Terminator: Genisys came out in theaters last week, the second summer blockbuster about dinosaurs after Jurassic World. The film is doing terribly at the Box Office and even worse critically, but it got me thinking about the last time a Terminator film was in theaters, and how much hate it received. But I’m here today to defend Terminator: Salvation. In fact, I can do that movie one better. This is perhaps going to be one of the more controversial things I write, but I’m putting my thesis front and center. In my opinion, the best Terminator films, in order are:
1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
2. Terminator: Salvation
3. The Terminator (1)
4. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Now, if you are not a film buff or uber-nerd like myself, let me explain why I’m on the verge of incurring the entire wrath of the internet. There are a few accepted truths about the Terminator franchise. I’ll list them here.
- Judgement Day is one of the best science-fiction films ever, and the undisputed best of the series.
- Terminator 3 is alright but is mostly remembered for it’s insane car chase and its somber finale.
- Terminator 4 is universally regarded as dogs**t.
- And this is a personal ‘truth’ I’ve come to know, but nobody will admit how poorly The Terminator holds up.
The Terminator series revolves around a war between man and machines. In the first two films, a cybernetic organism based on a body mold of Arnold Schwarzenegger is sent back in time to kill John Connor, the future leader of the resistance who will lead mankind to victory after a nuclear armageddon gives rise to the machines. In film one, they attempt to kill Connor’s mother, Sarah. In film two, they attempt to kill him as a teenager. In film three, they go after his lieutenants but, of course, John Connor gets caught up in the chaos once again.
By now, if you haven’t seen film four, you might be expecting me to say “in Terminator: Salvation, the machines attempt to kill Connor’s guinea pig he had when he was 9-years-old.” because if Hollywood has taught us anything it is that you do not mess with the formula, especially if it is successful. And that is my first defense of Terminator: Salvation right there.
Rise of the Machines ended with the bombs falling. After three movies of attempting to prevent the apocalypse, John Connor realized prevention was impossible. And having seen John Connor grow up over three films, the logical next step was forward.
And so we have Terminator: Salvation. A film that confidently broke the formula (a formula the next film came crawling back to). See, every Terminator film before was set in the present, but we got glimpses of a horrifying future. A future of darkness, where man lived underground, and armies of Terminators roam the planet. But that future was only ever teased. Salvation delivered.
Already, Salvation gets points for being bold and not having a Terminator return to 2009 to find a convoluted way of killing John Connor at his medium level corporate job. It tells the story many fans had been dreaming of for literal decades. Unfortunately for Salvation, their departure from the source material was deadly. Visual aids to follow, but if you wish to skip the video the short version is, Salvation’s vision of the future war was more like the war Afghanistan and less like what the previous films had promised. In other words, it was more realistic.
Here is what the war was promised to be like in Terminator 3:
And here is what the war looked like in Terminator: Salvation:
It may not seem like much, but the substitution of day for night and machine guns for purple lasers set the nerd world on fire. People felt downright betrayed by the movie. It’s a departure that in my mind makes sense, especially since one could argue the timeline from the 1984 movie is different that what came after they altered the past, but that’s just me.
The film was also criticized, and possibly hurt for having its biggest spoiler given away in the trailer. In the trailer, it is revealed that one of the main characters is a Terminator and doesn’t even know it. Many, myself included, felt this was something we wanted to learn as we watched the movie. Fast forward to 2015, and the marketing for Terminator: Genisys (still a terrible title) gives away that John Connor has become a Terminator himself (no comment).
There are many other complaints about Salvation. Some felt the acting was meh, some felt the story was hollow, and many felt Christian Bale brought all of Batman’s dourness and made the film impossibly dull. A big point of contention was the film’s rating downgrade from Hard-R to PG-13. The franchise was synonymous with what made a Hard-R film, and going to PG-13 meant the violence was toned down for larger box-office pull. These are complaints I could debate, but I understand them more as opposed to the vitriol incurred by the frustration over deviation from the source material.
So why then do I feel that Salvation is the second best of the franchise? It has less to do with how much better it is and more to do with how weak the other films are.
Let’s start with The Terminator. When it was released by director James Cameron in 1984, it was a horror B-movie with a sci-fi plot. The film had a lot going for it, mostly its story. It is a great setup and an original tale that I still love. But everything else in the film ages worse than month old milk. The music is synth overload. The fashion predictably aged terribly. And the effects, while admirable (god bless Stan Winston) pack no punch anymore, especially in comparison to the sequels. And the acting is pretty terrible across the board. (Exhibit A.) Arnold is the best of them because he has to act like a robot, which we can all agree, he must be part-robot in the first place. It’s an admirable film, but not the strongest at all.
And then there is Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Let’s start with what is bad. Nick Stahl shouldn’t have been cast as John Connor. He’s a fine actor but was miscast. And the plot was lazier. This is the third time a Terminator went back and tried (and failed) to complete its mission. Three times in it is hard not to feel like this plan is fundamentally flawed. And really that’s the film’s biggest problem. It gives us so little that is new. And yes, it is still fun to watch a Terminator fight another Terminator around confused civilians, and yes it is a joy to see fat Chris Hardwick’s one claim to film fame, but it’s boring otherwise.
But Rise of the Machines did a few things right. For starters, the effects were great. Terminator 2 really had an incredible mix of graphics and practical effects, but 3 feels just ever so slightly smoother. Not that it is better, but it looks good. And the action in the film is still pretty great. The car chase, in particular, holds up. But 3’s real triumph is in its finale when the bombs fall. In those final moments, the film snaps out of a sci-fi action romp and reminds us that there is a point to these films, and a point worth heeding.
This finale is one of the best moments in the series. And the fact that it bridged the gap between present and future is an important step forward in the franchise. But the film overall is relatively forgettable. And that is why I don’t revere it as much.
Terminator: Salvation isn’t perfect, I can’t even argue that. But as an overall film it holds up better. Firstly, the story was different. It simultaneously went forward and showed us something new, and the ‘new’ thing it showed us was different than we expected. It gave us interesting and newer stories. We see how the machines began building the human Terminators. We see Skynet try a different way of killing John Connor. And the action is pretty great. And while Salvation clearly reveres the original films, it doesn’t go out of its way to blatantly reference the original films. The references are few and subtle, pretty much the exact opposite of every piece of Terminator: Genisys marketing.
The second Terminator film truly is a masterpiece. It had a compelling and original story, with incredible graphics and action, memorable performances, and some genuine and heartfelt commentary on our addiction to technology and commentary on nuclear weaponry. Let’s not even get started on what the film has to say about parenting. It did everything right, and no Terminator film will ever be better than it. Terminator: Salvation is the next best story and overall film in that universe. Sure, the commentary is set aside for a more traditional science-fiction action film, but that’s not a bad thing at all.
Terminator 1 doesn’t hold up as well as die-hard fans like to tell themselves it does, and Terminator 3 isn’t an overall great film, just two hours of good moments padded with retread. Terminator Salvation is different, it’s badass, it is ballsy, and better than people like to give it credit for. Many felt the franchise couldn’t possibly sink any lower, but the Metacritic ratings for Genisys prove otherwise. It was different and self-assured and for the most part, the film works because of that. Even if you disagree that it is the second best, Terminator: Salvation is worth revisiting. The film is not as bad as you remember, and the direction the franchise almost went in certainly is more compelling than what we are now stuck with.