The strange thing about the way the Terminator franchise has developed over the years is all the possible directions it didn’t take.
The first (and best) Terminator is one of the best B-movies of all time, and a lot of what makes it so good is the way it’s constantly throwing in new elements to keep audiences interested. It’s an action movie with a smart science fiction twist; it’s also, during many of the action scenes, basically a slasher movie (in a way, one of the best Terminator sequels was the recent Halloween reboot). There’s even a love story mixed in there for a handful of scenes; the possibility of doing a YA version of the story that focused on the “I travelled across time for you” angle must have crossed someone’s mind over the last decade or so.
And yet, just about every version of the story that’s followed has ignored one or more of these levels; when Terminator: Genysis, remembered to bring back a (not very convincing) version of the love story it forgot to put in any really memorable action sequences, while even the much maligned Terminator 3 has an excellent car chase in the middle.
Usually the trick with creating a decent sequel is figuring out what worked from the original and focusing on that; it’s a mystery why Hollywood never realised that what made the first Predator work was largely that it started out as a completely different kind of movie (your typical 80s action film) before the alien space monster turned up and started skinning people alive.
But with the Terminator franchise, it’s the combination of all the elements that made the first so special – once you start focusing on just one or two, the whole thing comes tumbling down. Even the parts people ignore are important: nobody remembers that the first two Terminator films expected audiences to be surprised by the shock twist reveal of the (evil) Terminators, but that idea that anyone around you could be a killbot out to murder you was part of what made the initial film so compelling.
Of course, some elements can’t be restored. Casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as an unstoppable killing machine was a masterstroke that gave him a career and changed the direction of Hollywood for a decade or more. And while this week’s Terminator: Dark Fate promises to reunite him with Linda Hamilton, he’s not the Terminator he used to be; it’s ironic that a film that sold audiences on the appeal of being an inhuman machine that was utterly single-minded has spawned a franchise that has charted an actor slowly succumbing to the ravages of age.
Seeing Schwarzenegger on the big screen in his most memorable role is still a thrill, but bringing him back makes the film more an exercise in nostalgia than a real attempt to tap into what made the first film work so well. He’s not the remorseless killing machine he used to be; seeing him now only reminds us that the fantasy he used to embody really was just a fantasy. Plus if Terminators could always grow beards, wouldn’t they have had them right from the start? C’mon, it’s hard to imagine the post nuclear holocaust survivors they were designed to infiltrate would have been big on shaving.