THE TERMINATOR (Director James Cameron, 1984)

The Terminator was a relatively low-budget film made by an essentially unknown director who received most of his training working for low-budget master Roger Corman. It did feature a central actor who had a developing reputation, but that reputation was mainly negative, involving his lack of acting skills and inability to speak English without an almost indecipherable accent. And its plot was straight out of the science fiction pulps. Little wonder, then, that the film did not seem very promising or that the production company, Hemdale Film Corporation, upped its budget to $6.4 million (less than one-fourth that of the then-recent Blade Runner, a film with which it is now often compared) only with reluctance. The film more than made back that investment in its first two weekends in release, though it never became a huge box-office hit. It did, however, become one of the most influential and widely-discussed films of the 1980s—and one of the most important SF films of all time. It propelled its laconic star, Arnold Schwarzenegger into superstardom, and put its director, James Cameron, on the road to being one of the most commercially successful directors of all time.

The Story: Killer Cyborgs from the Future

The Terminator begins as a high-tech flying car zooms over a ruined urban landscape; on-screen text identifies the setting as Los Angeles in the year 2029. We are also informed through text that, by this time, machines have been engaged in a decades-long war with humans, but that this war, surprisingly, will end with a final battle fought back in our own time.

The film then cuts back to May 12, 1984, where two naked men (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Biehn) separately appear amid flashes of electrical energy in urban Los Angeles, then go about the task of acquiring clothing and weapons. The one played by Schwarzenegger seems particularly formidable, displaying superhuman strength and toughness. However, both seem to be engaged in the same task—hunting down one Sarah Connor, which both of them proceed to do by the rather unreliable method of looking up the name in the L.A. phone book. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Sarah Connor herself (played by Linda Hamilton), a completely ordinary young woman who lives with her roommate Ginger Ventura (Bess Motta) and works as a waitress in a fast-food restaurant.

When the character played by Schwarzenegger shoots down a gun-store owner while acquiring weapons and then proceeds to gun down the first Sarah Connor from the phone book, his murderous intentions become clear. After a second Sarah Connnor is killed, the police, led by Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Detective Vukovich (Lance Henriksen), realize that something odd is going on. Meanwhile, the character played by Biehn is shown apparently stalking Hamilton’s Connor, who has by now become terrified by the murders of her two namesakes. Schwarzenegger’s character goes to Sarah’s apartment, where (in the high tradition of the slasher film) he kills Ginger and Ginger’s boyfriend, Matt (Rick Rossovich), immediately after they have had sex. Then he tracks Sarah herself to a bar with the interesting SF name of “Tech-Noir.” He and Biehn’s character converge on Sarah and pull their weapons, both seemingly intent on killing her. However, Biehn’s character instead opens fire on Schwarzenegger’s, eventually getting Sarah out of the bar unhurt (though scared out of her wits), with the police and Schwarzenegger’s character in pursuit.

Biehn’s character reveals to Sarah that he is Kyle Reese, a man from the future who has time-traveled back to 1984 in an effort to protect her from Schwarzenegger’s character, the Terminator of the title, a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 cyborg—an armored, computer-controlled machine wrapped in living human tissue so that it looks entirely human. The cyborg has been sent back to 1984 specifically to kill Sarah to prevent her from giving birth to one John Connor, who in the future has led humanity in an ultimately successful revolt against the machines, who had driven humans to the brink of extermination in Nazi-style death camps.

Both the Terminator and the police pursue Reese and Sarah in a rather ordinary action-movie car chase, leading to Reese’s arrest by the police, who think him insane after hearing his fantastic story. The chase also results in a crash in which the Terminator is damaged, leading to a memorable scene in which it goes back to a motel room and performs “surgery” to repair itself. First, it opens up its arm with an X-acto knife, revealing the mechanical workings inside (no explanation of why its armored exoskeleton does not protect the workings of the arm). Then, in a moment that has reminded numerous film critics of a notorious scene in Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic Un chien andalou (1929), the Terminator cuts out its damaged human left eye with the knife and plops it into the sink. It then covers the exposed mechanism of its electronic eye by donning sunglasses.

In one of the film’s bloodiest scenes (and one that many have seen as an anti-authoritarian fantasy of violent retribution against the police), the Terminator goes to the police station seeking Sarah. It blasts its way through the halls, mowing down cops (including Vukovich and Traxler) as it goes. Reese, however, manages to get free and once again to make off with Sarah, escaping the station in a stolen car. On the run, Reese tells Sarah more about the future, eventually confessing that he had come to love her from afar (really afar), partly via a photograph of her given him by her son John.

The two take refuge in a cheap motel, where they make love—and pipe bombs. Sarah calls her mother to assure her that she is okay, but instead gets the Terminator,  impersonating the mother’s voice over the phone (it has apparently killed Sarah’s real mother). The Terminator manages to get Sarah to give it the number where she can be reached, then uses that information to locate the motel. Its arrival at the motel begins much like a run-of-the-mill action sequence (the clichéd background music doesn’t help), as the Terminator bursts into their room, spraying it with machine-gun fire. However, having been alerted of the Terminator’s approach by barking dogs, Reese and Sarah manage to escape the room. What follows is a completely formulaic, yet utterly effective chase scene, part action film, part science fiction, and part horror movie.

The virtual unstoppability of the Terminator in this scene has reminded some critics of the murderous central figures in the Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth films), though it also may owe something to the remarkably robust title creature from Alien. Sarah Connor also begins to blossom in this sequence. With Reese badly wounded early on, she has to display a level of courage and capability far beyond anything she has shown up to this point. Driving the getaway car, she is able to slam into the Terminator’s motorcycle, sending it skidding along the highway and into the path of a gasoline tank truck that runs it over then drags it along underneath. However, the Terminator surprisingly survives (though with a limp), then commandeers the tank truck to continue the chase. Reese manages to blow up the truck with one of the pipe bombs, and all seems well as we see the Terminator, fully engulfed in flames, collapse onto the pavement in the midst of a fiery holocaust.

Next, however, the cyborg’s robot torso suddenly arises from the flames, limping forward to continue the pursuit. It chases Sarah and Reese (she practically drags him along with her) into an automated factory, into which the Terminator itself soon staggers, looking about almost as if it appreciates the irony that it now finds itself among its own ancestors, the robotic devices in the factory. Reese manages to insert a pipe bomb into the frame of the Terminator, blowing off its legs and seeming to stop it once and for all. Reese himself is killed in the explosion, and Sarah is badly wounded by a piece of shrapnel that strikes her leg. Unable to walk, she suddenly realizes that the Terminator is still in pursuit, dragging itself along by its arms. She herself is able only to crawl, but she manages to crush the Terminator inside a heavy machine press, the red light indicating its continuing brain function flickering out at last. Police and emergency personnel then arrive, taking Sarah away in an ambulance.

In the final scene, six months later, a pregnant Sarah Connor drives through the desert in her jeep (accompanied by a gun and a guard dog), recording a message for her unborn son. She explains, rather sentimentally, that, though she knew the boy’s father only briefly, “We loved a lifetime’s worth.” At this point it becomes clear that Reese is the father of John Connor, triggering a chain of mind-teasing time-travel paradoxes. When she stops for gas, a small Mexican boy snaps a Polaroid picture of her in order to offer it to her for cash, She buys the photo, and we realize that it is the one given to Reese in the future by John Connor. “There’s a storm coming,” the boy says in Spanish, indicating the weather. “I know,” responds Sarah. She then drives away, looking for a remote site from which to await the coming nuclear holocaust.

The Source of the Movie

The Terminator is based on an original screenplay by Cameron and his then future wife Gale Anne Hurd, though it shows the influence of numerous predecessors, including Metropolis, Westworld (1973), the Mad Max films, Blade Runner, and any number of slasher films. Perhaps the most important immediate predecessor was Alien, and perhaps it should come as no surprise that Cameron, coming off the success of The Terminator, was selected to direct the first Alien sequel.Many aspects of The Terminator are also reminiscent of well-known science fiction television series such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek. Controversy arose after the original release of the film, when SF legend Harlan Ellison filed suit, charging that the film drew heavily upon several of his works, especially his classic story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and the script for “Soldier,” a 1964 episode of the television series The Outer Limits. As a result of the suit, an on-screen credit reading “Acknowledgment to the Works of Harlan Ellison” was inserted in subsequent versions of the film for television and video release.

Man vs. Machine: Technology as Threat in The Terminator

Though only a moderate success at the box office in its initial theatrical release, The Terminator soon gained a strong following in the then relatively young video rental market and was arguably one of the first films to become an important work of cinema largely because of video rentals. It won the Saturn Award (given by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films) for the year’s best science fiction film on its initial release. However, it received no Oscar nominations and little else in the way of immediate critical recognition. Yet it would eventually be named by Esquire magazine as “the film of the eighties” and has now received attention from academic film critics exceeded by that accorded only a handful of SF films.

The Terminator is, on the surface, little more than standard pulp science fiction fare, along the lines of any number of films produced by Cameron’s mentor, Roger Corman. On the other hand, the film clearly has something special. Most of the acting in the film is competent, but unmemorable, but Schwarzenegger’s performance is stunningly memorable, if not really all that competent by classical standards. Schwarzenegger’s robotic acting style makes him a perfect cyborg, and there can be little doubt that his portrayal of the Terminator in this film was the key role in his career, the one role that best allowed him to convey his own unique form of charisma on the screen—even more so than in the two sequels, in which his performances progressively turned more and more into parodies of the original. Cameron’s perfect pacing was crucial to the ultimate success of the film as well.

The special effects in the film are minimal, clearly reflecting the limited budget. We see only a couple of brief scenes from the world of the future, and those are quite simplistic, giving us only very limited views. The scene in which the Terminator’s robotic skeleton arises from the flames and limps after its prey is the most impressive effect in the film, yet even that effect (accomplished through a combination of a model created by famed monster maker Stan Winston and a puppet built by Doug Beswick) is unimpressive, the skeleton’s jerky movements reminding many of the low-budget stop-motion animation of the legendary Ray Harryhausen in the 1950s.

Yet the link to Harryhausen almost makes the scene better, evoking a special kind of nostalgia that frequently occurs in The Terminator,offering a special pleasure to viewers who have sat through endless really bad science fiction films only to discover that they have now come upon one that is clearly in the same family but that is somehow, almost miraculously, actually good.Thus, The Terminator’s refreshing refusal to make any attempt to obscure its roots in pulp science fiction(or, to put it differently, Cameron’s deft handling of the collection of science fiction and horror film clichés that provides the basic material of the film) is one of the secrets to its surprising success, one of the reasons why it is far better as a film than it seems to have any right to be.

Among other things, the pulp clichés that abound in The Terminator tend to lower audience expectations from the very beginning, making it easy for the film to exceed those expectations. The brief opening shot of a wasted, post-apocalyptic 2029 Los Angeles, with its obviously low-budget special effects, seems to identify this film as run-of-the-mill SF fare from which we should not demand very much thoughtfulness. Indeed, this basic situation has not changed very much, even by the end of the film, in which the background of this opening scene has (at least to some extent) been explained. For one thing, we’ve seen it all before, even if we have rarely seen so many clichés collected in one place. For another thing, the film’s description of the coming nuclear war and subsequent rise of the machines (the major motif that seems to add “seriousness” to the film) seems a bit hasty and confused, which is partly due to the fact that Reese, who delivers the explanation to Sarah, conveniently doesn’t know “tech stuff,” and so is unable to describe the exact mechanism by which the defense network computers “got smart” and then decided to try to exterminate humanity by starting a nuclear war. Still, it is almost as if this whole scenario were a mere afterthought, a throwaway concocted just to let the film get quickly to its real material, which is gun battles, explosions, and car chases.

The idea of an artificially intelligent computer system rebelling against its human makers has numerous precedents in science fiction, including the human-hating computer of Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” as well as such obvious film examples as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the other hand, for a film released in 1984, the cautionary story of a runaway computer-controlled defense network (known as “Skynet”) has special significance because of its relevance to the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative then being touted by the Reagan administration. And, while a recognition of this fact does little to explain the ongoing appeal of the film well beyond the Reagan years, it does serve as an example of the way in which The Terminator  continually repays close examination, yielding up tidbits of significance for those willing to look beneath its pulp surface.

 In fact, one might suggest that The Terminator’s numerous pulp motifs (whether derived from science fiction, horror, or just action films in general) function as a sort of disguise for the unusual thematic richness of the film, which is thus able to address an astonishing variety of social and political concerns (and to introduce an amazing number of science fiction conceits) without seeming preachy or pretentious—though it is also the case that the film avoids any sort of overt didacticism by the simple expedient of raising issues without, in general, taking any clear stand with respect to them. In addition, the film raises various issues with a very light touch and a slight wink, suggesting that any greater significance that might be found in the film shouldn’t be taken all that seriously.

For example, The Terminator is a film with a number of mythic resonances, the most obvious of which is the clear parallel between John Connor and Jesus Christ, that other savior of humanity whose initials he shares. Of course, James Cameron shares these same initials as well, so it might be a mistake to take this alphabetical correspondence too seriously. Nevertheless, the Connor/Christ parallel is there and does add something to the film, because the evocation of the Christ story reinforces the film’s suggestion that humanity has reached a weak and fallen state and is thus very much in need of redemption. In The Terminator, whatever its warnings about technology run amok, the fault lies not in our machines but in ourselves, even if the film never quite explains what that fault is or how it might be corrected. Still, the main effect of this parallel is probably the brief moment of self-congratulation afforded to viewers when they first recognize the link between Connor and Christ.

Among other things, the overarching theme of the dangers of technology (a science fiction commonplace) is ironized by the fact that The Terminator, like all films, is itself a product of technology, though its relative lack of reliance on high-tech special effects means that The Terminator is less technologically driven than most SF films. But this is surely a product of budget rather than ideology, as can be seen by the unusually high level of technological effects in the much more expensive sequels. Meanwhile, the film’s presentation of technology as a threat to humanity is rather low key, even if it drives the entire plot. The war machines of 2029 are menacing but not very realistic, while the nuclear war theme evokes a realistic threat but is not pursued with any real interest. For example, while the film’s future Los Angeles looks ravaged and wasted, it is not clear whether the destruction we see was caused by the nuclear war of the 1990s or the subsequent war between humans and machines. And there seems to be no problem with radiation, nuclear winter, or other lasting side effects that would be expected of a nuclear war.

The film’s warning against dangerous future technologies is enhanced by its depiction of technology in 1984, reminding us that the technologies that might prove our undoing in the future are already in development. However, the parallels drawn by the film between technologies of the present and the future are more witty than chilling, as in robot skeleton’s entry into the robotized factory near the end of the film or in the visual rhyme that occurs when the film’s first post-credit sequence begins with a shot of a mechanized garbage truck that at first looks like one of the sinister war machines shown before the credits.

In any case, the technology of 1984 is generally shown more as dysfunctional than as too sophisticated for human control. For example, disaster (comic or real) strikes whenever poor Sarah picks up a telephone in the film, beginning with her accidental interception of a mock obscene phone call from Matt, who mistakes her for his girlfriend Ginger. Soon afterward, Sarah receives a call on her machine from a man breaking their Friday night date. Later, Sarah is at first unable to get through when she attempts to place an emergency call to the police from the Tech Noir club; is also unable to get through to Ginger to warn her to leave the apartment, instead succeeding only in informing the Terminator that she is at the club. Finally, Sarah’s attempted call to her mother once again inadvertently informs the Terminator of her location.

Perhaps the most interesting example of excessive human reliance on unreliable telephone technology in The Terminator occurs when both Sarah and the police unsuccessfully attempt to call her home with warnings that might have saved Matt and Ginger. For one thing, Ginger can’t hear the phone ring because she is listening to music on a portable device (another machine) with headphones. For another, the calls are repeatedly answered by Sarah and Ginger’s machine, including one witty moment when Sarah’s call is picked up by the machine just after the brutal murder of Ginger (the Terminator’s most unattractive moment in the film). Apologizing for being a mere machine, Ginger’s recorded greeting ironically reminds Sarah that “Machines need love, too.”

These examples of telephone disasters include a certain amount of social commentary, given that, in 1984, the “telephone company” was still a central image of big-business manipulation of technology for profit. (The federally-mandated breakup of Ma Bell went into effect only in January 1984.) The other social commentary embedded in The Terminator is presented with a light touch as well. Thus, when the Terminator first appears in a slummy, garbage-strewn Los Angeles, quickly to be confronted by a gang of switchblade-toting street punks, it would be perfectly appropriate to take the scene as a commentary on contemporary urban violence and decay—and perhaps even as a criticism of the Reagan administration’s lack of emphasis on aid to cities. But the film offers very little support for the latter interpretation, while most viewers are more likely to focus on the self-consciously over-the-top nature of the scene as an example of film art. In the scene, a totally naked Schwarzenegger approaches the outrageously done-up punks, then plunges his fist into the chest of one, withdrawing it with the still-beating heart in his grasp. It is hard to take such a scene seriously as social commentary—or seriously at all, and the scene is essentially comic, its violence more cartoonish than shocking, partly because Schwarzenegger himself is so cartoonish.

This scene also offers a key to one of the most interesting complexities of The Terminator, the fact that the title character, a heartless machine engaged throughout the film in the indiscriminate slaughter of human beings does not really seem all that detestable. After all, we really don’t care about the punks, and they seem to get what they deserve. The same might be said for the gun-store owner, who is more than happy to distribute deadly assault weapons to the general population in the interest of his own profits, but now pays the ultimate price himself. (This scene also satirizes inadequate gun laws by noting that customers can take rifles and assault weapons with them when they buy, but must wait fifteen days for handguns.) Indeed, one of the film’s high comic moments occurs with Schwarzenegger’s deadpan delivery of the one word riposte, “Wrong,” after the store-owner tells him he can’t load his purchased weapon in the store—and just as he blasts the store-owner with the newly-acquired weapon. However, if this scene can be taken as a call for stronger gun control laws, much of the film seems almost to glorify the gun culture of the United States.

Similarly, the film’s bloodiest and most violent scene, the shootup of the police station, is prepared by an extended portrayal of the cops as unprofessional, insensitive, and incompetent. Thus, we see them smirking and leering as they secretly watch the interview of the captive Reese by the police psychiatrist, Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen). The cops then joke with Silberman, who salivates over the boost that his career might receive from his work with Reese, whom he inappropriately refers to as a loon. Viewers are thus authorized by the film not to be all that appalled by the carnage at the police station, even though the more politically correct sequel, Terminator 2 (1991, also directed by Cameron), will attempt to convince us that the massacre was a terrible tragedy, involving the deaths of seventeen policemen, many with wives and children.

Certainly, most viewers do not root for the Terminator to succeed in its mission to assassinate Sarah Connor and thus prevent the future human rebellion against machine domination. But there is a certain guilty pleasure in identifying with this powerful killing machine that fears no man and respects no human authority. And it is certainly the case that Schwarzenegger is far more pleasurable to watch on the screen during this film than either Hamilton or Biehn, despite the fact that the latter are both more talented and better looking. After all, Biehn’s character may be heroic, but he seems a bit dull, not to mention dumb. And, for her part, Sarah Connor does not really blossom until late in the film (and does not become a really interesting character until the first sequel), becoming truly heroic only after Schwarzenegger has exited the stage in favor of the robotic skeleton. And most of the film’s highlight moments are those in which the viewer roots for or even identifies with the Terminator, as when it rips the heart out of the punk or when it rebuffs a nosey janitor with “Fuck you, asshole”—a line it learned from the punks at the beginning of the film and now amusingly retrieves from its data bank of useful phrases.

The pleasure of such moments is, of course, retroactively increased by Schwarzenegger’s subsequent superstardom. Thus, for later viewers of The Terminator on video, the Terminator’s terse “I’ll be back,” uttered to the desk sergeant who first turns him away at the police station, becomes a key moment in the film not just because of the spectacular way he does come back (crashing through the front of the building in a pickup truck) but because it has become familiar as a catch-phrase repeatedly used by Schwarzenegger in any number of other films. And, for viewers in 2004 and later, there is a special amusement (or horror?) in seeing the governor of California in any number of unlikely situations, from strutting butt-naked across the screen in the opening confrontation with the punks, to blasting his way through the Tech-Noir club, to blowing up a police station.

Schwarzenegger’s personal appeal is such that the final destruction of the Terminator is made enjoyable only by the fact that he has by that point been removed from the character, which is now merely a mechanical puppet with none of Schwarzenegger’s charm. Thus, as it is not Schwarzenegger that is being crushed in the machine press, but merely a prop, we need feel no sympathy or regret at its demise. We can also enjoy Hamilton’s parting zinger (“You’re terminated, fucker”), the only memorable line in the film not spoken by Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger’s weirdly appealing screen presence helps to explain the odd attractiveness of the Terminator as a film character, though the character itself is part of the attraction as well, enacting as it does any number of fantasies shared by frustrated viewers of the 1980s, who would very much have liked to be able to say “fuck you” to anyone they pleased and then to blast to smithereens anyone who didn’t like it, damn the consequences. At the same time, the fact that the Terminator is a mere machine, carrying out its programming, makes its behavior more excusable. It is not evil or even malevolent: it is just what it is, doing what it was designed to do. Yet, in many ways, even before it turns benevolent in Terminator 2, Schwarzenegger’s cyborg Terminator seems far more human than such superslashers as Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, even as it is also superhuman, a sort of Superman unrestrained by the spotless goody-goody ethics of the classic superhero.

Film theorists have argued that American film tends to be constructed from a masculine perspective in which audiences are urged to experience a fantasy identification with the central male character and a fantasy desire for the central female character. In The Terminator this situation is significantly complicated by the fact that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, rather than Biehn’s Reese, is clearly the central object of masculine identification. Meanwhile, the central female character, Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, is certainly attractive, but her evolution in the course of the film from seemingly helpless girl to strong, capable woman (an evolution that goes much farther in the sequel) makes her far more than a conventional object of masculine desire. In particular, she provides a potential alternative object for feminine identification in the film. At the same time, if Schwarzenegger’s villain, however deadly, is in many ways more fascinating than threatening, Hamilton’s evolved Sarah is not really the kind of feminist icon that might seem threatening to some male egos. In a sense, in fact, she remains a prototypical wife and mother. Even in the sequel, she remains sentimentally, devotedly, in love with Reese, and she becomes a sleekly muscled killing machine primarily in order to protect her son.

Sarah is also made less threatening (and the Terminator more attractive) by the fact that the whole film is a bit tongue in cheek, a clever entertainment that never pretends to be anything else. Part of this cleverness again comes directly from Schwarzenegger, who delivers his deadpan lines with just enough of a twinkle in the eye to let us know that it’s all in fun. But The Terminator is a clever and witty film in ways that go well beyond Schwarzenegger’s ironic delivery of his very few lines of dialogue. It is also well structured. For example, the introduction of Reese in such a way that he first appears to be a second Terminator is a nice touch, while the handling of the time-travel twist in which Reese becomes the father of John Connor is also handled well. All in all, Terminator demonstrates that science fiction films need not choose between action and thoughtfulness, even if its thoughtfulness seems designed more for entertainment than for instruction.

Celluloid Cyborgs: The Legacy of The Terminator

Terminator and its sequels are among the central time-travel films of American SF cinema. Other films in this mode go back to George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960), based on the classic novel by H. G. Wells and featuring Wells himself (played by Rod Taylor) as a time traveler. This film was remade by Simon Wells in 2002, while Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time (1979) was a sort of spin-off of The Time Machine, again with Wells himself (this time played by Malcolm MacDowell) as a time traveling protagonist. One of the most interesting and entertaining (though dark and disturbing) time-travel films is Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), while the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Timecop (1994) is in many ways particularly reminiscent of the Terminator films.

The title figure of The Terminator spawned numerous imitations of one kind or another, most of them somewhat unfortunate. Among these, one might mention films starring Arnold wannabes, including the Van Damme vehicles Cyborg (1989) and Universal Soldier (1992) and the Sylvester Stallone vehicles Demolition Man (1993) and Judge Dredd (1995), the first of which is not all that bad, thanks to its quirky humor. In the same category are the cyborg films starring French kickboxer Olivier Gruner, incuding Nemesis (1993) and Automatic (1994), the first of which directly alludes to Terminator several times, as when its chief cyborg villain occasionally lapses into Schwarzenegger impressions. More interesting films, such as the Robocop movies (beginning with the first installment in 1987) also owed a great deal to Terminator. Meanwhile, Terminator helped establish action SF films as an important genre, especially for Schwarzenegger himself, as hewent on to play action-hero protagonists in a string of subsequent SF films, including Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987), Total Recall (1990), and The 6th Day (2000).

Of course, the Schwarzenegger vehicles most directly influenced by The Terminator were the film’s own sequels. By the time of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, both Cameron and Schwarzenegger had become major forces in Hollywood, so that the sequel was able to command a budget of approximately $100 million, more than 15 times that of the original. In a motif that makes little sense but that facilitates the scenario of the sequel, it turns out that, in addition to the Terminator from the first film, a second (more advanced) Terminator (played by Robert Patrick) has been sent back from 2029 to the year 1994 as a backup—programmed to kill a 10-year-old John Connor (Edward Furlong) should the first Terminator fail to prevent his birth. (Interestingly, per the first film, John should be 10 in 1995, not 1994, but no matter). Meanwhile, the humans of 2029 have gotten their hands on a second Model 101 Terminator (now described as a T-800, Model 101), reprogrammed it, and sent it back to 1994 to protect John. This expedient allows Schwarzenegger to play the good guy this time, and much of the charm of Terminator 2 lies in the evolving relationship between this kinder, gentler Terminator and young John. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s Sarah Connor (following in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien films) has evolved significantly as well, and appears here as a tough, well-muscled, and slightly unbalanced guerrilla fighter who bears little resemblance to the sweet, soft girl we saw at the beginning of the first film.

Terminator 2 is full of visual and verbal echoes of the first film, many of them with comic touches that help to make the sequel altogether lighter and more optimistic. Schwarzenegger also delivers far more of his trademark one-liners. On the other hand, the film does have its dark moments, especially in its portrayal of the mental health system. Sarah, having attempted to blow up the headquarters of Cyberdyne Systems hoping to prevent them from developing the technology that will lead to the apocalypse, has been arrested and then (because of her crazy stories about the coming disaster and killer cyborgs from the future) committed to an asylum, where she is brutalized by the staff and incompetently treated by Silberman, the bumbling police psychiatrist from the first film.

Terminator 2 fills in a significant number of details about the coming nuclear apocalypse, including the date on which it is to occur: August 29, 1997. It even shows us scenes of a nuclear explosion in an attempt to remind us of just how horrifying a nuclear attack can be. The time travel narrative of the Terminator series is significantly expanded when it becomes clear that the advanced computer technology that will enable the implementation of Skynet (and thus lead to the nuclear apocalypse) will actually be based on studies of the few remaining pieces (including the central processor) found after the destruction of the first Terminator.

Patrick’s advanced Model T-1000 has been enhanced with liquid metal technology, which is to say that Cameron, coming off his experience with The Abyss (1989), now has at his disposal the sophisticated morphing technology that becomes the hallmark of the impressive special effects of Terminator 2. The shape-shifting abilities of the T-1000 give it a significant advantage over the clunky old T-800, but the older Terminator rises to the occasion and manages finally to destroy the T-1000 by dumping it into a vat of molten steel. The remaining pieces of the first Terminator, retrieved from the Cyberdyne vaults after a spectacular shootout with the still-incompetent LAPD, are also tossed in the vat. Then the human-friendly T-800 insists on being lowered into the molten metal as well. The film thus ends on a sad and sentimental note, as did the first. However, the focus on the heroic sacrifice of the Terminator virtually obscures the fact that humanity may now have been saved. It also obscures the delicious explosion of time-travel paradoxes that this ending produces. After all, with all the Terminator technology destroyed, Skynet may never be developed, and the war with the machines will be averted. Moreover, thanks to the intervention of the Terminator, Terminators will never exist and none of the events of the preceding two films will ever occur!

In Terminator 3 (2003, directed by Jonathan Mostow), however, it turns out that the nuclear holocaust has not been prevented, just delayed. Here the heavy use of computer animation provides a significantly stepped-up level of special effects action, and Terminator 3 is, in fact, a competent action film. It also adds a new twist in the form of a female Terminator, the T-X (Kristanna Loken), once again sent back in time to kill John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl). Of course, the T-X, like the T-1000, can assume any shape or any gender it likes, and it is a measure of our commitment to gender as a category of identity that we consistently think of the T-1000 as male and the T-X as female, despite overt evidence that gender is in this case a pure artifice. In any case, Schwarzenegger returns as the “good” Terminator (now labeled the T-101) sent back to protect Connor, this time by Connor’s future wife after Connor himself has been killed by the T-101 in the year 2032. All in all, however, Terminator 3 is a bit confused (it can’t even get simple facts straight, as when it is stated that the T-1000 had tried to kill Connor when he was 13, rather than 10). It also relies a bit too much on amusing references to the first two films to try to provide a bit of humor, while Schwarzenegger seems largely uninterested in the T-101’s heroic battle against the more advanced T-X Terminator, his old twinkle having been converted into a struggle to keep a straight face. Terminator 3 is also uninteresting as a film of ideas, especially when compared to the first two Terminator films. In fact, the major new idea of the third film is to cancel out the “no fate but what you make” theme of the first two films by showing that certain historical developments apparently really are inevitable, despite the best efforts of humans and machines. Thus, the film ends as Skynet goes online and launches its deadly nuclear strike against humanity, though the T-101 has seen to it that Connor and the woman who will eventually become his wife, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), are safely sequestered in a hardened bunker so that they can survive the attack and begin to lead the resistance.

A television series based on the Terminator films, set roughly in the same time period as Terminator 3, featured Sarah Connor (now played by Lena Headey), who has now been resurrected via time-travel manipulation of the past, again in a lead role. The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008–2009) ran on the Fox network for two seasons. The Terminator film franchise was then rebooted with Terminator Salvation (2009), a film that was more a spinoff in the same universe than a true sequel. This time Schwarzenegger joined Cameron and Hamilton on the sidelines, while the film’s shift to a focuson the man-machine war of the future takes the franchise in a new direction, though the interrogation of the relationship between men and their machines (and of the boundary between the two) that marks the first three films remains. Meanwhile, with top draw Christian Bale in the lead role as the adult John Connor, the film was a commercial success, if less so than the second and third Terminator films.

Terminator Genisys (2015), the followup to Terminator Salvation, is not so much a sequel as a complete reboot that uses time travel essentially to erase all of the previous action of the franchise and to involve the original main characters in an entirely new plotline. This time, when Kyle Reese (now played by Jai Courtney) goes back to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (now played by Emilia Clarke), he discovers that she is already being protected by an aging T-800 terminator (once again played by Schwarzenegger), which has changed the entire timeline, moving “judgement day” from 1997 to 2017, when a new computer operating system called “Genisys” will allow Skynet to become fully sentient, with access to all of the world’s computers, which it can then control to make itself even more powerful and even more of a threat to humanity. Sarah, Reese, and the T-800 all travel to 2017 to avert that event, though when they arrive they find they must battle against John Connor, whom Skynet has now transformed via nanotechnology to be its ally.

Genisys made over $440 million in international box-office receipts but was nevertheless a commercial disappointment, given its high production costs. As a result, plans to produce two more films (and a television series) building on the Genisys storyline were scrapped. In 2019, however, control of the franchise reverted to Cameron, who was actively involved as a producer in the making still another reboot, Terminator: Dark Fate, which is a direct sequel to Terminator 2 that ignores the events of the third, fourth, and fifth Terminator films. It features both Schwarzenegger and Hamilton reprising their original roles.


[1] This discussion is adapted from my chapter on The Terminator in my book Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Praeger, 2006).