How many Terminator movies do you have in your personal collection? At least two? Probably three. How many of you own all four? If you don’t yet have every chapter in John Connor’s decades-spanning war against the machines of the future, Warner has a comprehensive five-disc Blu-ray set, in stores now, that captures everything from the short-tempered Christian Bale to “I’ll be back.” But are they worth your time and money? They are both creative powerhouses at this point, but back in 1984, James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger were virtual unknowns still looking to prove themselves in a competitive industry. Yes, Schwarzenegger had success with the Conan franchise, and was popular from the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron. But The Terminator catapulted both men to superstardom, and cemented them as action heavies.
So, it’s funny to revisit the original Terminator decades later and realize it’s dated and more than a little cheesy in its execution. Chalk it up to the limitations of 1984. Then, stare in awe at Linda Hamilton’s feathered hair! However, Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd’s screenplay still has a great hook of a sci-fi concept, and the movie taps into the terror generated by a relentless pursuer, particularly one who appears to be unstoppable. Looking back, the first Terminator marked the birth of a franchise with unlimited potential, which Cameron and his team would mine for years to come.
It doesn’t help the original Terminator, in terms of quality control, once you realize that Cameron so drastically surpassed it with his follow up, the superior T2: Judgment Day. What a difference seven years in technological advancements can make! Just as he did with Aliens, Cameron establishes the blueprint for the modern-day sequel – Bigger! Faster! More! More! More! He turns Linda Hamilton 180 degrees into a feral warrior princess. He introduces a formidable opponent in the T-1000 (Robert Patric). And he dares to ask audiences to embrace a deeper understanding of the mythology, with the introduction of Arnold’s severed arm and the role it plays in the fate of the war against the machines. Plus, the action in T2 is intense. It remains one of the best-paced blockbusters of our time, continually tightening its noose, and using cutting-edge technology to reel us in.
Cameron could have stopped after T2, and the franchise would have been untouchable. In fact, Cameron does stop there. But Hollywood can’t say goodbye to a lucrative franchise, and Arnold was willing to don the leather jacket and dark sunglasses for another go-round. So we get Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine, which isn’t terrible. Director Jonathan Mostow (U-571) is guilty of exchanging heady sci-fi for pedestrian explosions. But there’s a stellar car chase involving driverless police cars, and a clever twist with the introduction of a female Terminator machine, The Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken). But can’t sniff Judgment Day, and it pales when compared. Ah-nold’s T-101 trying to save a younger John Connor (Nick Stahl) – again – just feels like lukewarm leftovers. Too many writers means the film has no clear path to the initiation of Skynet and the launch of the war against the machines. The sequel’s relentless, yes, but also noisy as hell. This one could have been so much better.
Then again, after sitting through McG’s dreadful Terminator Salvation, we realize that Machines could have been much worse, as well. Set in 2018, following the launch of Skynet, the fourth and so far final Terminator sequel casts Bale as a grizzled, battle-tested Connor – leader of the human resistance against the machines. Aside from being set in an ugly, apocalyptic future that doesn’t photograph well, Salvation tosses out chaotic plot threads attempting to bridge this chapter to the previous three films (Anton Yelchin plays Kyle Reese; Bryce Dallas Howard takes over for Claire Danes as Kate Brewster), and McG’s visual trickery isn’t enough to elevate a mess of a monster movie that’s loaded with gunplay but short on suspense. The grade is for the entire five-disc set, which combs the entire history of the Terminator franchise to pack each Blu-ray with archival footage, commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes clips and promotional materials.
The two movies that boast the most content in the complete set are T2 and Terminator Salvation, and if you think about it, there are legitimate reasons. T2 is the best film in the bunch, so fans are going to want to know a lot more about it. And Salvation is the most recent release, so WB has the most material in which to share (to that end, McG’s Salvation is the only movie in the set that gets the two-disc treatment, with Warner basically cleaning up the version that reached stores shortly after Salvation opened in 2009).
The T2 disc promises more than 8 hours of interactive features for fans to explore, including a very cool storyboard-script mode, trivia and games. There are two director commentary tracks, the second of which boasts 26 different cast and crew members. And the behind-the-scenes videos show how Cameron and his team changed the face of sci-fi effects with the creation of the liquid-metal Terminator … still one of the coolest villains we’ve seen on screen this year.
If there’s a deficient disc in the set, it’s the one for Rise of the Machines, which has three commentary tracks, an introduction from Schwarzenegger, two featurettes, and a gag reel. But the studio saved pennies by failing to upgrade the audio track on Terminator 3, so it fails to churn our insides the way T2 and even Salvation do when you pop them into your home-theater system and crank up the volume.
Salvation might be my least favorite of the four films, but Warner does the Blu-ray right, featuring the studio’s immersive Maximum Movie Mode (hosted by McG) and including a director’s cut of the 2009 sequel. Elsewhere on this two-disc set, Terminator fans will find features on reinventing the sci-fi- franchise after a long layover, a timeline of the series’ mythology, storyboard comparisons, and a lot more. Part of me wishes that such care was paid to the original Terminator, which rounds out the collection with a handful of vintage featurettes. But in all, the love shared on the entire Terminator series gives fans more than enough reason to grab this set, completing the number of films in your collection.
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