Why Terminator is the greatest science fiction franchise ever, and James Cameron is a genius

Terminator: Genisys comes to theaters TODAY.  James Cameron wrote and directed the original 1984 movie Terminator with Gale Ann Hurd. The original film stars Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cameron hasn’t directed a Terminator movie since 1991’s Judgment Day, and none of the subsequent three Terminator films have quite matched his original two. But movie quality  is not what makes Terminator science fiction’s most brilliant franchise. Cameron and Heard created a genius storyline. Let me break it down:

In the future, machines reduce the human race to rubble. An uberpowerful corporation called Skynet built intelligent machines, which became self- aware. The machines turned against humans. The humans call the day machines took over Judgment Day. John Connor, leader of the human Resistance, poses the greatest threat to the machines. Luckily, before Skynet became self- aware, time travel was invented. The machines send the Terminator back in time to assassinate Connor’s mother, Sarah, and prevent John’s birth. John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah and ensure his existence.

Here’s why the setup works so brilliantly:

  1. Judgment Day is never actually prevented- just postponed. This gives the films the opportunity to repeatedly postpone Judgment Day (and repeatedly make more films).
  2. Time travel. Time travel gives the Terminator characters a command-Z button on their entire world. For this reason, the main characters, Sarah, John and Kyle, can appear in every movie.  Audiences like familiar characters. Which brings me to…
  3. The original Terminator character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator is a machine, after all, and machines can be programmed.  Arnold plays the bad guy in Terminator 1; he does a total 180 and becomes John Connor’s protector in T-2. In Genisys, he acts as Sarah Connor’s father figure. Arnold is the most memorable actor from the film’s franchise.  Because he plays a machine, even if one model dies, he can show up again as another model.  Audiences like that, too.
  4. The time- travel feature has several really convenient effects. First, clothes can’t time travel, so time travelers arrive at their destination naked. This both makes logical sense and allows nudity, usually of physically fit people.  People like this.  Second, time travel allows the Terminator franchise to explore post- apocalyptic, ulta science- fiction-y world, and our own world- which, again, audiences relate to.

Time travel also opens up a bunch of questions about paradoxes and wormholes, which create potential plot holes, but we’ll just ignore those for now.The post- apocalyptic, ultra science fiction-y world takes place in the startlingly near future, making the threat of machine apocalypse extra scary.

5. Skynet represents an intangible force the good guys can never fully stop. They become locked in an eternal struggle, which means eternal movies.

6. The T-1000. The T-1000 can take almost any shape and practically nothing can stop it. The T-1000 is pretty much the scariest opponent ever.

7. Sarah Connor.  Sarah Connor’s character is dynamic- she appears differently depending on which version of the future she’s been exposed to. Sarah never lives to see this future, but her integral role in John Connor’s birth makes her an indispensable part of it.  This also gives the franchise a strong female lead, which girls like.

These plot features put the Terminator movies on a loop. Each movie poses its own unique threats, but the general outline allows familiarity, risk, and recurrence. Each movie finds a way to play on audience’s current tastes, making it versatile, but each movie has the same backstory, making it familiar. Genysis marks the fifth movie in thirty years, but even though most of the films have different actors and similar plots, none of the movies could be considered remakes.

To top it off, Terminator incorporates almost all the elements of a perfect apocalypse movie: Overlord organization. Intelligent machines. Nuclear apocalypse. Struggle between man and machine. Time travel. Action heroes.

Terminator kicks butt.


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