Terminator is an expansive media franchise covering all facets of entertainment including six films, a tv series, comic books, and novels. With the release of the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate quickly approaching, now is the perfect time to revisit one of the most beloved and influential film series ever made. The cyberpunk universe of the Terminator films is rich with history, landmark film-making, and brilliant use of special and visual effects.
The first film in the series, simply titled The Terminator, began as a nightmare; quite literally in fact. While filming Piranha 2: The Spawning, Director James Cameron had a dream about the torso of a cyborg holding knives and dragging itself away from an explosion. Cameron was so transfixed by this image that it became the basis for The Terminator. Originally, the distributing studio Orion wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Kyle Reese, to which Cameron was vehemently opposed. He rationalized, correctly of course, that if Arnold were to play Reese they would need an even BIGGER guy to play the Terminator, and who was bigger than Arnold? The studio also flirted with O.J. Simpson for the T-800 role, but Cameron did not think anyone would believe that O.J. could be a murderer.
The original version of the script in fact had two terminators visiting Sarah Connor in 1984, one of which would be made of liquid metal. Eventually, Cameron determined that special effects technology had not yet advanced to the point where such a character could be rendered realistically. The liquid terminator would eventually make its way into T2: Judgement Day almost a decade later, in 1991.
That isn’t to say The Terminator was without challenges in the visual effects department. Fantasy II, the special effects company that worked on the film, used a lot of stop motion when the script called for the faceless T-800 to appear. Cameron, always a visually minded director, wanted to make sure that audiences believed that the stop motion model was actually Arnold. To help sell the illusion, he directed Arnold to limp away in the scene. The limping helped sell the unnatural movement of the stop motion model, and turned out to work exactly as Cameron intended.
The aforementioned T2: Judgement Day was released in 1991 and was without a doubt the most ambitious CGI venture ever embarked upon. The digital art team, supplied by Industrial Light and Magic, accomplished what was previously thought to be impossible and laid the foundation for the structure and workflow of all the CGI heavy films that would come after.
There were many technical concerns about what Cameron had planned for T2, specifically with regard to the T-1000’s liquid transformations. Were it not for Cameron’s film The Abyss and the successful CGI work done in that film, T2 may not have been made at all. It took 35 animators, programmers, and artists 10 months and $5 million dollars to create the combined 5 minutes of CGI footage in the film. All of their labor earned the film an Academy Award for Best Special Effects. The film was the highest grossing movie in 1991 and won a total of 4 Academy Awards.
The film, however successful, was not without its challenges. Cameron, struggling with keeping the run-time to a reasonable length, experimented with removing frames in editing in order to shorten the movie. His plan was to remove a single frame out of every 24, or every second, to significantly cut back the total time of the film. What he found discovered is that this created a jolting, unnatural effect in the film that almost gave it a stop motion effect, harkening back to the practical effects of the original film. This effort was eventually abandoned and the run-time was kept to 137 minutes.
The film also has an unfortunate connection to one of the most tragic cultural events on the 1990s. George Holliday, a local of Los Angeles, heard that the film was being shot at a bar near his house. He grabbed his camera and ran over to try and capture some behind the scenes footage of the film being made. He managed to film Arnold and co-star Edward Furlong riding a motorcycle during filming of the quintessential T2 scene, but later that day captured some arguably more sensational footage: George Holliday is the man that filmed the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, an event that eventually led to the L.A. riots of 1992. Had he not been out with his camera that day looking for candid shots of Arnie, who knows how history could have changed?
The next 3 films in the series, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator: Genisys, represent for many a low point in the series. Cameron departed the series after T2 and the rotating collection of filmmakers failed to capture what it was that made the series so great. The story became significantly convoluted, the writing wasn’t nearly as strong, and the series did not continue pushing the special effects envelope as it was known for.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, released in 2003, became the subject of a rights battle when Carolco pictures, developers of T2, went bankrupt. Though Cameron was interested in returning to the series, ultimately he was too caught up with production issues of Titanic and the rights were eventually acquired by the original founders of Carolco who produced the film sans Cameron. Despite being the most expensive film ever green-lit at the time with a budget of over $180 million, the film was a financial success. Though, it wasn’t exactly a critical success, and for many, spelled the beginning of the end of the franchise.
Arnold revisited his role as the Terminator, and his involvement with the film caused him to postpone his plans to run for governor of California. It’s said that significant support and donations for his eventual campaign came to him during the production of the film, so it may have been for the best after all, as the Governator served California from 2003-2011.
Terminator Salvation followed in 2009 and was the first film in the series not to reach financial expectations, though it performed particularly well internationally. The film, directed by McG, featured animatronics, Mo-Cap, and a healthy portion of visually striking CGI. The film is dedicated to Stan Winston, visual effects supervisor of the first 3 films, that died shortly after Salvation came out.
The fifth film, Terminator Genisys, featured the return of Arnold to the series after his stint as governor and also served as a reboot to the series. The film was reported to have failed to break even and is the worst reviewed film in the series, holding a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes. Originally, Genisys was planned to be the beginning of a new trilogy for the series, but poor reception as well as the return of James Cameron to the series has caused a change of plans.
That’s right, the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate is not only the return of James Cameron, but is also the return of the original film’s star Linda Hamilton AND serves as a director sequel to T2: Judgement Day. All preconceived notions about the trajectory of the series should be immediately and permanently abandoned.
Cameron, who has now regained the rights to the series, has said that he is developing a new trilogy that he will supervise. The film is directed by Tim Miller, who recently rose to prominence after directing Deadpool. Miller will be overseeing the trilogy alongside Cameron, and writers for the series include David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Josh Friedman, who created the TV spin-off The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
The film will be released November 1, 2019 and if you have any love for the series, which, if you stuck with us up until this point seems like a given, then you ought to be very, very excited to see what Cameron has in store for us this time. If history is any indicator, Dark Fate will be visually stunning, narratively thrilling, and with a little luck, will push the visual effects and CGI technology into a new frontier, just as The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day did before it.
Article written by Eric Switzer. Eric Switzer is a filmmaker and writer living in Los Angeles. His work tends to focus on the lighter side of entropy, dystopic futures, and man’s innate struggle with his own mortality. He can be found on twitter @epicswitzer or reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.