Where Did Terminator Go Wrong? A Saga of Wasted Potential

Where Did Terminator Go Wrong? A Saga of Wasted Potential

With the release of Terminator: Dark Fate, I take a look back on how the Terminator franchise evolved from its heyday to...where it is now.

Feel free to watch the video version of this article or read the written version.

(sigh). Terminator. There are few franchises that can make me feel so much love and so much frustration at the same time. The Terminator and Terminator 2 are two of my all-time favorite movies, but for the past 16 years, the film franchise has been defined by mediocrity and disappointment. 

A lot of fans wish they just stopped at T2, and admittedly, capping it there would’ve made for a very satisfying, contained, two-part story. However, with mythology this rich, there was excitement among many of the fans, myself included, about the potential to expand the series into a more sprawling, epic saga. Yet, with the release of the 6th movie in this franchise, I find myself not caring. It’s an unfortunate sentiment that I think is shared by a large portion of the fan base. So how does a franchise go from must-see, mindblowing event films to a movie that's currently underperforming at the box office? To put it simply, the Terminator brand has weakened signifcantly due to the franchise losing sight of its story’s central conflict and heart.

The conflict of Terminator is divided between two eras. There’s the pre-Judgment Day era in which the Connors attempt to survive time travel assaassination attempts and prevent Judgment Day from happening. Then there’s the era that takes place in the aftermath of Judgment Day as the surviving humans battle the army of machines. If you’re looking to tell the story as an expansive saga, the natural strategy is to do trilogies of both eras. Sarah is our protagonist for the first trilogy, then John is our protagonist in the second. Sarah and John, along with Kyle Reese are really the heart of the franchise. The Connors are essentially the Skywalkers of the Terminator saga, so if you fail to serve their collective arc it’s probably a good indicator that your story isn’t going to feel like a satisfying addition to the series.

While Terminator 3 is unanimously considered to be the start of the franchise’s decline, in terms of the basic plot and concept, the movie isn’t awful. For the most part, it’s an uninspired knockoff of Terminator 2,  but it wins points in my book for allowing Judgment Day to happen, setting up a prophecy of sorts fortelling John Connor’s death, and introducing the concept of an altered future in which victory against the machine’s is not a certainty. The major failing of the movie is its handling of character. The John Connor we see depicted here isn’t the kind of compelling lead that makes you want to continue watching him over the course of another set of movies. He lacks both the charm of his younger self and the hints of potential to become the extraordinary man we’ve been told about.

In spite of how crucial it was to get John right, the bigger mistake was not making this Sarah Connor’s story. When you think of this movie as the closer of a trilogy, it’s pretty obvious that the lead of the first two movies needed to be the central character. Linda Hamilton has expressed that the reason she didn’t come back for Terminator 3 is that the film didn’t serve Sarah Connor’s arc.

"They offered me a part. I read it and I knew my character arc was so complete in the first two, and in the third one it was a negligible character. She died halfway through and there was no time to mourn her. It was kind of disposable, so I said no thank you.” - Linda Hamilton


So she passed on the movie, Sarah was written out, and the story suffered for it. In the ideal, Sarah-centric version of Terminator 3, John should’ve still had a very substantial role almost as a co-protagonist and the torch should’ve been passed to him by the end, but you can’t effectively do that without closing Sarah’s arc in a satisfying way. The first alternative Terminator 3, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, focused on both Sarah and John, giving us a chance to see their relationship evolve from T2. That’s one of the many reasons it’s almost unanimously seen as the superior 3rd chapter of the Terminator story.

The finale of Terminator 3 has Schwarzenegger’s T-800 sacrificing himself to protect John, but it plays like a more actiony, less emotional version of the Terminator’s sacrifice in T2. Imagine how much more powerful it would’ve been to get a last mother/son story, culminating in our hero sacrificing herself for her son, the way Kyle Reese sacrificed himself for her. In the wake of this loss and the destruction of civilization, John would be forced to rise to the occasion without the guidance and protection of his heroic mother. As he faced this uncertain future, we’d see that the only things John has to help hold onto the memory of his mother are the recordings she left him and her photograph.

But that’s not how things went and what we got was just... decent. In spite of T3 not hitting it out of the park, the franchise chose to move forward with the film’s established canon as we entered the future war in Terminator Salvation. This is another movie that had a lot going for it. We were finally getting into the unfamiliar territory of the post-Judgment Day world. No rehashed time-travel assassination plot or reliance on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stardom to sell the movie. We had great actors as John Connor and Kyle Reese and an exciting new kind of conflict. But Salvation ended up being an even bigger disappointment than T3. 

Once again, we got a depiction of John that didn’t really resonate. Perhaps in part due to the shortcomings of T3’s depiction of the character, Salvation doesn’t feel particularly invested in John Connor. When you look into some of the earlier plans for the movie, it becomes very clear that the director, McG, wasn’t interested in John Connor. Salvation was originally conceived with the idea of the new character Marcus Wright as the story’s lead. Chrisitan Bale was approached to play this character, but wanted to play John Connor instead, so they had to expand John’s role from a smaller supporting part to a sort of co-lead.

“A lot of the work was integrating (Connor) into scenes ... and having that feel integral and sensible, as opposed to grafted on just because there was a star in the part,” - John Brancato, Screenwriter

Even more surprising are McG's original plans for John Connor.

“Connor dies, okay? He’s dead.” And Marcus offers his physical body, so Connor’s exterior is put on top of his machine body. It looks like Connor, but it’s really Marcus underneath. And all of the characters we care about (Kyle Reese, Connor’s wife Kate, etc.) are brought into the room to see him and they think it’s Connor. And Connor gets up and then there’s a small flicker of red in his eyes and he shoots Kate, he shoots Kyle, he shoots everybody in the room. Fade to black. End of movie. Skynet wins. F— you!” - McG

So...that almost happened.

Keeping in mind the fact that John Connor’s role in this film was an afterthought and that the director wanted to dispose of the character by the end of the story, it’s pretty apparent why the character didn’t receive much development or exploration. What we end up with is a pretty generic, tough leader. This was their chance to finally introduce us to the legendary hero audiences had been hearing about for 25 years and the result was underwhelming. The movie does a better job with the young Kyle Reese, but frustratingly, it barely allows John to interact with the father he’s been waiting his whole life to meet. This had the potential to be such a unique, fascinating relationship if it was given the proper amount of focus, but the movie chooses not to utilize its most compelling asset.

Looking at the failings of these films, I’ve realized that one of the things that made the original two so much better was their focus on relationships. The romance between Sarah and Kyle is the emotional center of The Terminator. The familial relationships of John and Sarah as well as John and the T-800 are the heart and soul of Terminator 2. For all the stunning effects, explosive action, and graphic violence, these are movies built on a foundation of love and humanity. The failure to prioritize the vital relationships of the Connor family is one of the reasons audiences didn’t find themselves invested in the journey of an adult John Connor.

After the failures of Terminator 3 and Salvation, we moved to this era of Genisys and Dark Fate in which they’ve felt the need to start over in an effort to dissociate themselves from the failed iterations. I suppose it has worked to a degree, but it has done so at the cost of making the franchise as a whole feel like a mess. With these newest films, everything they’ve done feels like a response to the failure of Salvation. But rather than making the kind of observations I’ve presented, it seems as if they’ve jumped to all the wrong conclusions. 

Salvation didn’t feel like the old films and didn’t feature Arnold, so it must be impossible for a Terminator film to succeed without being familiar enough to play on nostalgia. Salvation used John as its central character and nobody liked him, so we should probably give up on John Connor as a lead character rather than trying to fix him. Salvation tried the future war conflict and it wasn’t very interesting, so let’s go back to pre-Judgment Day stories about Sarah Connor, surviving time travel assassination attempts, and trying to stop Judgment Day. The result is the mess called Terminator Genisys, a film that received the worst critical reception of the franchise.

Genisys does so much wrong and is so far off the mark that I won't dissect its mistakes as if it had a chance of being a good sequel. However, I will say that a big part of the problem is the fact that the characters we’re watching here are not the characters we became attached to in the earlier films. These are different versions of them. They have different histories and different personalities, so there really isn’t much of an emotional investment in them.


Now the franchise has sort of attempted another Genisys with Dark Fate. Once again, they’re ignoring all the other films after Terminator 2 and attempting to brand themselves as the “true” sequel. They’ve even convinced Linda Hamilton to join Schwarzenegger in returning for added nostalgia. Based on the critical reception so far, it does seem to be a significantly better attempt at this idea (yet more or less on par with Terminator 3, the film they're attemtping to replace...). Even if the execution of the story is good, the path they’ve chosen for the story is one that really doesn’t appeal to me as a Terminator fan. They’ve abandoned John Connor in favor of having Sarah pass the torch to a couple of new characters with no apparent connection to the history of this story. Rather than moving forward within the mother-son saga, we’re moving backward to retread Sarah’s story with someone else. It’s repetitive and steers us away from paying off most of the great elements the early chapters of the story set up.

It pains me to know that with the right vision guiding the franchise, this 6th film could’ve given us the culmination of the future war conflict, a finale to the Connor family saga 35 years in the making. I hope for the sake of those involved with the film and the fans who are excited for this story that Dark Fate proves me wrong and takes things in a direction more interesting than most fans could’ve imagined. But as of right now, I’ve given up hope that a satisfying continuation of the Terminator film franchise will ever exist outside of my imagination.

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