A few months ago – in what then seemed a little foolish, but now seems like an act of pure clairvoyance – I invested in a home theater. And when I say that, I mean an actual movie screen that is installed on a wall, with an HD projector and a sound system. (I even bought a miniature popcorn maker that looks like the kind you see in theaters.) What made this foolish was I live in Manhattan and it’s not like there’s a ton of space to go around anyway, let alone an entire wall devoted to a 92-inch projector screen. (To be fair, it’s a nice looking screen.) My thought process was that, for work, I watch a lot of movies at home and wouldn’t it be nice to basically have my own screening room?
Like a lot of these kinds of projects, I did use it quite a bit at first (during awards season with all the screeners rolling in) but, then, I started using it less and less. Honestly, sometimes I just like the idea of building something more than I do the finished project. Anyway, the point is, this week, as we all practice social distancing, the home theater has been getting quite a workout. Movies right now are a literal escape from reality. And what I mean by that is: if I’m not watching a movie in this makeshift theater room, I’m watching the news. With no sports anymore, it’s now basically either a full-length feature film or hour after hour of nonstop virus coverage. We all have to take a break from the news sometimes, even for this.
The last couple of nights we watched the original Terminator and then Terminator 2: Judgement Day. With Terminator: Dark Fate now available for your home viewing pleasure (a movie I liked quite a bit), I’ve been thinking more and more about why these first two pretty spectacular movies can’t seem to quite nail the third one. (And a third movie has been attempted four times now.)
It’s weird, I’ve never watched Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day back to back before. (Or, at least, over the span of just a couple days, giving them my full attention.) When is the last time you watched the original Terminator? Like really watched it. This isn’t a surprise, but it’s pretty incredible. (And, yes, the headline of this piece that calls this a “hot take” is for the most part sarcasm.) What makes it so great is that it’s just so simple. You see, there’s an almost indestructible bad guy and he won’t stop until he kills Sarah Connor or she, somehow, kills him. That’s pretty much it. Yes, there’s a pretty nifty backstory about a future war and how Sarah’s future son, John, becomes an important leader. But my favorite scene is when Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese is trying to explain to Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor the ramifications of the future, she just kind of stops him and says something about how this all makes her head hurt. Yes. And it’s good they don’t take too much time trying to flesh out the World Building of all this. That’s where the post-Judgement Day installments get in trouble. The first Terminator is basically just a really great, somewhat low budget action-horror movie.
The funny thing about Terminator 2: Judgement Day (and this isn’t some grand assessment, but I never realized before how true it is) is that it’s basically like James Cameron decided, “Hm, what if I got to make Terminator again,” only with a lot of money. While watching T2 – a movie I had seen recently, but not in the context of the first movie – it’s almost jarring how “slick” it is compared to the first movie. And I don’t just mean the effects, but more its modern appeal. Terminator feels very much like a movie that came out in 1984. T2 feels like a movie that could have come out yesterday. (Well, I guess not right now, but you know what I mean.) I remember when T2 came out and the word surrounding it was, “There’s never been anything like this!” Which, then, felt true. As opposed to today where it feels more like, “Almost all action movies are like this.” That’s not a dig on T2 at all, it’s a testament to the influence that T2 had over everything.
But, watching now, Terminator 2: Judgement Day feels familiar. And the original Terminator actually feels unique and kind of edgy and dangerous. While watching T2 (and, to be fair, this may have a little to do with how many times I’ve seen T2 versus the first movie) I just kept thinking how I think I enjoyed the first Terminator more.
But the big glaring thing about Terminator 2 is how it pretty much goes out of its way to prevent a third movie. Our heroes stop the war from happening! That’s pretty much it. The problem, now, for third installments (all four of them) is that another point of conflict has to be introduced. Which is always going to feel a little ham-fisted. “Oh, yeah, well now there’s another war. Weird, right? And now, once again, they are sending machines back again to kill people.” The truth is James Cameron made Terminator. He then basically remade Terminator, only with unlimited money. And then walked away because he did what he wanted to do. These were never set up to be a trilogy, no matter how much the multiple studios who have owned this property wanted it to be. (Though, again, I do think Dark Fate does the best job at attempting to make a third movie. I’m on board with treating it as the proper and only third chapter. Mostly because Linda Hamilton is back as Sarah Connor. It was weird the others tried to do what they did without its main character. But it’s basically the Godfather 3 of the trilogy: better than you think it will be, but can’t live up to the first two movies.)
And the way the Terminator world is set up, the more we know about it the stupider it becomes. Terminator works best as a monster movie. Not a futuristic sci-fi dystopia movies featuring time travel, because when we focus on that, it makes our heads hurt – and winds up making some pretty sloppy movies. Sarah Connor had it right in the first Terminator, let’s just stop thinking about it. Which is what makes that first Terminator movie such a classic.
(If you want the “too long; didn’t read” version of this piece here it is: If you want something to do while stuck at home, watch the first Terminator.)
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.