The Terminator – 1984
Chronology – May 12, 1984
Director James Cameron
Screenplay Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher, Jr.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen, Rick Rossovich, Joe Dante
Review The impact of this film is giant in cinematic history. It’s not that it is an incredible film. It is merely a very good one. What it reveals, however, is perhaps the most cinematically gifted director since Spielberg and Lucas. James Cameron took what was literally a Roger Corman sized budget and created what was then a revolutionary accomplishment. As remarkable as the filmmaking is, Cameron lucked out when he cast Schwarzenegger.. The champion body builder had been a good guy in movies until now, He went in for that role, but ended up signing, not for the protagonist, Kyle Reese, but instead the titular bad guy. Both actor and director caught one another’s rising star and took the world for a ride.
The story is one of the best known plots in movies, by now almost a cliché. Kyle Reese (Biehn) is a soldier from the future sent back by John Connor to save his mother, Sarah. The danger she faces is in the form of an android T-101 Terminator also sent back by the controlling power of that time, artificial intelligence. Reese and the Terminator battle one another at times, but mostly it’s Reese and Sarah on the run, where they survive long enough to fall in love.
One of the big discussion points of the years immediately after the movie, aside from Arnold’s one liner, centered around the paradox of John Connor sending his own father (who was born after him) back to mate with his mother. How can this happen? Who was John Connor’s first father?
The fact that Reese turns out to be John’s Dad only makes the future afterwards different from the first one, where, for all we know, the father could be the guy who stood her up on her date. As Reese says, “One possible future.”
Connor and Reese’s union creates a progeny even more likely to disrupt things for Skynet, which is something they were on the right path to in Judgement Day. Too bad Rise of the Machines turned him into such a puss.
The thing about The Terminator that makes it so easy to watch repeatedly is the relentless pulse of it all. Schwarzenegger moves with a purpose and intensity matched by its cheesy keyboard, but still riveting score. In between the chases Biehn gives one of his signature intense performances, passing exposition almost violently with danger always close. It’s a lot like Halloween with the T-100 as Michael Meyers and Reese, a more battered, weaponized Loomis.
The special effects look dated to anyone born after T2, but for the time and especially the budget, they exceed expectations. The scene with the eyeball and robotic head is the best example of something that looks out of a Kraftwerk video but was taken with amazed grace back in 1984.
Linda Hamilton’s performance is entirely what it needs to be in retrospect, especially when one considers the sequel. Still, the writing does let her down in the first act, making the progression to badass by the end seem like a further distance than it may have been.
Henriksen is not given enough to do, but who would have known he could turn out to be the presence that is Bishop and Frank Black. Cameron sure had some inkling, but his treatment of his and Winfield’s characters as not much more than police station fodder shows that his priority for minor character quirks if not development had not quite developed at that point.
The Terminator is not about much more than the chase, though, with some intriguing sci-fi thrown in for ballast. By these two measures, it succeeds. Biehn and Schwarzenegger are aces ascending towards the top of their craft by this time. Each will do better for Cameron later, but this movie would be nothing without them.
Or Cameron, of course. All of Hollywood has improved as much by his measured steps as by Spielberg or Lucas. Whatever he lacks I complexity of character, he more than makes up for in his visual style and groundbreaking technique. If this first film is like a lesser brother visually and sonically than its closest brother, it’s nearly the equal in the achievement in paving the way for the future.
The police house shoot up is most celebrated, but the best set up is the sequence in the dance club. First time viewers are not completely sold on Reese’s character yet, but they know darn sure Arnold is a killer. When she leans down and misses being seen by the T-100, it’s almost too much to bear. When he finally gets a bead on her, it’s the paramount of pressure.
Worst Scene Boen’s complete lack of protocol is annoying, but it provides one of the best moments of the first sequel.
Rating **** out of *****
Terminator 2: Judgement Day Special Edition – 1992
Chronology – 1995
Screenplay Cameron and Wisher
Starring Schwarzenneger, Hamilton, Boen, Joe Morton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Beihn, S. Epatha Merkerson, Xander Berkeley, Jeannette Goldstien, Danny Cooksey
Review Easily the best film in the franchise and one of my favorite movie experiences. This film shows Cameron at his very best in creating and sustaining tension. Schwarzennegger, Hamilton and Furlong were never better. Using the same time travel formula as the first film, this time we have 2 Terminators sent back, one good and one bad. This is the beauty of the film. Since we spend much of the film watching these two machines beat the hell out of one another, most fail to notice that a few humans bite the dust along the way.
John Connor (Furlong) is living with foster parents after his mother is locked in a mental institution for the crime of trying to bring down the cumpany that would become Skynet. The monster tracking him this time is a liquid metal T-1000 (Patrick) who is not only more easily able to fit into society disguised as a police officer. Indeed, it is ably disguised who is the good guy and who bad when the first showdown occurs. Another stroke of genius is having the comparatively slight Patrick as the menace.
Connor is basically a delinquent, spending his days working on his motor bike and stealing other people’s ATM cards. He is at a video game gallery when he is discovered by both Terminators at the same time. He survives the encounter with the T-101’s assistance and then they come to a crossroads. After discovering his foster parents have been killed, do they hide out, or do they attempt to save his mother. Once John discovers quite humorously that he is in charge of the T-101, the answer is obvious, if “tactically dangerous.”
After rescuing Sarah, the decisions become more contested. Ultimately, they confront one of the main engineers at Cyberdine (Morton), convincing him to abandon his efforts and destroy the company’s headquarters. This puts them back in the sights of the T-1000.
To say that everything is better this time would be an understatement. Since the first film, Cameron honed his talents first with Aliens and then The Abyss. His skill improved exponentially, and it really shows. T2 is a groundbreaking film technologically, using both computer graphics and practical effects. One could nitpick if they slow it down, but if they are interested in taking it that far, they really don’t like movies that much.
Schwarzenegger is at the peak of his powers and his drawing ability. Whether it’s through direction or just doing so much work, he plays this slightly altered T-101 with intriguing precision and a great amount of humor. This is truly one of the great action performances of all time.
Hamilton shows herself completely up to the task as a natural progression of the woman we see at the end of the first part. She walks the line between dedicated and deranged with no fear of how she appears.Equal parts warrior and mother, she leads the charge to end this fight for the future. She’d done a lot of good work in the series Beauty and the Beast, but she never did anything close to this kind of performance before or since.
Furlong, picked out of obscurity with no earlier acting performance, strikes the perfect balance between the other two. He manages to avoid the pitfalls of most child actors in that he acts like a kid. He’s not smarter than everyone, and he’s not afraid to get pushed and pulled around. Hell, he even cries. Most importantly, one can see the seeds of someone inventive enough to survive Judgement Day.
Extra points go to the great Joe Morton. He’s an excellent actor who does not get enough praise. His depiction of Miles Dyson is spot on. Curious and fascinated by what can be, and wise enough to see the bad that can happen form the best intentions. His last scene is one of the best moments of the film.
The faults of the film mix seamlessly with the things that make it great. The voice over just adds length and the institution time lead in could have been trimmed a bit. The “I need a vacation,” line has no logic to it, but it is such a welcome moment after an intense last act.
Cameron was already near the top of the director’s list. This pretty much put him there. He had yet to become King of the World, but it was not far off.
The build up from the moment “You Could Be Mine” starts through to the Galleria and on through the chase in the Aqueduct is about as intense a segment that has ever been put together on film. The pulsing keyboards, the closing in from two sides, and two metallic beasts squaring off for the first time. By now I can tell every scene where a stunt double was substituted. I don’t care.
Worst Scene Sarah going after Dyson with the wife and kids home is kind of brutal, but it shows how dedicated she is to saving the world. For me, it’s the repeated voice overs, droning and after the white line on the road. Those could go.
(***** out of *****)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – 2003
Chronology – July 24, 2004
Director Jonathan Mostow
Screenplay John Brancato, Michael Ferris
Starring Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken, Boen, David Andrews
Review This film has not aged well at all. The special effects are really pretty good and the movie makes some bold choices. The problem is really with a general feeling of déjà vu with the second film and the need to make a new Terminator (the T-X) with all new powers. In order to appeal to every group, this Terminator is a gorgeous woman (Loken) who manages to be more vicious and gruesome than the other two films combined.
John Connor (Stahl) is living off the grid, but through some certain fate he meets up with Kate Brewster (Danes) at the moment the two Terminators converge upon the veterinary clinic at which Brewster works. Things get all explosive and stuff and soon enough the T-100 (Arnold) has taken Connor and Brewster on the road.
Meanwhile, Brewster’s father (Andrews) is a Lieutenant General in charge of Skynet. His team is battling a virus that is taking over the internet. He is getting orders to unleash the A.I. Skynet to battle the virus, not knowing it is the system that is already pulling the strings.
In the boldest move of the series, they unleash Skynet and Judgement Day happens. As it approaches, the two Terminators battle it out, ending up in a fall out shelter as everything goes straight to hell.
That daring decision aside, Rise of the Machines is a forgettable and really somewhat embarrassing addition to the franchise. When we see Skynet tearing apart the military base using miniature machines inspired by Cameron’s bigger machines from the first two films, it feels like a gimmick. Similarly making the T-X an amalgam of both Terminators comes off as a confused attempt at one-upmanship. Did we get into this thing to see a Terminator that had a flame thrower? Nope.
Stahl for Furlong as John Connor is a bad trade. They reportedly steered clear of him for reasons of reported self-abuse. Stahl comes across as willing, but unable to maintain Furlong’s freshness, nor any amount of strength of a future leader of the resistance. They should have just waited for Furlong to sober up.
Danes, is about as appealing as ever – which means not at all. She is just the wrong choice for anything that requires something physical. She is just severe and over dramatic, never having learned to occasionally tone it down, like Julianne Moore eventually did with The Kids Are Alright.
Arnold takes a big, confused step back in his third time as the T-100. The jokes are uneven, his motives flounder back and forth and whoever decided to have him fight his re-re-programming did not have any sort of understanding about the nature of the beast. Even more, it makes one wonder how it was that Schwarzenegger allowed the character he helped to correct be brought to such places so inconsistent with his previous ventures all for the pursuit of a few one liners.
The direction and writing are mostly pretty sterile. It doesn’t follow the feeling of the other two films. The humor is vapid and mostly lame riffs from earlier events. Even Boen feels out-of-place when his inclusion should have been a nugget. Mostow has none of the ability of Cameron for building tension. Scenes seem to happen more by accident and not design. The stripping scene, replete with Elton John glasses is the perfect example of an estimation of humor gone wrong.
Despite these misgivings, seeing them go big in the end at least pushed the series to a place from which they could not return. It’s grim, but it was a better choice than leaving room for the 4th film to be yet another repeat of the time travel formula. Even if its a vision that was not completely followed through, it made for another good film.
The first time they stop the T-X, via the large magnet, is a great idea. It would have been even better if they’d had the courage to leave her there considering what she had done to the T-101.
Worst Scene There are so many to choose from, but I have to go back to the internal battle Arnold has with himself over his new orders. Had they just stuck him to being bad again, the last part of the film might have been interesting, and not such a chore. To top off, internal battle Arnold looks really about as dumb as one figures he must be. It’s the complete opposite of everything we loved about T2.
(**1/2 out of *****)
Terminator Salvation – 2009
Chronology – 2003 (prologue), 2018
Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Linda Hamilton (voice), Michael Ironside, Common, Arnold Schwarzenegger (likeness), Bryce Dallas Howard, Jadagrace Berry, Terry Crews
Screenplay John Brancato, Michael Ferris, Jonathan Nolan, Paul Haggis
Review Somehow, this is the one that gets the bad rep of the series. The basic feeling is that this one missed Schwarzenegger’s presence and therefore lacked his charisma. Whoever really thinks that failed to digest how bad he is in the third film. They also don’t register the effective freshness of Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright. Worthington was on a roll when this was filmed. He did this film, Avatar and Clash of the Titans successively. While none of these films is what one could consider a classic, his performance in all three is without fault.
His best effort is here, playing a man who donates his body to science before being executed in 2003. For those keeping score, this is a year before the Rise of the Machines. He is awakened again, 14 years later, confused as hell. It doesn’t take him long to realize he needs to avoid the metal guys and cling to the two human friends he acquires. Kyle Reese (Yelchin) and Star (Berry), represent the Los Angeles edition of the resistance. Just the two of them. They have yet to meet the fabled John Connor (Bale) who has almost as many detractors as he has followers.
Bale has gotten word of a potential weak link in the Terminator program, as well as a message that he and Reese, whom he has not met until now, are on the short list of Skynet kill targets. The leader of the Resistance is General Ashdown, played by Michael Ironside. Ironside’s job in ever movie is to be wrong loudly, and he makes no exception here. He yells at Bale, Bale growls at his own underlings and everyone heads towards the big showdown.
Marcus, Reese and Star fall in with the wrong crowd, or maybe they just bring hell with them. Reese and Star are kidnapped and Wright falls in with Blair Williams (Bloodgold) whose plane went down while trying to help. Blair and Marcus form a bond and she convinces Marcus that going after Reese without the Resistance’s help will be doomed to failure. On his way back, Marcus finds out something horrifying about himself.
McG gives the film a definite personality, grim, yet hopeful. Yelchin is a big reason for this. He is inventive and energetic, with a touch of innocence. Star is a caricature, but at least she is not an annoying one. Bloodgold is a welcome presence as a militaristic woman soldier who is not aggressive and angry as Hamilton, but not the milquetoast like Howard. It would be nice to see some development in her character in another film.
Bale is a mixed bag. He invests in the ideal of John Connor as a contemplative warrior, making good use of the Sarah Connor taped recordings subplot. His main fault is his insistence in using the Batman growl throughout. It’s distracting and kind of silly. Overall, he’s a net positive, but this won’t go in his top 10 performances.
This brings us back to Worthington. His character is the most interesting to come along since they developed Connor in T2. There was absolutely no expectations for him in this movie. Every step he takes in the film is an interesting one because a) he wasn’t going back in time b) he’s a genuinely a good guy and c) he has a strength that he is unaware of until it comes time to use it.
The final act brings out the image of Arnold that is likely disappointing for some. It works well within the construct of the story to that part. This is especially true since they cut out the Sgt. Candy scene from Rise of the Machines. Sure, though, it does look like his face from 1984 plastered on a younger guy’s body. They don’t linger though. Over 2/3 of the scenes for that T800/T-101 take place with the skin burned off.
Another bonus of the film is the sheer multitude of Skynet machines that take up the screen. We see plodding T-600’s and a variety of flying machines (including the A-10s) that interlock and disassemble to capture humans for experimentation. Then there are some motor cycles which come pretty close to Transformers territory, but everything looks good and scary as hell, especially when one sees an old woman ripped out of the building…and survive.
The worst part of the story is the last scene, which was the result of a reshoot. The original scene was the complete opposite of what we see. The turn about came as a result of internet rumors that the studio got cold feet on. So, thanks for ruining it, fanboys.
Overall though, Terminator Salvation is good. It’s got originality and it has momentum with a modicum of stupidity. The fact that the two credited screenwriters carry over from the third film allows a certain continuity, but the presence of Nolan and Haggis is definitely felt in some of the minor characters having more than a slight value. This film should stand tall in the series, and let’s hope they are smart enough to carry over at least some of the elements into Genisys.
The 7/11 sequence through the highway assault leading all the way to the bridge. It’s intense and it looks cool.
Worst Scene I’m gonna have to go with anything that Michael Ironside is in. I would say it isn’t his fault, but he cashes those checks for all of the typecast roles.
(***1/2 out of *****)
Terminator Genisys – 2015
Chronology 2029, 1984 (Altered Timeline), 2017 and the early 1970’s
Director Alan Taylor
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Lee Byung-hun, Matt Smith, J. K. Simmons
Screenplay Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Review Really just click the link. The less words I waste describing, the better.
Best scene We gotta go with the acid wash towards the beginning of the film. You will know it when you see it.
Worst scene Anything involving dialogue, quips or jokes between or by Courtney and Emelia Clarke.
(*1/2 out of *****)