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Changing Fates: Plotting the Shapeshifting, Timeline-Jumping ‘Terminator’ Franchise

Looking back on the mega-blockuster movies defined by murder robots, Guns N’ Roses, and a commitment to shooting your shot—literally

Ringer illustration

Nobody in the ’90s did better acting than Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day repeatedly pretending to be shot. Patrick, as you and millions of Guns N’ Roses fans may recall, played the T-1000, an (almost) indestructible murder robot from the future who, on account of being made of (basically) liquid metal, could heal instantly and was therefore impervious to gunshots. Which did not deter anyone else in T2, James Cameron’s ungodly-blockbuster 1991 sequel to his only relatively modest 1984 hit The Terminator, from shooting him constantly. There ain’t no movie—and no franchise—if they don’t.

Blam, therefore, goes the shotgun. Blam blam blam blam. And the T-1000 would simply stagger backward a few steps, with perhaps a quick irritated flail of the arms and a nifty li’l bloop of ’90s CGI as the wound closed up, and then charge forward again, armored by Patrick’s chilling, emotionless, liquid-steely-eyed glower, looking very much like the sort of person who’d start a brawl at a children’s soccer game. Just an astounding physical performance, like Fred Astaire or Charlie Chaplin except with, y’know, murder robots from the future.

Most of the time the T-1000 got shot by the T-800, an earlier-model future murder robot played by franchise linchpin and (real-world) future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who served as The Terminator’s (almost) indestructible villain only to be reprogrammed in the sequel to be the hero. (The second-best acting anybody did in the ’90s was the way Schwarzenegger reloads a shotgun by twirling it one-handed.) The Terminator empire’s overarching plot involves nuclear war, a dystopian-future battle royale between humans and sentient murder robots, time travel, and, as the situation grew more desperate in subsequent films—for the screenwriters, not humanity—alternate realities. But really the whole point of this enterprise, then and now, is to watch dead-eyed, super-muscular, scary-beautiful people just absolutely whoop the bejesus out of one another, bludgeoning and shredding and incinerating and shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting.

T2, which was both hailed and derided in 1991 as the most expensive movie ever made, grossed half a billion dollars worldwide and got GNR’s “You Could Be Mine” stuck in my head for the rest of my life and in fact reigned as the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever for more than a decade before gracefully ceding the crown to 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. A lavish franchise was born, perplexing and unkillable and inhuman, discarding for the next three installments even James Cameron himself. On Friday, the sixth film, Terminator: Dark Fate, hits theaters, directed by Deadpool’s Tim Miller and coproduced by Cameron, in his glorious return to the fold. This sequence of films does not map cleanly onto the sequel-reboot-remake spectrum, such that this new movie’s sassy Forbes review is headlined “Terminator: Dark Fate Is the Second-Best Terminator 3.” Think of it more as a constant, exorbitant, ultraviolent, mesmerizing, and bizarrely soothing reloading.

Terminator: Dark Fate stars a scary-muscular Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, and an apparently immortal Schwarzenegger, the focal point of every previous installment save the fourth, 2009’s Terminator Salvation, which settled for a brief, corny “digital-effects version” of the actor on account of his being governor of California at the time. But the most crucial presence here is Linda Hamilton, finally reprising her role as Sarah Connor, a whimsical damsel in distress in the original Terminator reborn in T2 as a scary-muscular action superheroine who stole the movie and had the good sense to sidestep any digital-effects-version tomfoolery and lend only her voice, if that, to the next three relatively wobbly sequels. (Or reboots, or remakes, or whatever.)

The various ineffective gunshots and whoopings and explosions aside, Hamilton provides the Dark Fate trailer’s true fireworks, investing even one of the franchise’s many goofball Ahhhnold clichés (“I’ll be back”) with droll gravitas. These movies are very loud and stupendously macho (even when the murder robot is technically female) and increasingly confusing. A beating heart, in the literal or metaphorical sense, is hard to come by. Which doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been there, or that our heroes—man and machine, in front of and behind the camera—don’t keep trying to find it. Shooters shoot. And shoot. And shoot.

So. The plot. Let’s do our best to simplify this, even if the franchise, as it has lumbered on imperviously, has not. The original 1984 Terminator, directed by Cameron (who cowrote the script with his first wife, Gale Anne Hurd), unfolds as follows. It is 2029, in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. “The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire,” we are informed, in text superimposed over video-arcade rad footage of robot tanks shooting pew-pew-pew purple lasers and rumbling over piles of human skulls. “Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present.”

The humans are led by a plucky young resistance leader named John Connor, a figure formidable enough that the machines decide to send a murder robot, a.k.a. a Terminator, a.k.a. a T-800, a.k.a. Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time, to 1984, to assassinate John’s mother, Sarah, so that he is never born and there is therefore no human resistance at all. The humans, in turn, send a plucky young soldier named Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn) back in time to protect Sarah, which he does, in addition to falling in love with, making alarmingly soulful cheap-motel love to, and thereby impregnating Sarah, with John Connor, which raises the question of how John even exists in the robot-war future if he has to send somebody back in time to bang his mother in the present to ensure his conception in the past, and yeah OK we didn’t do so hot a job simplifying this. Anyway the T-800 is programmed to look and act like a normal human, and this movie’s at its best when we get a sense of the murder robot’s UI.

The Terminator also pulls its own eye out with a scalpel. (Love the towel.) More than any other action mega-franchise that flowered in the ’80s—be it Rambo or Predator or Alien—the Terminator movies are defined by the pricey special-effects wizardry available to them, and the first movie is awfully charming in its 1984-assedness, from the hokey Emperor Palpatine lightning that precedes a time-traveler’s arrival to the (relatively) low-budget flash-cutting of the action, a pleasing nightclub-shootout-into-car-chase jumble that never gets fancy enough to cede its humanity. (The Terminator’s first order of business: Look Sarah Connor up in the phone book.) I would tell you that Biehn, despite being a longtime James Cameron cohort, is not quite a magnetic enough presence to pull off the action-hero thing, but recently my wife casually remarked that back in the day she quite liked the myriad scenes in which he is shirtless, so never mind.

Nonetheless, the movie belongs to Schwarzenegger (his fundamental wooden-ness a perfect means through which to express the Terminator’s murder-roboticness) and Hamilton, here a quirky ’80s youth with majestic leonine hair and a pet iguana and a gently firm way of cutting through the sci-fi disorientation of it all: “You’re talking about things I haven’t done yet in the past tense,” she complains, heroically. “It’s driving me crazy.” The righteous finale takes place in one of those factories that exist only to manufacture action-movie finales, but it’s Hamilton’s (heroic) bewilderment that lingers: “Do I look like the mother of the future? Am I tough? Organized? I can’t even balance my checkbook.”

Cut to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which finds her pounding out chin-ups in a mental institution and inducing pure terror even when she, herself, is experiencing pure terror. The blood-freezing look on her face when she first catches sight of Schwarzenegger before realizing he’s the good guy this time. Her straight-horror-movie future vision of Judgment Day itself, when the American military turns its nuclear arsenal over to the foolhardy A.I. project known as Skynet, a.k.a. the machines, which promptly launch all the nukes and kill 3 billion people, triggering the Robots vs. Humans war that necessitates all this time travel in the first place. Her just as harrowing sniper attack on the oblivious scientist who will one day be responsible for Skynet, and by extension the scientist’s family.

T2 is very possibly the single best action movie of the 1990s from the moment Patrick jumps a truck off a bridge; his rapport with Schwarzenegger, if you can call it that, is brutal and phenomenal, a vicious two-hour-plus symphony of shotgun blasts and wall-smashing fistfights. (This time, having failed to kill Sarah, the robots send a Terminator back in time to kill a teenaged John Connor himself, played by Edward Furlong as a sort of live-action Bart Simpson who teaches Schwarzenegger to say no problemo and dickwad and hasta la vista, baby, and so forth but is mercifully not onscreen just long enough to not be terminally annoying.) The special effects, at least to a 1991 teenager, were just stupefyingly awesome: same concept and maybe even same factory, but it all looked like, well, more than 100 million bucks. Final grade:

Hamilton hated that part of the ending, BTW. “One of the first things I asked Linda is, ‘How do you feel about the thumbs-up moment?’” Dark Fate director Miller told the CinemaBlend podcast this week. “And she’s like, ‘No.’ And I went, ‘OK, we’re going to be fine.’” The presence you feel most tangibly, in revisiting the next three Terminator flicks, is the absence of both Hamilton (save a few of Sarah’s tape-recorded diary entries) and Cameron. It took a dozen years for Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines to materialize in 2003, and its relationship with the first two movies is both antagonistic and hopelessly symbiotic. The Evil Terminator is now an extra-wooden Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken), and a grown John Connor is now played by Nick Stahl, and Claire Danes has wandered on set somehow as John’s (future) wife Kate Brewster and sounds none too comfortable shouting lines like, “Just die, you bitch!”

Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, is once again the Good Terminator, but is more or less stuck reenacting T2 as a comedy, down to the individual beats of his find a biker bar and steal some clothes arrival. This time he unwittingly steals clothes from a male stripper, see. This time his sunglasses are Elton John joke sunglasses, see. “Talk to the hand,” see. The movie’s one consistent joke is to make Arnold explain all the science stuff and paper over all the plot holes. It falls to him, then, to inform us that the Terminatrix is equipped with “nanotechnological transjectors.” Furthermore: “My database does not encompass the dynamics of human pair bonding.” Furthermore: “The TX is polymimetic, able to take the form of anything it touches,” he informs Claire Danes. “Your fiancée is dead.”

If you ever wanted to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger clock a lady with a urinal, here you go; as for the plot, which involves the further prevention (and possible inevitability) of Judgment Day, the movie-to-movie narrative is now perilously frayed, this chapter at least less a continued narrative at all than a downer-ending remix. The elements are all there: time travel, nuclear holocaust, murder robots, human resilience, dope car chases, and another blockbuster budget increasingly devoted to Schwarzenegger himself. But there’s no distinction between evolution and nostalgic regression. Most Terminator movies end by delivering a voice-over thesis along the lines of “There is no fate but what we make,” but it is dispiriting to reflect on how close that sentiment comes to We are making this shit up as we go along, an especially dispiriting state of affairs when the we keeps changing.

To wit, 2009’s Terminator Salvation is directed by 2000s-core popcorn-flick auteur McG and shuffles the actor deck yet again: John Connor is now Christian Bale (!), his wife Kate is now Bryce Dallas Howard, and Anton Yelchin brings our friend Kyle Reese back to the party. This is the first Terminator movie set mostly in the post–Judgment Day future, with Sam Worthington bridging the gap as a pre-apocalypse death row inmate who signs his body away to Helena Bonham Carter (it’s a paycheck) and wakes up post-lethal injection uncertain as to where or what he is. See if you can guess.

Salvation has, to its credit, the slickest and shall we say badassest action sequences outside of T2 itself; the bigger the murder robot the better, man. Nothing Bale says in this movie is half as memorable as his infamous lambasting of a hapless crew member, but he and Worthington manage to radiate enough glowering virile prestige to keep Schwarzenegger’s absence from ruining everything, even if the time-travel plot convolutions keep piling up. “You and me,” Bale tells Worthington. “We’ve been at war since before either of us even existed.” Not really, though, and both these dudes are now long gone.

Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys, an actually huge hit in 2015, is nonetheless the worst Terminator movie by a huge margin, an attempted full reboot that quadruples down on the whole time-travel thing to the point of total incoherence. Jason Clarke is now John Connor, and Emilia Clarke (no relation; she’s not one for onscreen incest) is now Sarah Connor, and Jai Courtney is now Kyle Reese, sent back in time by John to protect Sarah from the Terminator but also, y’know, to, uh, conceive John. The first new wrinkle here is clever enough, if a little literal in the Strong Female Characters sense: As for Sarah, “The time you’re going back to, she won’t be the warrior that raised me, not yet,” John tells Kyle. “She’ll be scared and weak. She won’t know how to fight or defend herself. Her biggest worry is making rent and tuition. She’s a waitress.” But surprise, now it’s Sarah who gets to blurt out one of the franchise’s most enduring clichés.

It is reassuring to have Schwarzenegger back, even if casting a 60-odd-year-old ex-governor as an action hero requires renaming his character “Pops” and giving him a weary new catch phrase: “I’m old, not obsolete.” Moreover, Sarah and Kyle soon jump forward in time to 2017 to prevent Judgment Day, while a now-evil John Connor jumps back in time to meet them, and Schwarzenegger is once again stuck joke-explaining it all: “Alternate timelines are not complicated. It is merely a matter of tracking possible futures using an exponential growth-and-decay algorithm.”

Oh, shut up. J.K. Simmons drops by as a disgraced conspiracy-theorist detective and does what he can: “What’s going on has to be real, real complicated,” he observes. And Genisys, if you were curious (don’t be), is basically Skynet in disguise as the iPhone-esque operating system now set to cause Judgment Day, an acknowledgment that in the future, machines will rule humans is one aspect of the future the Terminator franchise unfortunately got right. I understood, grimly, why the newest evil Terminator tells the original Terminator that “you are nothing but a relic from a deleted timeline”; I do not understand why the movie ends with Kyle Reese talking to himself as a child. But the bonkers box office notwithstanding, this timeline, also, has since been mercifully deleted.

The hook for Dark Fate—and it’s a sharp hook indeed—is that the past three movies no longer exist. “Nothing after T2 matters,” Gizmodo rejoices, and there is joy indeed in beholding Linda Hamilton, now 63, holding a shotgun once again. Coaxing her back into the spotlight took a great deal of coaxing indeed: “I love my alone time like no one you’ve ever met,” is how she explained it to the Times in September. Schwarzenegger, whatever iteration of Terminator he is now playing, appears to be living in suspiciously Thanos-esque exile; best-case scenario is this movie gives these characters, at least, the sort of gritty but sentimental sendoff last month’s Rambo: Last Blood intended to give Rambo.

The very poor reception for Last Blood, however, is the worst-case scenario. Dark Fate indeed. The stakes are high. The risk is enormous. And the good news is also the bad news: Whatever happens, for good or ill, it’s always possible in this cinematic universe to wipe the slate eerily clean. There is no psychic wound a Terminator movie can inflict on you, after all, that will not immediately heal.