If that wasn't made clear by 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and then made even clearer by 2009's Terminator: Salvation, it's now been made crystalline by Terminator: Genisys, an attempted reboot of the entire franchise that makes a hash of the series' chronology in an attempt to keep everything within the same "universe." It's the worst Terminator movie yet, and this is a franchise with some bad, bad movies.
But what Genysis makes clearer than anything else is that nobody involved with these movies understands why people loved The Terminator in the first place. We didn't go see that movie to feel empowered, or to feel good about the future of humanity. We saw that movie to feel as if all hope was lost, even when the day was saved.
How Super Mario Bros. can explain the Terminator series' problems
The Terminator movies feature killer robots and time travel, and thus, Hollywood has slotted them into the science-fiction genre, when, really, these movies want to be horror films. To understand why requires a quick detour into questions of how we think about story genres.
In the excellent YouTube series Extra Credits, video game designer, James Portnow often discusses game "genres," and how players tend to think of them as collections of mechanics. In Super Mario Bros., for example, Mario leaps around from floating platform to floating platform, avoiding enemies or bouncing on their heads. Games like Super Mario, then, are called "platformers." Meanwhile, a game like Halo involves stepping into the point-of-view of an unstoppable super-soldier and gunning down your enemies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this genre is known as the "first-person shooter."
Portnow argues that we shouldn't reduce games to mechanics when attempting to classify them. Instead, we should boil them down to the emotional experiences we have when playing them, the needs they fulfill for us. Super Mario creates the feeling of being fast and free, of being able to jump anywhere or do anything. In Halo, we don't want to go around our enemies; we want to push right through them and feel powerful.
But what does this have to do with Terminator? Well, Portnow's approach to game genres offers a useful way to think about other artforms as well. Consider, for instance, the difference between Ghostbusters and The Conjuring. Both films center on elite bands of agents who take down paranormal forces from beyond. Yet the former is a comedy, while the latter is unquestionably a horror movie. Sure, one makes us laugh, and the other terrifies us. But there's something deeper at work.
At all times, Ghostbusters emphasizes the feeling of hanging out with your best friends and cracking wise, no matter how stressful things get. "Don't worry, we've got this," the movie argues, "because we're stronger together than apart." It's an emotional message that lots of buddy comedies employ. But The Conjuring, in contrast, suggests that mankind is essentially helpless in the face of the supernatural, that the best outcome we can hope for is to outsmart it for a little while.
Ultimately, what happened to the Terminator franchise is that everybody involved in it lost sight of its core genre. But that was easy to do, because Terminator's horror movie spine is deeply buried.
Horror movies (and the Terminator franchise) are about feeling powerless
Perhaps surprisingly, lots of popular blockbusters that seem to be part of one genre feature structures more closely associated with horror (Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom both qualify, to name two of Steven Spielberg's films alone). That's because horror is one of the easiest genres to incorporate into others.
Horror is often about feeling powerless. On some level, it's about the fact that every single living thing on this planet is unable to avoid death. And that's a spice that can be freely added to any other genre, even comedy. (The Ghostbusters might be funny, but they're not immortal.)
However, horror's closest genre cousins — sci-fi and fantasy — usually focus on empowerment, on how it feels to be the guy with the best spaceship or the woman with the wickedest spells. And since horror frequently intermingles with its closest genre cousins, the lines between them tend to blur.
The Terminator is a case in point. In many ways, it's a zombie movie, in that the emotional experience it most closely emulates is the feeling of being relentlessly pursued by an unstoppable force. The zombie movie is all about powerlessness in the face of death, as is The Terminator. Can you "win" over death? Briefly, but death, to paraphrase Arnold, will be back.
T2, the franchise's best film, messes with this idea a bit by way of its triumphant ending. T2 argues that while you might be powerless against death, there's technically a way around it — so long as you leave behind a legacy, often in the form of children. It's a message that writer-director James Cameron crafted by cannily adding elements of the family dramedy to the middle of his action-horror-sci-fi stew.
On some level, T2 is like a Frank Capra movie, leaving us with the emotional certainty that if we lead a good life, somebody, somewhere will remember us. And on another level, it's a paranoid thriller, one where nobody will listen to us, even if we know the truth.
The Terminator franchise's more recent sequels have destroyed its horror movie core
Where every Terminator sequel since T2 has screwed up is in their overemphasis of the series' action or sci-fi elements. Yes, there's an element of mounting horror to T3 (which concludes with one of the most wonderfully terrifying moments of the whole franchise), but the three most recent films really garble things by hinging so much on humanity's future war with the machines. Doing so transforms them into war films, which are basically the polar opposite of horror films, as they fulfill our emotional needs for honor and glory and camaraderie. This is particularly true of Salvation and Genisys.
The war with the machines also disrupts the series' careful horror balance. When there's just one or maybe two Terminators wandering around our modern-day world, they become a disruptive element. But when you fight robots every day, their presence becomes the status quo. The former allows for better scares, since the appearance of the Terminator is so unexpected; the latter simply results in numbing action.
It's easy to understand why Hollywood skewed toward the war with the machines: all of the related time travel and amazing chase scenes made the Terminator franchise seem like the perfect sci-fi/action hybrid. But while those elements certainly appear, they run secondary to the original two films' sheer, pulse-pounding terror.
And here's the thing: having a huge budget might have screwed things up, too. Yes, T2 was the most expensive film of its day, but the original Terminator was relatively cheap to produce, and that spare quality is one of its greatest assets. What's more, arguably the best Terminator property since T2 was the underrated TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Just check out this terrific sequence from the show:
That image of the FBI agents falling into the pool from a great height is a creative solution to a budgetary problem. A TV show doesn't have the shooting time to orchestrate a robot dispatching all of those agents. Instead, it must find a creative way around the problem, one that underlines the existential dread and paranoia that made Terminator and T2 so great.
But most of all, the most recent Terminator sequels want to give humanity some sort of "victory" over the machines without earning it, as Cameron did in T2 with his themes of family. In one sense, these movies are about how you can't ever stop what's coming, about how Skynet will always rise and flesh-and-blood people will always die. But Genisys, especially, undercuts that harsh reality with pointless cheering for humanity and needless empowerment, even though the story actively wants to excise those emotions. It abandons terror in favor of good feeling, and that makes the film a muddled mess.
Terminator: Genisys is in theaters everywhere. Maybe don't see it.