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Franchise Origins: Terminator

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake

When people think about time travel, robot uprisings, and judgment day, the “Terminator” films immediately come to mind. Today we’ll be going back in time to take a look at the history of the Terminator franchise. While the series has showcased some of the most iconic set pieces and game-changing effects in cinematic history, it’s the meaningful themes, multi-layered characters, and fascinating lore that keep us coming back.

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Script written by Nick Spake

Film Franchise: Terminator


When people think about time travel, robot uprisings, and judgment day, the “Terminator” films immediately come to mind. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we'll be going back in time to take a look at the history of the Terminator franchise.

In addition to five theatrical films, this billion-dollar franchise has inspired video games, comics, novels, TV shows, and amusement park attractions. Above all else, “Terminator” is a textbook example of how action movies can be so much more than shootouts and explosions. While the series has indeed showcased some of the most iconic set pieces and game-changing effects in cinematic history, it’s the meaningful themes, multi-layered characters, and fascinating lore that keep us coming back.

Although James Cameron stands by “Piranha II: The Spawning” as “the best flying piranha movie ever made,” his feature directorial debut didn’t exactly make a splash with critics or audiences. Nevertheless, “Piranha II” played an essential role in launching Cameron’s career. While working on the film in Italy, he had a dream in which a chrome torso dragged itself out of an explosion with kitchen knives. The dream stuck with Cameron as he drew further inspiration from films like “Halloween,” “The Driver,” and “Mad Max 2,” culminating in a script entitled “The Terminator.”

Producer Gale Anne Hurd purchased the rights to “The Terminator” from Cameron for only a dollar. Hurd also made some significant contributions to the screenplay, which centered on a cyborg sent back in time from 2029 to assassinate Sarah Connor, the mother of mankind’s eventual savior. To protect Sarah, a human soldier named Kyle Reese is also sent back to guarantee John Connor is born. The project soon found a home at Orion Pictures with Linda Hamilton as Sarah and Michael Biehn as Reese. Several big names had been suggested to play the T-800, including Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, and – yikes – O.J. Simpson. Cameron saw the most potential in Austrian bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was originally considered for the role of Reese. Although Schwarzenegger previously starred as the titular hero in “Conan the Barbarian,” it was “The Terminator” that elevated him to superstar status. Schwarzenegger was not only physically imposing in the role, but his distinctive delivery made the T-800 an immediate screen icon. Likewise, the film put Cameron on the map as both a director and storyteller. “The Terminator” was one of the most violent films to come out of the 80s with the T-800’s assault on a police station having echoes of real-life mass shootings. At the same time, the film had an affectionate love story at its core, revealing early signs of Cameron’s ability to balance action and emotion. Grossing almost $80 million on a budget of $6.4 million, “The Terminator” was among 1984’s most surprising commercial successes. Although the film left the door open for a sequel, Cameron wouldn’t revisit the franchise for several years. While this was due in part to the franchise’s rights being up in the air, Cameron’s biggest concern was that the technology available hadn’t caught up to his vision. After directing 1989’s “The Abyss,” however, Cameron was given the assurance needed to create the shapeshifting T-1000. For the original “Terminator,” Cameron actually envisioned two cyborgs being sent back in time, one of which would be made of liquid metal. Cameron revisited these concepts in 1991 with “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.”

Released by TriStar Pictures, “T2” was praised for its integration of seamless practical effects and revolutionary computer graphics. Between the death-defying motorcycle chase and the heart-pounding climax, it quickly developed a reputation as one of the greatest sci-fi action movies ever made, if not the best. What’s more, it’s still regarded as a rare sequel that improves upon its predecessor, expanding upon the premise with new twists, innovations, and characters. The film marked a charismatic debut from Edward Furlong as a young John Connor and a chilling turn from Robert Patrick as the T-1000. As Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton transformed from a scared yet capable woman to an all-around badass, becoming a feminist icon for generations to come. Schwarzenegger went through a major transformation as well, evolving from Sarah’s worst nightmare to her sworn protector. Although “The Terminator” films are largely about the dangers of technology, the bond Arnold’s T-800 develops with the Connors also demonstrates the value of artificial intelligence, suggesting that mortality can be found even in a machine. Becoming the highest-grossing film of 1991 and winning four Academy Awards, “T2” set a new standard for the franchise that would sadly never be topped.

While Cameron teased another “Terminator” for years, he ultimately chose not to direct or even produce “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” Nevertheless, Cameron did advise Schwarzenegger to return for the long-awaited sequel. Shifting the focus to an adult John Connor following his mother’s death, the film revealed that Judgement Day wasn’t stopped, but merely postponed from August 29, 1997, to July 25, 2004. This development left many fans divided and the same can be said about the film on a whole. Despite being a financial success, “Terminator 3” grossed 17% less than its predecessor, which came out twelve years earlier. It did, however, provide a few memorable action set-pieces, including an epic moment in which the T-800 mows down a swat team with a machine gun while transporting John Connor in a casket. What an image! The positive reviews did outweigh the negative ones, but critics and audiences were generally uncertain if this franchise really needed to continue when “T2” ended on just the right note. The film’s legacy would largely hinder on how the following installments performed. With Schwarzenegger becoming the Governator of California in 2003, though, it was unlikely he’d play a major role in “Terminator Salvation,” which hit theaters in 2009.

While CGI was used to integrate Schwarzenegger’s facial likeness into the film, he was otherwise absent, as were several other actors from “Terminator 3.” “Terminator Salvation” not only grossed less than the previous two films, but also earned the franchise’s worst reviews to date with critics arguing that the story took a backseat to the action. Fortunately for fans of big, bombastic action scenes, “Salvation” does manage to deliver.

With Paramount Pictures now acting as a distributor, 2015’s “Terminator Genisys” literally took the series back to its roots, altering the timeline from 1984 onward. Although the premise received a hesitant response from fans, the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger and even an endorsement from Cameron piqued their interest. Unfortunately, “Genisys” was heavily criticized for its nonsensical plot and questionable casting choices, amounting to worse reviews than “Salvation.” That being said, it did deliver a few memorable moments, namely the T-800 holding another terminator in falling acid. Even though it became the franchise’s second-highest-grossing outing worldwide, plans for a trilogy were once again terminated.

There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves, and it appears James Cameron is taking the franchise’s fate back into his own hands. Regaining the rights to the series in 2019, it was announced that Cameron would oversee Tim Miller’s untitled “Terminator” film. Retconning everything that transpired after the events of “T2,” the film will see Linda Hamilton reprise her role as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the human on which the T-800 was based.. Whatever the future holds for “The Terminator” franchise, the first two films will continue to shape the landscapes of both the action and sci-fi genres with their quotable one-liners, immortal imagery, and ideas concerning the nature of humanity. Until next time: “Hasta va vista, baby”
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