The sci-fi action film celebrates 30 years at the top of the genre - not one film has stepped up to usurp it from its throne over the past 3 decades
In 1984, director James Cameron released an action sci-fi film that revolutionised the genre for years to come. The film, The Terminator wasn’t particularly meant to be a mainstream blockbuster, it was essentially an R-rated indie film on a limited budget of just $6 million. Arnold Schwarzenegger had initially been considered for the role of Kyle Resse until James Cameron decided to cast him as T-800, the cyborg assassin from the future. The role of Kyle Reese eventually went to Michael Beihn, while Linda Hamilton was cast as Sarah Connor. Hamilton is the only actor other than Schwarzenegger to appear in at least 3 Terminator films. The first film exceeded expectations and became a classic which catapulted Schwarzenegger to stardom and was the stepping stone for James Cameron to being recognised as one of the finest directors in Hollywood. A stoic robot was the perfect role for Schwarzenegger as he looked and sounded the part.
What nobody expected was the sequel to a movie which most people expected to be another B-grade film, to actually have a bigger impact worldwide than the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Episode (V). Terminator 2: Judgement Day went to become one of the most popular films ever made across the globe. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with a name, a thick accent, and a physique that Hollywood filmmakers did not appreciate went on to become one of the most bankable stars in the 90s. The movie had more room for creativity, grandesque action sequences and special effects, thanks to a higher budget allocation. The challenge for the movie was how to improve on the original when the first film already seemed to have a very definitive ending, in a story about a cyborg assassin from the future to kill Sarah Connor.
For this purpose, James Cameron dipped into his original idea for the first film about not one, but two cyborgs from the future, which was abandoned in the first film in favour of Kyle Reese. The decision to include Kyle Reese as the saviour from the future in the first film as the shield between T-800 and Sarah Connor added emotional depth to the film which further elevated the film from being another generic story about an indestructible killer on a mission to kill the female lead, akin to films like Halloween. The Terminator however, had well developed characters, much higher stakes, and a very logical explanation as to why the killer is after the heroine and why he is indestructible.
In Terminator 2: Judgement, had a very unique challenge as to create a fresh obstacles for the protagonists. Repeating the same formula from the first movie would have made the story stale, and might have reduced the film to yet another generic sequel. This was where James Cameron’s ingenuity worked a charm; he decided to introduce the T-1000, a newer, sleeker, shapeshifting cyborg. Schwarzenegger returns as the T-800 from the future, but this time to protect Sarah’s son John Connor. This carefully crafted narrative distinguished the film in many ways. It even explored themes of humanity in artificial intelligence subtly ingrained in a sci-fi action blockbuster. Linda Hamilton returned as Sarah Connor, but was no longer the ‘damsel in distress’.
The film had more than 10 times the budget of the first film, which enabled James Cameron to fund the special effects for the T-1000’s shapeshifting abilities. Patrick Roberts' turn as the new antagonist is widely regarded as one more terrifying villain from the 90s. The T-1000’s abilities and functions were superior to the T-800’s. These finer details upped the ante and played perfectly into the idea of how the heroes did everything in their power to prevent an apocalypse caused by an AI called Skynet. This post-apocalyptic world was hardly featured in either movies, and fans were naturally eager to immerse themselves in the fascinating story of the Terminator franchise.
Unfortunately, the films that followed just could not live up the expectations or standards of the first two, especially with the departure of James Cameron from the franchise. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, Terminator: Genisys, and Terminator: Dark Fate were received with mixed responses from fans and critics alike, with Terminator Genisys being least impressive despite having an excellent ensemble of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, and J K Simmons. However, an argument could be made that Terminator: Salvation, starring Christian Bale, and Terminator: Dark Fate, starring a returning Linda Hamilton were decent films on their own, but were unfortunately burdened with the truly exceptional first two films. In fact Dark Fate was originally envisioned to be the first film of a new trilogy, which has since been put on hold as a result of its underwhelming performance at the box office.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day remains the best in the franchise to this day, 30 years after its release. It is, in fact, one of the best dystopian sci-fi stories ever told on the silver screen.