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Quick Assessment of the TERMINATOR Franchise [& Poll Question]

July 1, 2015

The Terminator franchise is dear to me. The Terminator (1984) is an all-time favorite. Catching Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) on cable in the nineties was a formative experience. I thought the ending of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) was bold and admirable, enough so that it salvaged a so-so film on the whole. Terminator Salvation (2009) was a departure from the world of the first three movies in almost every way, but it still feels like a worthy third sequel. With all of the explosions, and all of Christian Bale’s yelling, Salvation is at least an exercise in loudness.

Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1984

Today, Terminator Genisys hits theaters. I spent the last week watching the earlier movies again, not that I needed the excuse. The original is one of the most-watched films on my shelf, and T2 has possibly aired on television more than any other film in my lifetime. The latter two aren’t there yet, and it’s hard to see either attaining the adoration of the first or the outright popularity of the second. This brings me to an interesting point of contention among Terminator aficionados. Which is the best Terminator movie? [Poll question can be found at the bottom of the post!]

The vast majority will pick one of the first two, and really, most of those people are probably going with T2. Art is not sport and there can be no objective winner, but I just don’t quite understand the hold that T2 has over most movie fans that somehow doesn’t equally apply to the 1984 film. A liquid metal terminator is cool. I get that. The Cyberdyne shootout is a Hall of Fame action set piece. I totally understand how cool these things are. But cool does not a film make.

If the Terminator franchise simply existed to be cool, then sure, the coolness definitely peaked with T2. I just don’t think I’ll ever see it as the superior piece of art. Special effects are only part of the equation, and even without the godsend tech that gifted us the T-1000, The Terminator was no slouch. James Cameron’s compulsion for living on the cutting edge did not begin with T2, or even The Abyss (1989). It predates the widespread use of CGI. His ambition in the effects arena came to fruition through working with wunderkind Stan Winston (Aliens, Jurassic Park, Avatar, etc.) on the first two Terminator movies.


While their biggest breakthrough and lasting impact were the CGI effects of the T-1000, Cameron and Winston dazzled with The Terminator as well. The futuristic sequences and the finale were filmed in fluid stop motion animation. Admittedly lo-fi compared to everything from the nineties on, these scenes are deftly executed and retain a subtle tactile quality that eludes all but the very best CGI, even today. Rubber masks were used to reveal the metal endoskeleton of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in both films, and to similar effect. Both T and T2 were state of the art in their effects, and that is more of a testament to Cameron and Winston than to either film in its own right.

The Terminator is lean and mean, as streamlined as it’s cleverly-disguised robo-assassin. Neither relent for even a moment. This is one intense flick. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and the T-800 are equally desperate in their respective missions, as hero and killer. Man vs. machine, on a collision course, and the destination is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The energy is so relentless that the film’s tone flirts with horror at times. It’s about as close to perfect as an eighties sci-fi thriller can get.

I manage to enjoy T2 just fine as well. It’s an exciting movie, but feels bloated and bogged down at times with a story built to accommodate its special effects. That is bound to happen when you have two movies with basically the same premise, but one runs about 30 minutes longer than the other (don’t even get me started on the bloat of T2’s extended cut). At the end of the day, it’s unreasonable to expect improvement on perfection (though I don’t expect to convince many T2 acolytes of that).

Thank you for listening to me humble case for The Terminator. Vote below if you want to live!

From → Film Reviews, Poll

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