TERMINATOR is Faltering Without its Horror

Kyle Reese was a rightfully scared man. He had an intensity and urgency that a healthy fear can bring out of someone. A soldier of the post-apocalypse, he’s prone to nightmares of the cold, brutal future he’s been sent from.

He was battle-tested, brave, resourceful and resilient, but don’t confuse courage and cunning for an absence of fear. Kyle was nakedly afraid of what he had to face in order to save Sarah Connor.

Sarah, understandably, was even more terrified of the T-800 (and Kyle, initially), being a civilian stalked and hunted in the middle of the Los Angeles by something even a station full of policemen can’t protect her from. By the second movie, however, that which (barely) failed to kill her has made her stronger. She becomes a hardened survivalist, more fighter than runner, willing to break bones to secure her future, her son’s future, and by extension humankind’s. She is fearsome and fearless during her escape from the hospital… until she once again sets eyes on the thing that hunted her in the first film.

All of her bravery evaporates and she’s justifiably terrified again, just like any sensible person who sees a Terminator and knows what it is ought to be.

The Terminator franchise, lest we forget, is named after a slasher villain with a science-fiction upgrade. In the first film, the T-800 is essentially Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers with no aversion to using guns, a greater focus and a much higher intelligence. It is impervious to firearms, or having all of its flesh burnt clean from its metal skeleton, or being blown in two by a pipe bomb. Incredibly drastic measures are required to kill it. Considerable luck as well. Had happenstance not brought Sarah and Kyle to a factory with a hydraulic press–had they ended up in, say, an empty furniture store after-hours–then the T-800 likely succeeds in its mission.

Similar things could be said of the T-1000 from Terminator 2. While lacking the imposing size of its predecessor, it makes up for this with other frightful features. It is a shapeshifter and mimic, putting it in league with long-feared demons and deities of lore and mythology from around the world. It favors blades–a more traditional horror villain weapon–over guns. It even gives us a little Michael Myers-esque head tilt after stabbing a guy. While Terminator 2 is much more of an action extravaganza than the first film, it’s still flavored with some of the horror that the first film more fully embraced.

Unfortunately, by the (very unnecessary) third film, any hint of horror remaining in the franchise would be largely incidental. Rise of the Machines was the first movie in the series to attempt more jokes than scares, and the trend of diminishing the horror only became more pronounced from there. A franchise rooted in a relatively small but substantial wave of specific, influential sci-fi horror flicks simply titled after a uniquely terrifying villain (AlienThe ThingThe Fly, and if we’re feeling inclusive, Predator) became purely effects-driven spectacle–and not even particularly well-done spectacle–devolving eventually until the first trailer for Dark Fate introduces us to a Sarah Connor who doesn’t display a drop of the urgency or intensity born of the healthy fear that she and Kyle once displayed. Instead she guns down a new, advanced Terminator with the emotionless efficiency of the killing machines that once terrorized her, Kyle Reese, and any other human being in their path. And yes, there’s a reason for her lack of emotion and it’s a thematic choice that I’m sure others might appreciate more than I do, but I just find it less interesting. If the hero isn’t the least bit scared of, or at least wary of, the thing that ought to be scary or dangerous, you’re going to have a tougher time generating thrills.

Related:  Confessions of a Fearphile: The Golden Arm

With Dark Fate, James Cameron and Linda Hamilton returned to the franchise they together made indelible in the minds of moviegoers, but they didn’t bring back one of the key components that gave the first film its impact, and helped make the second film’s stakes feel sufficiently escalated.

The Terminator franchise probably ought to be left for dead, but if it must be resurrected again (and odds are it will be, despite the latest film’s current box office struggles), it might be best served by elevating the horror of its titular villain.