terminator franchise was subject to a ‘soft reboot’ in 2015, this time with Arnie back on board and Emilia Clarke in Linda Hamilton’s shoes. Hopes were up that the franchise could against all odds have a comeback. But as the trailers dropped, so did audience expectations. At the very least no one could pretend to be disappointed when Terminator Genysis turned out to be nothing more than a small step up from Salvation.
Shortly afterwards, the rights to the films were returned to James Cameron and it seemed it would all finally be over. Until that is, Cameron came out and announced a whole slew of Avatar sequels and, you guessed it, more Terminator films, the first of which comes out this month. He’s back… again. I’ll forgive you if you groan.