August 4, 1997, marked a progressive singularity in world history as humanity is introduced to the future – Skynet. Skynet, the most sophisticated military defense program designed to protect us against enemy invasions, begins to learn at a geometric rate thus making human decisions over strategic defense obsolete. In short, the machine was learning how to think.
Our faith in our protectors was misplaced.
August 29, 1997, a day marked by infamy, Skynet becomes completely self-aware and takes over. Panicking, humanity tries to pull the plug, and acting upon its own sentience Skynet fights back. Launching nukes at strategic targets thus ensuring counterattacks, the world is quickly incinerated under the neon plume of a nuclear holocaust.
This date became known as Judgment Day.
Human beings fly apart like paper in the ensuing heat and millions of lives are washed away in the rolling inferno flowing across busy city streets.
Survivors of Judgement Day rose up from the ashes to face a dire new world entirely unrecognizable from what we all once called home. Major metropolitan societies were rendered to little more than cement husks tiled with human skulls scattered about ashen streets.
And into this dystopian landscape marched armies of Skynet’s lethal soldiers, machines with one goal in mind – the eradication of all human life.
The war for humanity’s survival was on.
The Ancient Future Past
This is the background to Jim Cameron’s (Aliens, The Abyss, Avatar) colossally successful (first two) Terminator films. I’ll go on record to say Terminator 2 has one of the best opening scenes of all time. One that unexpectedly crashes into our senses like a dump truck being rammed by an express train. It sets the tone for what is nothing short of a diesel fueled adrenaline rush of tense action.
We’re shown the mundane daily activity of a crawl-and-go highway down in L.A (and oh God have I sat in that enough times in my life). Children play at a park and people wait at crosswalks. It’s so average. That’s what makes it so haunting and permanent in our subconscious. Cameron shows us ourselves, caught in traffic, going to work or going shopping, or home. Of children’s innocence and parents’ naivety. No one was on edge and no one expected the nukes to fall. We are then immediately shown the ‘current’ world, a post Judgement Day planet.
Two stark contrasts of the same locations. However, one is pre-catastrophe and the other is post holocaust.
It all happens in a biblical sense, in the twinkling of an eye, or as a thief in the night, and no one was ready to face the end. It just happens.
Giving us the parallel of both these different worlds forced to inhabit the same planet engages us and we are shown how much we have to lose. For an action film, it pushes some poignant topics we should not take lightly.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was my favorite movie growing up. It blew my little 11 year-old mind away. It is a metal powerhouse of rioting steel blasting apart cement walls, tipping over 18-wheelers, and face ripping brawls as two future machines battle for the fate of humanity. Back then I thought it was genius! And now, so many decades later, I’m still struck (right in the jaw) by how intensely brilliant it still is. T2 just works!
The Lore of Man’s Folly
I’ve been in a real Terminator kick lately. I just watched every single movie in the franchise and without bias, I can say all the movies suck after T2: Judgment Day. Ok you may think I’m being biased but I really wanted to like all the other films.
But let’s be honest. At the end of T2 they left no room for error. They won! They completely defeated Cyberdine, and thus, Skynet, from ever having a chance of existing. Without Skynet there would be no Terminators. So how the Hell can they justify any sequels?
Well you know the message behind T2? Sarah’s “No Fate But What We Make” bit? Well fuck that, kiddies! Let’s ignore it and that’s how sequels can be made. So already they begin doing the unholy sin of fan-based cinema. They start screwing with the rules and messing with the lore.
Because of that none of the films manage to capture or echo the themes and plight or even the tension of the first two movies. As a matter of fact the newest film, Terminator: Dark Fate is an insult to the victorious sacrifice of the 2nd movie.
In fact, it makes the tough decisions made in T2 obsolete. But only if you allow yourself to consider T: Dark Fate canon. And honestly, given the warped time-traveling alternate universe nexus this franchise’s timeline now suffers from it’s your pick to choose what is canon or not.
I grew up with Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, so to me, those two are the franchise. Everything else that followed is weird fan fiction that serves more like a bizarre Apocrypha to the original lore. Fun to explore and suppose may have happened, but not worthy enough to be considered canon.
What Cameron understood – and what follow-up film-makers never learned as they copied his stuff – was the imperfection of humanity and how it engages us.
Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) is not our first choice as the mother of humanity’s savior. She’s working a shitty job and lives to party all night long come every Friday. There’s not one thing about her to mark her as extraordinary.
She has no illusions of grandeur until her future comes back to the past to alter her own timeline. Her little life is thrown off course and she must now prepare to face a very terrifying future that she was not ready for.
The genius of the first movie is in what Sarah Connor is not! She’s not an action star. She’s a waitress of Big Boy (or whatdafuckever it was called) and had Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) not shown up to save her she’d been dead. She couldn’t protect herself. It was all about her vulnerability and her need to grow.
John Connor (Edward Furlong), as we’re introduced to him in T2, is a delinquent and hardly a role model. He’s a shitty punk-ass kid who is a fuck up. You know, just like we all were back in the early ‘90s. He hangs out with his best friend at an arcade and doesn’t talk or act like some kind of future savior.
It’s the sort of thing other directors would have tripped all over. They’d have made him somehow messianic and special. Yeah, I’m looking right at George Lucas. Now hear me out. George Lucas was trying to tell a very similar story when he made those Jar Jar fucktastic prequels. He turned Anakin into space Jesus.
Now imagine if Anakin had just been some guy, someone newly married to his wife, a family guy with a mean streak for flying fast and being a cocky son of a bitch who just happened to have Force sensitivity. Someone we could sit and have a beer with. Giving us a human being to follow would have made those prequels way more engaging. It would have made his fall to the Dark Side way more devastating.
You see the thing that make us love our heroes so much is the silent humanity backing them. We can relate to them and that’s how they become timeless.
You look at little John Connor and you’re not supposed to think ‘hey! that there is the future savior!’ No, you just see a kid who goes hot rodding on his motor bike and flips off his foster parents. We could get into a lot of trouble if we hung out with him in middle school and that makes him cool.
Do you think he can save himself from a Terminator? Of fucking course not!
Our heroes are completely human! In a movie about an impending war set in the future and filled with high octane action sequences so hot it burns our eye lids away the human plot is not only never lost but fucking drives the movie on to victory!
That’s something a whole lot of other big-budget sci-fi action films really screw up. Yeah, that’s right I mean you, Godzilla vs. Kong you waste of potential.
Instead of shoehorning a few unbearable characters between CGI action sets and loud explosions, Cameron lets the pacing breath while thrilling us the whole time. We have a connection with who are heroes are and truly get a sense of the danger enveloping them. Their consequences have real value to us.
I never got that feeling for anyone in the following Terminator films.
Crafting Well-Known Lore For A New World
Cameron takes the Messiah narrative and retells it as a post-modern dark sci-fi action film. And because of our heroes’ genuine humanity, even a heartless/soulless machine like the T-800 cannot help to become more humanized by association.
By essence it is secretly a story of redemption, or, of a cold machine gaining a human heart. Connor is able to redeem his T-800 guardian from its murderous programming.
One of the most endearing moments in the film is when John and the Terminator are playing high five. The two bond over fixing a truck and the same kind of machine that was sent back once to kill him before his birth, now becomes the father John never had. That’s master-class story telling and holy shit it hits us on the subconscious level.
It’s not about the GREAT BIG ACTION FILM WHOOOOOOOO but all about the value of human life. Even the Terminator, a machine built to kill all human existence, can learns how to love and grieve. A Terminator learned this kind of compassion by hanging out with that little punk ass kid.
And by this, we sit back and accept that, yeah, John Connor is a natural-born leader. His charisma is off the charts. If he can make a Terminator human then he can lead us to victory over those who want to terminate us.
In the world we’re now living in we could use that kind of charisma. When people replace their hearts of flesh for a cold core – selfishly driven, programmed only to focus on their own needs while ignoring the plight of those around us -and when we see people becoming more and more machine like we need a revolutionary jolt of humanity.
2 thoughts on “The Genius Behind Cameron’s Original Terminator Films”
It looks like a man but it’s a what? And it’s here to single-handedly destroy humanity!
The lightning bolts, the arm, and of course, the dogs.
Howard Hawks’ THE THING (1951)
TERMINATOR was a great remake!
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Herb Trimpe, the legendary comic book artist, gave us his TRUTH:
“That which does not add to a story takes away from it.”
And you wondered why Cameron left Terminator after T2? And Karloff left FRANKENSTEIN after “Son of”?
Now you know!