James Cameron has made a name for himself when it comes to crafting iconic science fiction franchises. From Dark Angel to the long-gestating Avatar: The Way Of Water, it’s a surefire bet that if Cameron is involved the accolades and money will flow. But there’s one franchise he’s created that’s had more than its share of ups and downs: The Terminator.
Despite the blockbuster success of the original Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the franchise has suffered several setbacks. None of the four films that followed Judgment Day received its critical acclaim or its box office returns. Even worse, fans of the franchise slowly turned away from it, let down by the increasingly diminishing returns. Cameron recently revealed that he plans to reboot the franchise, with an intent to focus on the perils of artificial intelligence. But there’s another route he should consider: returning to the horror roots that run throughout the first film.
The genius of the first Terminator is that it’s a horror film with a science fiction bent. An unstoppable, inhuman force chasing down a young girl and murdering everything in its path? Plenty of horror films from A Nightmare on Elm Street to Friday the 13th have put their own spin on this well-worn trope and reaped the rewards. Cameron took it a step further, making his monster a machine wrapped in flesh. The imposing presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger only adds to that terror, but what really sells it home is Schwarzenegger’s performance. He throws himself into the cold, unfeeling role of a machine, speaking in a flat tone and moving with an inhuman stride. Considering Schwarzenegger was well known for playing musclebound heroes at that point in his career, it’s a shock to see him as the villain.
The Terminator is relentless in its pursuit of Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton). Bullets, knives, and even an exploding 18-wheeler can’t stop it. It strides forward, intent on its purpose. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) perfectly sums up how terrifying of an antagonist the machine is when he attempts to rescue Sarah: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever, until you are dead.”
Reese’s words turn out to be prophetic. In its hunt for Sarah, the Terminator tracks down every person in the phone book who’s named Sarah Connor. It even breaks into her apartment and murders her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta). And in perhaps the most chilling part of the film, the murderous machine tracks down and kills Sarah’s mother, then mimics her voice to lure Sarah into a trap.
While the Terminator might be unstoppable, the flesh surrounding its metal endoskeleton isn’t as durable. This leads to some of the film’s more horrifying elements, as the Terminator slowly starts to resemble a wax statue more than a human. It even ends up cutting out one of its eyeballs, revealing the glowing red eye underneath a river of blood – and leading to the iconic moment where it dons a pair of wraparound shades to hide the damage.
A large part of what’s led to dissatisfaction with the post-Judgment Day sequels is that they’ve tried to up the stakes of Judgment Day. But it feels less like they’ve cleared that bar and more like they’re attempting to scrape the barrel. Nearly every new Terminator that’s appeared in the franchise has more or less been a variant on the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). And despite the fact that Sarah and her son John (Edward Furlong) managed to halt the advent of Skynet, it somehow still manages to exist in the future. Then there’s the fact that someone, someway, manages to reprogram a Terminator – who looks just like the first one – to be one of the “good guys.” Shifting back to the horror genre would shed these tired clichés and give the franchise some truly new blood.
Cameron could also dip into a new set of horror tropes. If he wanted to do a film about A.I. run amok, perhaps restructuring Skynet into a virus that infects its victims and turns them into Terminators would be a neat start. Or setting a film at the beginning of the machine apocalypse would really sell the horror of the Terminators home. Whatever the case, he should strive to put the fear of God – or rather, Skynet – back into his fans’ hearts.