We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherfuckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah… your unborn son.” — Kyle Reese
The Terminator films form an odd sort of franchise. They were never conceived as a trilogy. The original was written and filmed as a stand alone feature and even after the second film, James Cameron declared that he was done telling the story he wanted to tell (and the third installment suffered in his absence). They don’t have the same pop-culture cachet as Star Trek or Star Wars, but have twined themselves into popular culture more subtly. Skynet? Cyberdyne? Pity the poor bastard born in the late 70s with the name “Sarah Connor” or “John Connor”.
The films follow a simple formula: a cyborg antagonist is sent back in time to kill John or Sarah, a protagonist is sent back in time to protect them. A series of chases and escapes occur, leading up to the climactic battle in which the antagonist is defeated and the protagonist sacrifices himself. John and/or Sarah then contemplate the inevitability of fate. Structurally, the three films are nearly identical.
Although not originally planned as a trilogy, they come together thematically as an overall story, even while the general plot of each film is very similar. The first film is about Sarah and Kyle, the second about Sarah and John, the third about John and Kate. It’s a progression, passing the torch of resistance down a generation. The transformation of Sarah between the first and second films is staggering, changing from a plain and shy girl with a dead end job into a hard and driven woman pursuing a mission.
The character of the Terminator itself conceptually follows an interesting meme of 80’s films, particularly the sci-fi action sub-genre. Terminator, Predator, and Alien revolve around the idea of an unstoppable killing machine that never sleeps, never hesitates, feels no mercy. They are birthed by a universe that dwarfs human experience, a hostile cosmos and future in which we have little chance of surviving. Horror of the decade is similar: Jason, Freddie, Michael Meyers. Humanity is but grist, helpless before the anthropomorphized darkness. Explaining what that repeated archetype says about 1980’s America is a pretentious dissertation called Cthulhu Incarnate just waiting to be written.
The theme music has made its mark similar to the Star Wars themes, although less pronounced. Most people probably couldn’t summon to memory the theme music to Terminator if asked on the spot, but the instant the repeated five bass beats struck at the beginning of the first teaser for Terminator Salavation you knew that it was for a Terminator film. The haunting electronic reeds that whistle under the bass beats play as a dirge to the coming apocalypse throughout the films.
The overall theme layered beneath the running and explosions is the nature of fate. “No fate but what we make for ourselves” is the epitaph on Sarah’s grave in the third film. All three films are battles against fate, against an inevitable and horrific future. The irony of course is that the fight against fate is often what allows that fate to unfold. The debris of the Terminator is the basis for the research into creating the first terminators. Skynet is given control of our defense systems in order to combat a virus, which is actually Skynet itself. The time travel device central to the films takes on the form of a snake eating its own tail.
There are three general types of time-travel in films. The many worlds scenario: when you go back in time, everything can be changed, the future that you come from either did not happen once you go back in time or the universe branches off into many disparate timelines. The single-world scenario: the universe is tied into a knot. It is possible to become one’s own father. The single world scenario (retarded version): anything in “Heroes,” Austin Powers, or Back to the Future. The Terminator films subscribe to the second philosophy, the most complex and interesting one. The past cannot be changed not because we do not have free will, but because we have already changed it. It takes a mental leap to conceptualize the paradox of this type of time travel. Someone living in two dimensions will look at a knot and say that it is an impossible construct, because you can’t tie a two-dimensional knot without a third dimension. Time travel is like that, the timeline tied into a knot of four dimensions, an impossible construct without a fifth dimension.
So how do the films hold up after all this time? Terminator is clearly the entry in the series that shows its age the most. It was a fairly low budget affair and after more than two decades the seams of the special effects do show. Six and a half million dollars in 1984 wasn’t exactly a shoestring, but the roughly contemporary Star Trek III and Return of the Jedi had budgets three and five times that, respectively. The laser fire in the future scenes is awfully fake looking, the robot scenes get kind of jerky with the stop motion, and at times the rubber model for Arnold’s face is obviously a rubber model. The second two films fare much better in the special effects department, holding up perfectly well to this day. Terminator 2’s liquid metal effect remains as convincing today as it did back in 1991.
The third film is the weakest of the bunch because it buys into the structure without bringing anything terribly new to the table, lurching from set piece to set piece. It certainly has quiet moments worth seeing, but it too often lets Arnold’s Terminator be the main character instead of Nick Stahl’s John.
These are still very good films and worth watching before Terminator: Salvation if it’s been a while, or if you’ve never seen them in the first place. Definitely see the first two at least once, they’re landmark science fiction films. The third one isn’t critical, but it has its moments.
“Maybe the future has been written. I don’t know. All I know is what the Terminator taught me. Never stop fighting. And I never will. The battle has just begun.” — John Connor
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.