Why Terminator Genisys Needs Sarah Connor

While Terminator Genisys marks the franchise's return to the big screen, it marks the bigger return of its key character.

The Fourth of July weekend is almost here, which means one thing for genre fans—Terminator, or more aptly Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, is back. And Terminator Genisys is making sure you’re aware of that fact in all the marketing that features Schwarzenegger at his most steely and catchphrase equipped: “I’ve been waiting for you;” “I did not kill him;” and of course, “I’ll be back.”

But what is just as important, if not more so, is whom he’s talking to during these scenes. Indeed, the friendly T-800 is only one of several major character revivals in the July 1 release of Terminator Genisys, but not necessarily the most important. Rather, the emotional epicenter of the franchise’s greatest heights has also been resurrected in a new context. Sarah Connor has returned.

While Sarah Connor has been absent from the movie series for over 20 years, her impact has never wavered. In fact, it might be the disappearance of this tough-as-nails Mother of Humanity (now coincidentally played by HBO’s Mother of Dragons, Emilia Clarke), and her messiah movie subversion as a figure of action movie impartiality, that the other attempted continuations lacked.

Just as much as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unblinking stare, it is the presence of this woman that defines the series’ unique standing in the action genre, and her reemergence that hints at Terminator Genisys’ greatest weapon.

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From the Terminator franchise’s true genesis, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has not only been present, but apropos to the brilliance of its conceit. James Cameron had not even originally configured his horror-action thriller to include an action male hero like Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn in the 1984 film). Initially, this was a tale of two Terminators who came back to murder a woman who might one day conceive the savior of humanity.

His early set-up was ultimately much closer to what became Terminator 2: Judgment Day with a “good” but intimidating metallic killing machine warning Sarah of the impending danger, and then battling a liquid metal foe he could not kill. This idea was ultimately sidelined because there was no affordable way for the relatively low-budgeted film from a genre director like Cameron to create liquid metal. But the brilliant logic of the story remained the same, despite a dashing hero like Reese being added into the mix: instead of being a story of either a futuristic war between the male warrior and machines, or even the machines coming back to kill the soon-to-be alpha leader with the unsubtle messiah initials of J.C., the narrative and eventual saga preferred revolving around his mother.

Also perhaps playing into Christian allegory about the Madonna, Cameron was subverting action movie expectations for a grizzled male hero that has long been the norm. While the ‘80s he-man aesthetic was still a few years off, already other science fiction thrillers were more likely to star a hyper masculine Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky in The Road Warrior (an admitted influence on Cameron) or female-replicant assassinating Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. The Ellen Ripleys were few and far between.

As a result, the more traditional action hero casting of John Milius’ barbaric ubermensch, one Arnold Schwarzenegger, was ultimately submerged into the shadows of villainy. Seeing the Terminator as much a slasher monster reminiscent of a John Carpenter film as a testosterone fantasy, Cameron construed an explosion-driven film about a nigh supernatural evil male entity stalking and attempting to slaughter a female presence due to her innate sexuality—for how else could she bear the savior of humanity?

Of course, Cameron was still a few years away from writing and directing Ellen Ripley for himself, and there is a fair interpretation to be made of The Terminator since Sarah is often the victim whom Kyle Reese must save. Nevertheless, it is Sarah who finally destroys the T-800, not Kyle, and it is Sarah who must bear the devastating burden of knowledge about the world’s demise as she escapes into a desert exile, tending to her unborn child who can only save everything after all she’s ever known is ash. She might be a damsel for much of the film, but she is also its hero, outliving both Kyle Reese and the Terminator, and proving stronger still as she races headlong into an acknowledged oblivion.

Thus even before Terminator 2, Cameron had made Sarah Connor a welcome reimagining of the action genre’s shorthand for strength or even leadership. Still, she did not become an indelible icon until Hamilton was allowed to really kick ass in the sequel.

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With T2, Cameron at last had the clout and budget to return to his liquid metal idea, utilizing the still revolutionary computer generated imagery of ILM to make alloy slither across the screen. This also enabled Schwarzenegger, long an A-lister since The Terminator turned the Austrian bodybuilder into a bronze big screen demigod, to embrace his more cherished role as a deadpan action hero.

Yet, the emotional center of the movie, just as much as Schwarzenegger’s endearing relationship with a child John Connor (Edward Furlong), is the emotionally broken but mentally undefeated Sarah Connor. And in terms of physicality, she now has that trump card in spades too.

Once again, the filmmakers deprived audiences of their generic and expected male action hero since John Connor is only about 10-years-old in the film. Admittedly, this is supplemented by Arnold Schwarzenegger finally being allowed to play a swashbuckling Terminator, but it is also purely improved upon by also having Linda Hamilton rip onto the screen as arguably the most impressive and formidable female action hero in cinema history. With her arms as well sculpted as any liquid CGI creation, Hamilton has become a pop culture symbol for her performance as Sarah in T2, and she again has the narrative core of the film.

Many younger viewers might graft onto John Connor finding a surrogate dad in his not-so-gentle iron giant compatriot, yet it’s Sarah who has the emotional arc with Schwarzenegger. During their first meeting, Sarah has been depicted as tougher than Kyle Reese ever was—manipulating her psychiatric jailors and then physically outmatching them as well. But upon seeing the visage of her original tormentor in Schwarzenegger’s new T-800, she still crumbles like someone hovered over her mass grave.

It is her equal amounts of disdain for the Terminator and her final acceptance of him that provides the picture with its heartbreaking sendoff for the T-800; he is forced to self-terminate just as Sarah Connor has finally accepted him as a worthy protector of her son and possibly even a member of her family—a family she remains the head of after once more overpowering an antagonistic Terminator by wielding a shotgun that does most of the damage to the evil T-1000 (Robert Patrick) before a wounded Schwarzenegger can deliver the final coup d’etat. The movie then ends neither on the T-800’s noble sacrifice or young John Connor’s mourning for his metallic BFF. Rather, it is again about Sarah Connor on the road, considering her destiny and her own self-musings before blackness creeps in.

It’s also with that blackness that Sarah Connor has been lost to moviegoers for the last two decades. Both Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation made the same error of ignoring this unique presence that proved just as integral to the earlier films’ iconography as Schwarzenegger’s occasional cycloptic red eye. In contrast, both latter sequels elected to focus on the purportedly fan-desired machismo of John Connor. Salvation director McG even managed to nab arguably the best actor to ever appear in the franchise when he cast Christian Bale as the moody, stoic, and cliché messiah.

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But as it turned out, fans were not nearly as crazy about this approach. While T3 still earned an impressive $430 million at the box office off Schwarzenegger’s star power in his signature role, the film in retrospect resembles more as a terrific gubernatorial campaign ad for the actor than a career highlight. And Salvation brought the franchise much closer to the apocalypse than Skynet or any stealth cyborg could ever calculate. As Sarah vanished, so too did audience adoration for the series. 

Indeed, the lone piece of Terminator renewal that has been accepted by the fanbase in the last 15 years was Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. While that TV series certainly serialized the time traveling threat that seemed much more visceral in the James Cameron movies (and even Rise of the Machines), it also refocused the story back to its roots where the titular character was played by a very passionate Lena Headey. There was also Summer Glau, still riding her geek fandom from Firefly, as the only Terminator not played by Schwarzenegger or Patrick that was worth a damn…but it was inarguably Sarah Connor’s show. As she dealt with a teenage rebel growing into humanity’s savior—and his pet female robot that he lusted after—it was Sarah’s trial and tribulation as the shotgun-toting mother hen that propelled the series to a cult status that some fans (including this one) still recall fondly.

All of which is perhaps why Terminator Genisys has handled its conceptual premise so astutely. Bringing Schwarzenegger back as a stone-faced joke dispenser was crucial, but having a feminine presence that can still kick just as much cybernetic butt as him was probably more so. Genisys even further links their symbiotic relationship at the heart of the franchise closer together since in this film’s new timeline, it is Schwarzenegger’s latest T-800 that raised Sarah Connor from girlhood to the present. As a two-of-a-kind pair, they don’t even necessarily need John Connor to one day save them since much of the marketing revels in his new role as the film’s cybernetic villain.

Whether that end pays off or not, putting Sarah Connor front and center again as humanity’s salvation may also prove to be just that for the franchise.

Terminator Genisys is in theaters on July 1, 2015, but you can try to terminate me now on Twitter.


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