The Terminator (1984)
Sadly, the originator of the franchise has not aged well. Not only was it made in the '80s - and has a nightclub scene that is soooo '80s - it was made as a low-budget B-grade film, and it shows. There's a rushed, somewhat cheap feel to it that's a far cry from James Cameron's later oeuvre; the action scenes aren't particularly inventive, and the acting feels like Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn had little time to really get into their roles. And somewhat jarringly, Arnold Schwarzenegger hadn't quite mastered that robotic emotionlessness yet.
But what shines through it all is the relentlessness and laser-sharp focus of the story. A near-indestructible robot wants to kill Sarah Connor, and although he comes from the same future, Kyle Reese seems woefully ill-equipped to protect her. In Reese's words, "it can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." The movie is basically one long chase scene, and every time Sarah seems to have found safety, the Terminator brutally shatters that illusion. A police station full of armed officers doesn't stop it; and later, when Sarah and Kyle think they've found a safe hiding place, it uses a voice-mimicking ability to find them again in one of the film's most chilling scenes.
It's a deceptively simple formula - unstoppable bad guy chases good guys - yet it's terrifically well-executed. It's no surprise that it became a sleeper hit back in 1984, more so when it left the cinema circuit and became a bona fide blockbuster on home video. If you can overlook the dated and low-budget look of the film, you still get a suspenseful and thrilling action movie that at times comes close to horror. It's an early indicator of Cameron's mastery of combining suspense, action, plot, and characters you care about.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Ladies and gentlemen, here is a true classic. In 50 years, movie buffs will still be raving about this film and holding it up as a near-flawless example of the action genre. It even has the distinction of being one of the very few film sequels that's better than the original.
James Cameron returned to helm this film fresh from what he learned making Aliens and The Abyss, and he learned all the right lessons. Not only did he have a budget of more than 10 times the first movie, he also brought a wealth of new ideas, new SFX techniques, and a keen sense of how to make a sequel that's true to the original yet takes us in new and unexpected directions. Thus, the villainous T-800 played by Schwarzenegger in the original is now the protector of Sarah Connor and her son John, and the bad guy is the T-1000 played by the far less physically imposing Robert Patrick.
Whoa boy, the T-1000. Gotta be up there amongst the greatest movie villains of all time. Made of "liquid metal", realized with then-pioneering CGI effects, and not only visually spectacular but used in fantastically inventive ways. From the various killing instruments it forms with its hands, to the scene where it literally rises up from the floor, the T-1000 is the epitome of SFX used in service of the story. It's cool, it's scary, and it's even more unstoppable - the T-800 seems as helpless before it as Kyle Reese from the first film.
And still it doesn't go the easy route and stick to the "one long chase scene" structure of the original. Sarah Connor, now a driven, traumatised woman, finds an opportunity to destroy the supercomputer Skynet and prevent the human-machine future war that started the whole thing from ever occuring. But it's her young son John who forms a bond with their robot protector and pulls her back from becoming a conscienceless killing machine herself. The plot is broader, and there's far greater emotional dimension here, competently performed by the actors - Edward Furlong overacts a little, but Linda Hamilton has never been better. There's a scene late in the film when the heroes go to the Cyberdyne offices, and she approaches the night guard with an utterly sweet and friendly smile... right before she whips the gun out. Now that's acting.
I can't say enough good things about this film. And the only bad thing I can think of is that the most commonly found version is the Director's Cut, with 15 minutes of additional footage. The film is slightly better without it - they're mostly character scenes and plot exposition that only slows down the pace a little without adding much. Bottom line, if you haven't seen this yet you are missing out, folks. And if you can watch it and not like it, you need never watch another action movie ever again. The entire genre simply isn't for you.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Cameron wanted to end Terminator 2 with a coda that definitively ended the series - Judgment Day is averted, mankind is saved, and John and Sarah Connor live to ripe old ages. But producer Mario Kassar saw the possibility of more sequels, and so we have this second one - which Cameron wasn't involved with. And boy, does it show.
The early scene with Arnold and the starry sunglasses is a huge WTF - what possessed director Jonathan Mostow and his screenwriters to parody its beloved predecessor like that, we'll never know. The film largely takes itself seriously after that scene, but the damage was done - Terminator fans always cite this scene as the suckiest thing about this third film. It's not, unfortunately - the suckiest thing about it is that there's so little of the inventiveness and creativity of the first sequel.
Take the Terminatrix; having the new villain be a female Terminator seems like a natural idea, but she simply isn't as cool as the T-1000 - or even the T-800 from the first film. She has a liquid metal exterior, so she can disguise herself; she has built-in energy weapons in her hands; she can infect other machines with viruses and remote control them; and all these merely give the impression that the movie is trying too hard to make her badass. Kristanna Loken tries to inject some wicked cattiness into her performance, but gets few opportunities - she looks mean, and that's all she's good for.
I suspect a lot of cutting was done to the film and the screenplay, especially of John Connor's scenes. There are hints of a character arc for him, a transformation from a loner running away from his destiny to the leader of mankind he will ultimately become. As it is, there's barely any meat to this subplot, and Nick Stahl's milquetoast performance doesn't help - Sarah Connor's boy was never this wussy. Claire Danes doesn't impress either. It's a far more shallow film than its predecessor, and ends up feeling less like a sequel and more like a rehash - even its story beats are almost identical.
Until we get to the ending; and that's where this film earns what little goodwill it has from fans. It's pretty daring, despite being incompatible with the "the future is not set" theme of the first two films. I pretty much hated this film when I first saw it, but I've since relaxed my views. It's an effectively thrilling action movie, and the crane chase scene is still really well done. It suffers only in comparison to its predecessors; one of which, unfortunately for Mostow, is one of the best sequels ever. It may have been unfair to expect this one to be as much better than T2 as T2 was better than The Terminator - but couldn't it at least have been as good as T2? I think it could have and should have been.
Somewhere in an alternate universe, James Cameron came back to the Terminator franchise and made T3 and T4 every bit as good as the first two. But then again, I'm pretty sure that there's also an alternate universe in which not even Cameron could live up to the success of the first two. Such are the perils of making a sequel to not just one, but two really really good movies - they rarely ever live up to expectations. I'll be keeping that in mind when I watch Terminator: Salvation - I'll do my best to give McG a fair go.