Terminator: Twisted Timelines and the Horror Within! 1964 – 2004

The Terminator Timelines

Another franchise all about futility? This is becoming a habit. Part one of a look at the horror of Terminators 1, 2 and 3

Terminator Genisys has just emerged the shadow of flop and thanks to some phenomenal Chinese takings has somehow surpassed Mad Max Fury Road at the international box office. This return of the Terminator brings ever more twisted timelines with the biggest reboot in the temporally tangled saga. But that’s only to be expected in a franchise that’s had that moveable timelines built in from the first instalment…

It’s not just a shame to miss out on some of that ‘time fun’, it would be like watching Salvation again. But while doing that, why delve into the more interesting idea that every Terminator film draws on a different type of horror? From slasher to gothic to psychological – behold the horror within!

AS ITS MOST FAMOUS CATCHPHRASE SUGGESTS, TERMINATOR IS THE KING OF THE COMEBACK – THE PREMIUM GOLD FRANCHISE THAT SITS JUST THE WRONG SIZE OF BUDGET TO STOP IT BEING USED AS COLLATERAL ACROSS TINSEL TOWN. And there are many studios, let alone filmmakers, lined up to have a stab. It’s helped that the rights have pinged around as much as Hunter Killers, and this year Genisys is the latest example of that wringing of the franchise. Moving away from the last attempt, 2009’s Salvation, it chucks the proverbial time travelling sink at Skynet. As its stuttering box office has suggested, there’s a lot of time streams running under the bridge…

Twisting Timelines

“I can’t help you with what you must soon face, expect to say that the future is not set”

Terminator. That dark, gritty, violent slice of horror science-fiction… That spawned an empire. Having jumped at the peak, creator James Cameron, has sat outside the franchise, but still atop Hollywood box office. He’s not alone. While the legend persists that the main franchises needs Arnold Schwarzenegger to survive, even he hasn’t spanned the entire universe. Over 30 years, five films a TV series and multiple prose, comic, gaming and theme park spin-offs the franchise has left an indelible footprint on western cinema. And as Genisys proves, it’s far from dead. And not has it risen again, but Genisys is resolutely closer to the original film than any of the others. In fact, it’s taken 31 years for the franchise to dare to touch the sacred timeline set down by that first classic.

There’s one common link throughout the saga. While almost every film distorts the timeline in some way, the famed Judgment Day remains inevitable. As much as the Connors flip between survival and actively trying to stop Skynet in its tracks, it remains a certainty no matter how much it is pushed back in time or mechanism. The result is an ever-expanding temporal war spilling out from a few points in the future that continue to spin further backwards and sideways in time. It’s built on paradox, but there’s something else in there as well…

Hedging Horror

For all the dodging of an 18 certificate in the UK, Terminator at least started off in a gruesomely mature film. Back then the time jumping wasn’t too complicated and the plot a slash ‘em up – but more of that later… As the Terminator saga has grown it’s hung on to its horror roots in ways that are far more interesting than extrapolating the parallel timelines alone. In this summer of dystopia, it’s possibly the big budget Hollywood franchise that preaches futility in the face of certain destiny the most. So taking that horrific journey through time, exploring key horror at the key dates, where exactly are we?

Terminator Time lines Clock

1964

19 September and 17 October, two episodes of the Outer Limits titled Soldier and The Demon with The Glass Hand are broadcast, both written by Harlan Ellison. See 1984…

1965

Sarah Connor is born. The fatal cat and mouse pursuit can begin, somehow dodging her forefathers.

1973

Horror: Proto-slasher

Thanks to modified events of the Genisys reboot, a reprogrammed T-800 arrives, sent by persons unknown, and adopts Sarah Connor after foiling the attempts of a previously unheard of T-1000 to kill the eight year old. Effectively, this robs Sarah of any life beyond being a container for the production of John Connor when she’s 19 or 20. That’s pretty horrific. Although only seen briefly, the Connor’s disturbed vacation may as well have taken place at Crystal Lake. Giving Genisys some credit, that’s a neat match to the 1970s birth of the slasher and the early part of the franchise to come.

1984 – Key films: The Terminator (released 1984), Terminator Genisys (released 2015)

Where we are: Two options. Sarah Connor’s either happily enjoying the music of the early 1980s until her life is unalterably changed by the arrival of a T-800 Cyberdyne 101 and resistance fighter Kyle Reese from the year 2029, one of whom wants to kill her and the other unwittingly impregnate her… Or Kyle Reese arrives on his own to discover the place overrun with a T-800, easily dispatched by the hardened Sarah and her Pops Terminator and a slightly more tricky T-1000, both hailing from an increasingly active 2029. That T-1000 joins the Guardian “Pops” Terminator as a mysterious time envoy. It surely beggars belief that it was the new T-3000, however it must have come from that more time casual time stream…

“Come with me if you want to live”: Kyle Reese of course, in the best and still most affecting fashion.

Skynet mechanism: Military.

Horror: The Slasher

“The final battle will be fought in our present. Tonight”

1984 is the key year pre-Judgment Day, and probably holds the date that John Connor should delicately celebrate instead of his birthday in 1985. In the glorious days of an R-rated (though never 18 certificate) Terminator, the horror’s as simple as the science-fiction. A lean and pacey tale that brilliantly jumps from the gritty junkyard battlefields of the future to suspense, with classily affecting stop-motion and superimposed special effects. It’s a hard and visceral experience that knows full well that events must be presented through the eyes of a naïve, oblivious and previously carefree innocent. An old trick, but one often forgotten. The desperation comes from allying the vulnerable Sarah with the lean, determined but crucially sleight presence of Michael Biehn. As the pure biologicals barely hold on, his sacrifice is a real reminder that things are very, very real. It’s a trick the films could never carry off again, lest his original role is compromised. Only The Sarah Connor Chronicles came close…

Everyone else is collateral damage following the short but effective build-up where neither Sarah nor the audience know who’s villain or friend. Amid the body horror, gun-blasting action and dips into psychosis, the beat of the film moves from depressed stalker to a blistering chase that it’s easy to forget from a distance takes place over just one night.

“It absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead”

The opponent is impassive, any humour brought out by vicious irony or Cameron’s neat eye for a shot. As Reese legendarily says, this foe is unstoppable. He never needs to run or display any emotion as he focuses on his one mission. It’s mostly relatable terrestrial factors, from gravity and momentum to wounds, fatigue and fear that compound the victims’ plight not the aggressor. That makes the Terminator a near cousin of the original impassive slashers of the later 1970s and early 1980s, the Michael Myers and later Jason Voorhees who also wore masks of a type. In fact, father of the T-800 design Stan Winston would help craft Voorhees look for Friday 13th Part II, two years prior to The Terminator. But, the strength of this concept is that there is no personal trauma or supernatural origin sustaining the slasher, but the future survival of mankind or machine. Anything supernatural comes from association – his effect on animals recalls the real proto-slashers of gothic horror fiction which will surface again later in the saga. The Terminator’s main distinction from 80s slashers, who were often specialists in one field, be it knives, machetes or dreamscapes, comes from the T-800’s innate adaptability. The machine is an oppressive master of everything from impressionism to vehicles to projectile weaponry. A focal point of that, away from the mission’s specific target, is the set-piece take-down of the police station.

“Look at it this way, in 100 years who’s gonna care?”

By the end, in a kind of Terminator’s elephant’s graveyard the unstoppable machine is halted by its great-grandfather, a hydraulic press. This first film is the only time that the past isn’t haunted by the future, with foreshadowing not yet burnt into the Connor genome. Flash-forwards are wisely kept to Reese’s PTSD disorientation, something that sits neatly with Sarah Connor’s growing realisation. As a result, this is the only time that there is no attempt to avert Judgment Day, simply to ensure there’s a way to combat the machines when it happens. That’s telling in the only instalment actually made during the Cold War – The Terminator belongs to the same legacy of technology and nuclear fear as Japan’s monster films. But the machine we see is a very specific warhead, one that film series later relate far more explicitly to an atomic device. Its contribution to the franchise that followed is not only surviving Cyberdyne arm. The film distinctly sets Cameron’s agenda that the future can be changed. Whether that’s a timeline that incorporates paradox or constantly splits into alternative time streams we still don’t know, even after the techno-confrontation of Genisys.

“One possible future”

That’s built into the core of the film. It’s the chief carrier of a peculiar brand of hope that would occasionally just bring more suffering. It’s astonishing then, but a testament to the purity of the first film, that it would take 31 years for its canon to be touched, rather than referenced. The film’s iconic ending in particular. It’s the 7th November and Sarah sets off into a storm as the franchise heads into the history books. Never have so many actresses posed next to German Shepherd in mimicry of that iconic final photo.

“There’s a storm coming”

Ps. Picking up from 1964, the film carries an acknowledgement of the earlier works of Harlan Ellison, pre-Sarah Connor, after a lawsuit was settled between Ellison, the production company and distributor – much to James Cameron’s irritation.

1995 – Key film: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (released 1991)

Where we are: Picking on this far easier target of a 10 year old boy with precocious electronic abilities, also around and about 2029 Skynet send back their latest model the shapeshifting T-1000 (after very rapid R&D) while John Connor dutifully sends back a reprogrammed T-800 to protect his young self, well aware that no more procreation is necessary. The time trips of the first and second films must have occurred in rapid succession. Terminator Genisys later ignores this, but there’s no way to know in hindsight if the events of Terminator 2 did change the future after all or even happened…

“Come with me if you want to live”: The re-programmed T-800, the role that created the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the 1990s.

Skynet mechanism: Military (with strong private investment)

Horror: The protean shape-shifter

“Remember the message – the future’s not set”

Along with Cameron’s Aliens, Terminator 2 is an oft quoted citation in the ‘yeah, same again thanks and hey, is this sequel better than the original?’ debate. This franchise is perhaps the easiest to answer. The Terminator is the better film, for all the slick, involving, intelligent, confident and tech-stretching achievement of Terminator 2. For the most part, that crown as the purity of the first film’s concept gives way to an extended middle-section detour.

“One thing about my mom, she always plans ahead”

Here’s it’s just the first dip into stopping Judgment Day, destined, as in the first film, to take place on 29 August 1997. That mission succeeds, although ultimately its main task is to sow the seeds of the idea that however much the present is changed, the Judgment Day apocalypse is inevitable. Terminator 2 takes the time to lay out much of what the franchise would pick up in the following instalments. There’s time in this longer form for ghosts to enter the franchise, the increasing shadow of Judgment Day flipping back to the past through Kyle Reese’s ghostly appearances to Sarah. There’s time to expand on Skynet and the machines. That machines weren’t built to fight each other, that they need to be chipped to be able to learn outside their mission parameters and can last 120 years on one power source. In particular it ramps up nuclear fear and psychological concern. Perhaps its real legacy is that small detour from the slasher would grow in a franchise that become increasingly concerned with the ideas of halting or levering the future as the terminating of unstoppable machines became all the more common and all the less distinctive and the representation of Judgment Day itself all the more horrific.

“It was just a question of which one would reach him first”

This time, amid the comedy and show-stopping set-pieces, it’s Robert Patrick’s clinical T-1000 who brings the horror. And in doing so, taps into ideas even more atavistic than the homicidal line of the first. In the first film we heard of the T-600 series, rather inelegantly covered in rubber skin and easier to spot – golems by appearance. We were most familiar with the solid T-800 and variants, where we can only assume the 101 designates the Arnie skin covering. Then, in quite rapid development, the aggressor formed from liquid metal. The T-800 had passed as human, could mimic specific voices, but now there was an implacable villain who could become anyone.

“Making up history as we went along”

Calling back to the Greek myths of Proteus, and similar creatures from other folk tales of the world, the shape shifter has morphed through time to become a strong and horrific concept. That trickster god, inherently deceitful, would seep through into emerging literature to forge a lasting legacy. Perhaps definitive on 20th century film, John W Campbell’s fantastically monikered Who Goes There? would be adapted into The Thing from Another World in 1951 and The Thing in 1982. The later would become a much referenced benchmark for matching horrific shapeshifting and paranoia. It was definitive work of horror from director John Carpenter, much as his Halloween had been for slasher horror in 1978. Intriguingly, while The Thing is a flagship film for ground-breaking practical effects, a reputation that would scupper its belated prequel three decades later, Terminator 2’s antagonist couldn’t exist without developments in digital effects.

It’s a far cry from the unsettling practicality and imposition of the first film, but in Cameron’s skilled hands it succeeds in capturing a different kind of horror. In fact, the T-1000 may be the only pure part of the whole franchise that is ground-breaking. Some sequences in this film are seared into popular consciousness, particularly the hospital break-in that is a haunting match to the first film’s police station take-down. Haunting is very much the word for some of the scenes that the film grows into, heightened by that atavistic and impossible presence of the T-1000. Shortly afterwards, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would take the same effect and return the idea to its roots, playing on the natural mistrust of that series’ changelings and the horrific implications of their abilities.

“It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves”

Incubus may be a misnomer, although there is a distinct trail of vampirism that picks up the gothic strands left by that first film where a line keeps humans and machines distinct. And there’s a pointed sexualisation to the T-1000’s preferred mode of death. The spike may be efficient and effective, but it’s also rather showy. But, just as it should the sequel’s main job is to raise every stake. There’s no need to repeat anything beyond the nod to the ambiguity of the first 20 minutes of the first film. Rather joyfully, this villain locates a police car and finds his quarry easily. There might not be many mobile phones around yet, but there’s no need for telephone directories.

 “The unknown future rolls towards us”

Almost 25 years later, the power of this enthralling film remains; the special effects still better than many modern CGI efforts. It’s incredible that even now Terminator 2 just doesn’t seem like a film that was made in 1991. Most importantly, while the first ended on impending terror, this film, amid the monsters of the piece dying by trial of ice and fire, ends on hope.

1999

The time line is ripped asunder when ‘Cameron’, a rather intriguing T-900 series is sent back by John Connor from, yes, the year 2029, to protect his younger self and mother – who have been on the run since their sabotage of Cyberdyne Inc. (during the events of Terminator 2). To escape the rampaging T-888 who goes by the name Cromartie, Cameron activates a carefully seeded time machine to jump the trio forward to 2007. Sarah jumps her own death in doing so…

2004 – Key film: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Released 2003)

Where we are: A separate timeline has opened up… Following the explosive time-bending events of Terminator 2, 29 August 1997 came and went without armageddon, although a drifting John Connor retains a bad feeling that keeps him off the grid, even without the direct influence of his deceased mother. The arrival of a face shifting, computer interfacing T-X and another friendly T-850 infiltrator only serves to chuck him together with future wife Kate Brewster in a rather convenient reversal of his parents.

The T-X, though badly monikered has an endoskeleton with a protean skin overlaid, suggesting a retrograde tech to the T-1000 despite her ability to incorporate weaponry. But that’s representative of Skynet’s wider remit when their R&D department is clearly out of control in the final stages of the war. They no longer appear to be at the last chance saloon, but fully engaging in an ongoing temporal cold war. Increasingly the battle is taking place in the past. Having lost sight of John Connor, they dispatch an assassin to take out his future lieutenants. And it’s Kate who becomes central to the franchise when it’s revealed that the helpful T-850 was reprogrammed by her in 2032 (the war has certainly extended) after it successfully terminated John Connor…

“Come with me if you want to live”: Oh, no one. Just mild variations. That’s not a great sign…

Skynet mechanism: Military. Big time.

Horror: Post-slasher / Nuclear Death

“You only postponed it, Judgment Day is inevitable”

Nuclear death… Or that could be any death given how heavily the grim reaper leans over this instalment. This is the Final Destination horror of the franchise, post-slasher, though it keeps that under its sleeve for a long time.

“The future has not been written” intones the rather miscast Nick Stahl as John Conner, now a man reading the same script as his father. What unravels is half pastiche and half format changing. Unfortunately, under the steer of Jonathan Mostow, the film’s real problem is that the gigantic budget never really makes it onto the screen – despite the real weight given to the duelling Terminators, the better tech that shows off the T-body horror and webbed time bubbles. That limits its spectacle. But worse, the fact that the film’s secret bleakness is its chief selling point betrays an inherent problem. Bravo for moving the format on so strikingly but as its successor would discover, you need to fill in the gaps.

Arnie’s T-850 gets to play both sides. And while there is some joy in seeing some of the previous two film’s greatest hits reconstructed with 21st century tech, repetition is hard to avoid. The T-X is surely a technical step-back from the T-1000, as its protean ability is limited to its skin covering. And the sudden development of the hydrogen power behind these machines (a real indictment on the script compared to the first two films) is more than convenient. It raises the question of why any Terminator doesn’t just self-destruct to fulfil its mission. The style’s lacking, the sense of humour slipped. And that’s not quite the balance needed for the saga’s real cold war entry.

“Execute: Y/N”

Much of what appears to be the film’s sub-plot explains the rooting of Skynet in a timeline altered by the events of Terminator 2. Here, Kate Brewster’s trepidatious General father is pressured by the Pentagon into activating the Skynet AI to halt a virus infiltrating most of internet. It’s fraught, fear of AI time. And that virus is a real Trojan (horse).

That sub-plot becomes the main plot when, in its final twisty scene, Skynet’s activation is revealed as unstoppable. It’s a fine game though, with the T-850 on a rather random and less specific mission of babysitting. It’s also a very fleeting plot. And very, very miserable although there’s barely a moment to dwell on it.

“Every day after this one is a gift”

A key sequence comes at Sarah Connor’s mausoleum, of course just another example of a neurotic devotion to preparation that’s swiftly becoming the heroine’s trademark. Thanks mainly to Mexican friends, familiar from the second film and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it’s a morbid and peculiar throwback to the police takedown of the first film, something rammed in by the regular and ridiculous appearance of Dr Silberman. Of course this time it’s crucial that Arnie’s Terminator is non-fatal.

There’s always collateral damage – and the main one in Rise of the Machines may be Terminator 2 – framed as it is as an act to delay John and Kate’s meeting. Elsewhere, quite what the effect of the TX taking out some of her intended targets is, never becomes clear, but no doubt that’s just another alternative timeline somewhere in the Terminator ether.

“Our destiny was never to stop J Day, it was merely to survive it”

The end sees John Connor finally takes charge. As the description of Skynet’s self-awareness is related as fact rather than another possible outcome. And this time, there’s a real trick to the twist. The viral misdirection earlier on was correct. With no system core the AI cannot be shut-down after 6.18 pm. It’s a reinvigorated ending, redolent of the first where Sarah drives into the oncoming storm. But with such a slight build-up, it leaves an empty feeling after the vivid classics that came before. As such, the horror’s weaker than it had been previously, and that’s not just down to the certification. Terminator 3 was the weakest off the films. Yet.

Terminator: Twisted Timelines and the Horror Within will be back.

Coming Next: The Timeline continues into war – taking in psychological thriller, Frankenstein analogy, dystopian horror and B-movie stylings of the ongoing Terminator franchise…

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