Novelty and tradition in the Terminator films

Dr. Burgert Senekal, Universiteit van die Vrystaat.

Ensovoort, volume 43 (2022), nommer 10: 3


The Terminator films are some of the most widely known Hollywood films and their releases span more than three decades. In each film, directors attempted to tie in to previous films, while also attempting to offer viewers something novel in order to retain their interest in the franchise. The current article discusses the similarity-difference tradeoff in these films. In particular, the different depiction of gender roles and the man/machine opposition is discussed, highlighting how each film treated these issues differently. It is shown how machines progressively become more human from The Terminator to Terminator: Dark Fate, and how this increasingly human-like depiction of machines offers social commentary on the direction that mankind’s relationship with machines is taking.

Keywords: Artificial Intelligence, dystopian future, Terminator, Judgement Day, post-apocalyptic


The Terminator-franchise comprises some of the most popular films of all time (Beis, 2021:3). They have been referenced in popular comedies such as The Simpsons and The Family Guy, and often form the backdrop of discussions around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS) (e.g. by Miller, 2018; Garvey and Maskal, 2020; Sözübir, 2021). These films have also been discussed in a number of studies spanning over three decades (Necakov, 1987; French, 1996; Palumbo, 2008; Brown and Decker, 2009; Carrière, 2009; Beis, 2021; Duerre Humann, 2022). While some studies have highlighted how these films depict gender roles, in particular through the character of Sarah Connor (Palumbo, 2008; Beis, 2021), others have investigated how the films deal with the man/machine binary construct (Brown and Decker, 2009; Duerre Humann, 2022). Although a Hollywood creation for profit — with varying levels of success — the Terminator-franchise is therefore widely recognised as not only a (predominantly) action movie franchise, but also an important social commentary on the contemporary world.

The current study discusses all six Terminator films to date, focusing on how films tie in to what came before, and how they reinvent concepts and themes from earlier films. In particular, it is shown how the films progressively blur the line between man and machine, how differently gender roles are depicted between films, and how the concept of fate changes over time. As such, it is shown how each film tries to introduce an aspect of novelty, while also attempting to remain tied to the franchise.

Novelty in creative products

The popularity of creative products, such as songs, books or films, is widely regarded as a product of intrinsic and extrinsic attributes (Jing, DeDeo and Ahn, 2019). Extrinsic attributes include the reputation of the roleplayers involved (such as the actors or directors in a film, or the author or publisher of a book), or judgement by others (such as by critics or peers). Intrinsic attributes usually consider whether a new product finds the right balance between being innovative and being true to convention. For instance, Askin and Mauskapf (2017) found that popular songs were similar to other popular songs, but not too similar, in which case they did not achieve popularity. They (2017:915) argue, “In the context of popular music, songs must strike a balance between being recognizable and being different. Those that best manage this similarity-differentiation trade-off will attract more audience attention and experience more success.”

Regarding movie sequels, Heath et al. (2015:72) note the conflicting findings of Sood and Drèze (2006) and Hennig-Thurau, Houston and Heitjans (2009), where the former found that major innovations outperform minor innovations in determining the success of sequels, while the latter found that minor innovations outperform major innovations. Heath et al. (2015:72) find a nuance to innovation in movie sequels, “Minor innovations perform better earlier in franchises when novelty should be high and boredom low, whereas major innovations perform better later when novelty should be low and boredom high.”

The similarity-differentiation trade-off influencing success has been found in other fields as well, such as the success of firms (Swaminathan and Delacroix, 1991; Deephouse, 1999; Zhao et al., 2017), and the impact of scientific publications (Uzzi et al., 2013). In general, any successful creative product — be it movie, song, novel, scientific paper or painting — will be in some ways different from tradition, yet show a direct connection with tradition. In product development, Forti, Sobrero and Vezzulli (2020:230) make a similar argument to the one stated above by Askin and Mauskapf (2017),

In many industries, businesses develop new products that join an existing portfolio of products connected by a shared identity. However, this challenges NPD [New Product Development] teams to strike a balance between continuity and change. Continuity focuses on satisfying the preferences of existing customers and includes such things as repetition and incrementalism. Change focuses on novelty and radicalness.

More formally, Forti, Sobrero and Vezzulli (2020:231) state the similarity-differentiation trade-off, “Product attribute change has an inverted U-shaped relationship with new product performance such that moderate levels of change will perform better than low or high levels of change.” The challenge with creative products is then to find the correct combination of similarity and difference.

Jing, DeDeo and Ahn (2019) diverge from the above studies by finding that popularity decays the more novelty is introduced, with some outliers being both extremely novel and extremely popular. They (2019:2) state, “Success does not come from combining novelty and sameness, but from pushing one of these to the extreme.” In other words, successful creative works (fanfiction in Jing, DeDeo and Ahn’s (2019) study) need to be either more traditional than novel, or — in some cases — radically novel.

Regardless of the degree of novelty that determines the success of a product, it should be kept in mind that extrinsic factors have also been shown to affect success (Salganik and Watts, 2008, 2009; Fraiberger et al., 2018). In addition, the measure of success used is also important: critical acclaim does not always translate towards box office sales, and vice versa.

The above provides a background to the discussion of the six Terminator films (to date) below. Given that both intrinsic and extrinsic factors contribute to a film’s success, and that previous studies have not been able to reach a unanimous conclusion on what determines success — along with the question of what constitutes ‘success’ in the first place — I do not quantify similarity and difference in the current study. Rather, the approach is qualitative: I discuss how sequels tie in with previous films, and how they innovate.

A discussion of the Terminator films

Table 1 provides a list of the Terminator films, including their release dates and their ratings on IMDB, Amazon Prime, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. These four rating platforms are some of the most widely-used rating platforms that draw large numbers of reviewers from a global audience. In the case of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, I provide both the critic and user score.  The maximum possible score is stated in brackets at the top of columns, and the highest score is highlighted in green, while the lowest score is highlighted in red. While the first two films score the highest on all four platforms, the lowest scoring films differ significantly, with Terminator: Dark Fate scoring the lowest on IMDB, Amazon Prime and Metacritic (user), Terminator Genisys scoring the lowest on Amazon Prime and Rotten Tomatoes (critic), and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines scoring the lowest on Rotten Tomatoes (user). The diversity of scores on the lower end shows that while there is a significant amount of agreement about which films were the best, the same does not apply to which films were the worst. Overall, however, Terminator: Dark Fate is rated the worst by the highest number of rating platforms, followed by Terminator Genisys and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, while Terminator 2: Judgement Day is rated the best on the highest number of rating platforms.

Table 1. Ratings of Terminator films

Date Film Rating IMDB (10) Amazon Prime (5) Rotten Tomatoes (10) (critic) Rotten Tomatoes (5) (user) Metacritic (100) (critic) Metacritic (10) (user)
1984 The Terminator 8 4.7 8.8 4.2 84 7.6
1991 Terminator 2: Judgement Day 8.5 4.7 8.5 4.4 75 9
2003 Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines 6.3 4.6 6.5 3.1 66 7.4
2009 Terminator Salvation 6.5 4.5 5.1 3.3 49 6
2015 Terminator Genisys 6.3 4.4 4.7 3.3 38 5.8
2019 Terminator: Dark Fate 6.2 4.3 6.2 4.1 54 3.9

The ratings in Table 1 are mostly reflected by box office earnings, as can be seen in Table 2 below, which shows the box office earnings for all six Terminator films. Data on box office earnings are from The Numbers (2022). Because films were released 35 years apart, the last column is particularly valuable, since it provides more easily comparable figures ($1 in 1984 is of course not the same as $1 in 2019). This last column shows that Terminator: Dark Fate — which was rated the worst on the highest number of rating platforms in Table 1 — earned the worst when figures are adjusted for inflation, while Terminator 2: Judgement Day — which was rated the best in Table 1 — earned the highest at the US box office. Unfortunately, The Numbers (2022) does not provide inflation adjusted numbers for international and worldwide box office earnings, but the high earnings of Terminator Genisys at the international box office suggests that the US and global markets can differ significantly. In general, however, Terminator 2: Judgement Day was the greatest box office success of the Terminator films, while Terminator: Dark Fate performed the worst.

Table 2. Box office earnings of Terminator films

Date Film Domestic Box Office International Box Office Worldwide Box Office Inflation Adjusted

Domestic Box Office

1984 The Terminator $38,019,031 $40,000,000 $78,019,031 $103,364,472
1991 Terminator 2: Judgement Day $203,464,105 $311,926,778 $515,390,883 $440,837,952
2003 Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines $150,358,296 $282,700,000 $433,058,296 $228,404,966
2009 Terminator Salvation $125,322,469 $240,169,323 $365,491,792 $153,060,513
2015 Terminator Genisys $89,760,956 $342,389,938 $432,150,894 $97,533,848
2019 Terminator: Dark Fate $62,253,077 $188,119,290 $250,372,367 $62,253,077

The following subsections discuss these films in more detail, and focus on their similarities and differences from other films in the franchise.

The Terminator (1984)

In The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), the viewer is introduced to what would become a 30-year long franchise consisting of six films (to date) and a television series, along with a multitude of computer games and fanfiction. In the future, an artificial intelligence entity is developed for military applications by a company called Cyberdyne Systems and is called Skynet. On August 29, 1997, Skynet becomes self aware and instigates a nuclear holocaust when mankind tries to destroy it. Led by John Connor, humans eventually defeat Skynet in 2029, and in a desperate attempt to survive, Skynet sends a terminator, a T-800[1] (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) back from 2029 to 1984 to kill John Connor’s mother, Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton). The future John Connor however manages to send back one of his soldiers, Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn), to protect her. As the film progresses, Kyle and Sarah fall in love, and conceive John. In the end, Sarah kills the terminator after Kyle’s death, but the T-800’s microchip and arm survive, which will feature in the second film.

The timeline of events suggested by The Terminator will become even more difficult to grasp in future films. By sending a terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor, Skynet prompts humans to send back a protector, who ends up siring John. Thus, “Skynet orchestrates its own defeat in trying to circumvent it” (Palumbo, 2008:424) — it would seem that the simplest way to kill John Connor would have been to not send back a terminator in the first place. Terminator 2: Judgement Day will however add more information, which will be discussed later.

The Terminator also introduces the first machine that passes for a human. Littmann (2009:10) rightly notes,

… the Model T-101 (Big Arnie) passes for a human being to almost everyone he meets, including three muggers (“nice night for a walk”), a gun-store owner (“twelve-gauge auto-loader, the forty-five long slide”), the police officer attending the front desk at the station (“I’m a friend of Sarah Connor”), and to Sarah herself, who thinks she is talking to her mother on the telephone (“I love you too, sweetheart”).

While this terminator is not regarded as human, he is perceived as human, and the theme of questioning the line between human and machine will become a prominent theme in future films.

The Terminator introduces John Connor as the saviour of the human race, which already suggests religious and mythical undertones (Carrière, 2009). Carrière (2009) notes that John Connor’s initials correspond to those of Jesus Christ, which strengthens his characterisation as the hope of mankind. Combe and Boyle (2015:14) similarly refer to Sarah Connor as “the modern Virgin Mary,” and in the first film her character is notably feminine. Later, in Terminator: Dark Fate, Sarah mistakenly thinks Dani will give birth to the new saviour of mankind, and remarks, “Let someone else be Mother Mary for a while.” Palumbo (2008:416) however notes that Kyle is the virgin of John’s two parents, who remarks that he has never been intimate with a woman. Thus the virgin birth of the saviour is alluded to, but subverted.

The Terminator also subverts the traditional father/son relationship. In the future, John acts as a father to Kyle by rescuing him and teaching him how to fight. John becomes Kyle’s surrogate father, yet Kyle is John’s biological father (Palumbo, 2008:417). John and Kyle become, “each […] father to the other” (Palumbo, 2008:423).

It is however The Terminator’s depiction of gender roles which has attracted the most attention in scholarship. Necakov (1987:84) describes The Terminator as, “a film which works within the limitations of classical Hollywood and at the same time manages to be subversive and ideologically challenging.” The character of Sarah Connor has been hailed as a milestone in the representation of women in SciFi films (Beis, 2021:11). Sarah transforms herself through the course of the film “from a ditsy, incompetent waitress who doesn’t have a date for Friday night into a ‘legend,’ a determined survivalist who is completely dedicated to, and capable of, raising her unborn son to be humanity’s future savior” (Palumbo, 2008:422). Towards the end of the film, after Reese’s death, she manages to kill the terminator by herself, signifying her transformation to the strong mother of the future leader of mankind’s resistance.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

In the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron, 1991), a terminator — an enhanced T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick) — is again sent back through time, this time to kill John Connor (played by Edward Furlong) himself while he is still a child. As in the first film, a protector is sent by the future John Connor, this time the reprogrammed T-800 of the first film (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger). The second film, however, is not only concerned with keeping John alive as in the first film, but also to prevent Skynet from declaring war on humans in the first place. To this end, Sarah, John and the T-800 destroy Cyberdyne Systems, the company responsible for developing Skynet. They also destroy the T-1000 and the T-800, together with the arm and microchip that were not destroyed in the first film and which facilitated research into advanced robotics (although the T-800 again loses an arm in a factory and the characters seem to forget about this risk, but future films will not use this detail). In the process, the T-800 becomes like a father to John and the two develop a close bond, also highlighting the T-800’s ability to learn to become more human.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day reveals that the technology that develops into Skynet is based on the arm and microchip recovered after Sarah killed the first T-800 in The Terminator. Palumbo (2008:424) remarks, “Skynet enables its own conception – as well as John Connor’s – by sending the robot back in time [in the the first film]; it both creates and destroys itself in the same attempt to prevent its enemy’s birth.”

Terminator 2: Judgement Day departs from the previous film in a number of important ways. Firstly, while The Terminator is generally regarded as a film with strong horror undertones, Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an action film. This change in genre marks a noticeable departure from the first film and all further sequels will be action movies.

Secondly, in the first film, all machines were depicted as evil human-killing robots, whereas the T-800 in the second film becomes the protector of John and thereby mankind, and is described as a would-be father for John and one that earns Sarah’s respect. By the end of the film, the terminator is considered a person by both John and Sarah (Littmann, 2009:9): John begs him to stay, while Sarah shakes his hand. This relationship between man and machine is one that future films will elaborate on. On the other hand, the T-1000 has more capabilities to pass as a human than the T-800, which include passing for different humans and even convincing John’s foster father that he is his wife (Littmann, 2009:11).

Thirdly, the first film was so preoccupied with keeping Sarah alive that there was no possibility to attempt to prevent Skynet from eradicating mankind. However, with Sarah now no longer in the role of damsel in distress (see below), with the power of the T-800 at their disposal, and with a young but capable John, the team is strong enough to contemplate an attack on Skynet’s roots. With this new-found strength Reese’s words from the first film inspire a new ethos: “The future’s not set.” Future films will also engage with the concept of fate, albeit differently (see further).

Fourthly, the Sarah Connor the viewer meets in Terminator 2: Judgement Day is decidedly transformed from the innocent young woman encountered in the first film (Beis, 2021:12). Combe and Boyle (2015:14) write,

During her escape and once she is out of the mental institution, viewers witness her physical transformation into a masculine warrior. Her long hair, in the first film carefully styled and colored blondish, is straight and longer, not dyed or styled, and usually pragmatically restrained in a ponytail. Her clothing is equally hardnosed, as she wears functional cargo pants and tight-fitting tank tops that display her muscularly developed — and thereby masculine — arms.

Sarah also shows very little in terms of feminine qualities. Throughout the film, Sarah displays little tenderness towards John, and rather focuses on his physical than psychological well-being (Beis, 2021:12). She has become the ‘legend’ that Reese refers to in The Terminator, but is more a trainer and protector than a mother of John.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day constitutes a major departure from the first film, in terms of style, how machines are viewed, gender roles and how fate is considered. On the other hand, much remains the same: the timeline remains as described in The Terminator, with Judgement Day still scheduled for August 29 1997, the narrative of John remaining the hope of mankind and Sarah’s role as the mother of the saviour remaining. Terminator 2: Judgement Day therefore follows logically on the first film and expands on issues raised therein, making this sequel both similar and different to the first film. This was also the most successful of the Terminator films, achieving the highest critical acclaim (as shown in Table 1) and the highest box office revenues (as shown in Table 2).

Terminator 3: Rise of the machines (2003)

The third film in the Terminator-series, Terminator 3: Rise of the machines (Mostow, 2003), subverts the previous film’s belief in changing mankind’s long-term destiny by depicting the rise of Skynet as inevitable. A terminator is again sent back through time, this time a female, highly-enhanced terminator, the T-X (played by Kristanna Loken), and as in the second film, a reprogrammed T-850[2] (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back as a protector. In this film, the T-850 is sent back from 2032 to protect John Connor’s lieutenants, since the future John has already been killed by the same T-850. Neither the T-X nor the T-850 could locate John (played by Nick Stahl) in the past, who had lived off the grid since Sarah died of cancer. By chance, John crosses paths with one of his future lieutenants and future wife, Kate (played by Claire Danes), and the chase ensues. In the end, John tries to stop Skynet with Kate’s help, but it is too late.

This film offers the least variation on the common Terminator plot: the killer terminator is female, the targets are John’s lieutenants, but in general the plot follows the familiar narrative seen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day of a terminator sent back in time, as well as a protector, various chase scenes develop and John survives.

However, alongside the repetitions of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a key moment occurs in Terminator 3: Rise of the machines when the T-X reprogrammed the T-850 to kill John, but the T-850 refuses his new programming and shuts himself down. Littmann (2009:16) remarks, “This seems less like a computer crash than a mental breakdown caused by emotional conflict.” While the film depicts this event as a conflict of programming, I agree with Littmann’s (2009:16) assessment: refusing to follow orders is a sharp deviation from machine-like behaviour and builds on the human characteristics of the T-850. This event foreshadows the next film, where the new terminator also refuses to carry out his orders. Nevertheless, John does not develop a similar bond with the T-850 as he had in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but the film alludes to his earlier bond when the T-850 states that he killed John in the future after being selected for John’s emotional bond with him. John’s emotional bond with the T-850 therefore leads to his future death. On the other hand, the T-X is mistaken for human as in previous films, but she uses her female form to achieve her aims, thereby introducing a sexuality to the concept of the terminator that is not taken up by future films.

Since Sarah has already died of cancer by the time the film starts, she does not play a direct role in Terminator 3: Rise of the machines, although she left a cache of weapons for John to use and thereby her presence becomes more vestigial (the inscription on her grave reads, “No fate but what we make.”). It is however noteworthy that Sarah leaves weapons for John, rather than something of sentimental value, which showcases her as the tough militaristic Sarah depicted in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Kate is a similarly strong female character, and after she shoots down a drone, John remarks, “You remind me of my mother.”

Fate is also considered differently in Terminator 3: Rise of the machines than in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. John believes that Judgement Day was averted when he and Sarah destroyed Cyberdyne Systems in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and August 29 1997 passed without a nuclear holocaust. However, they simply postponed the event, and during the new Judgement Day in 2003, all he can do is stay safe in a bunker with Kate. Judgement Day could therefore not be averted, but only postponed. As the T-850 says, “Judgement Day is inevitable.”

The above shows that Terminator 3: Rise of the machines is highly similar to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but without the strong character of Sarah, the bond between the T-850 and John, and the belief in changing the fate of mankind. Unlike the transition between The Terminator to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the machines removes these valuable elements that were added to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, without replacing them with something of similar value. The film was not well received and Carrière (2009) calls Terminator 3: Rise of the machines a “disappointment”. However, as shown in Tables 1 and 2, Terminator 3: Rise of the machines is generally considered to be the middle film in terms of critical acclaim and box office revenues.

Terminator: Salvation (2009)

The fourth film in the Terminator-franchise, Terminator: Salvation (Nichol, 2009), breaks the mould of the first three movies by setting the film in the future (in 2018). Skynet had become self-aware and had already exterminated much of mankind, and John Connor (played by Christian Bale) is at war with the machines in the war that was foretold in the first three movies. The terminator, Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington), is also a variation on earlier models: rather than making the terminator ever stronger and more capable — as happened progressively in the first three movies — the terminator of Terminator: Salvation is almost human and does not regard himself as a machine. He even helps John survive and to rescue Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin), who has been captured by Skynet. Ultimately, he sacrifices his own life to save John’s, which is the exact opposite of what he was designed for.

In line with previous Terminator films, Sarah’s presence looms large in Terminator: Salvation despite her passing, where John often consults the tapes she left behind for guidance. It is however noteworthy that she left behind her insights, rather than the weapons left behind for John in Terminator 3: Rise of the machines, which shows a slightly softer Sarah than in the previous film. Other female characters are similarly strong, such as John’s pregnant wife Kate (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), and the fighter pilot, Blair Williams (played by Moon Bloodgood). The latter is so strong-willed that she defies John’s orders and risks her life to save Marcus Wright.

Apart from setting the film in the future, Terminator: Salvation’s greatest deviation from earlier films is in the design of the new terminator. Duerre Humann (2022) rightly notes the liminal position occupied by this terminator, since he is the only terminator to not only act human-like, but he also identifies as human: “Instead of clearly delineating man versus machine (which was the trend in earlier films in the Terminator series), Terminator: Salvation moves beyond this dichotomy” (Duerre Humann, 2022). Combe and Boyle (2015:23) also single out this terminator’s uniqueness, “Marcus Wright is not either/or a man or a machine, but a problematic third wheel to the human/monster binary. Marcus is both, and therefore he is neither.” Note also that Marcus is given a human name, not a model designation such as the T-800, T-1000 or T-X, which further strengthens his characterisation as human. Marcus Wright is however considered a machine by both Skynet and most of the humans (with the exception of Blair), since they allow him to donate his heart to John even though this act goes against medical ethics. Duerre Humann (2022) notes, “it is by offering up himself as a donor that Marcus Wright epitomizes the best of human nature (self-sacrifice), yet his sacrifice is only allowed because he is not recognized as (fully) human.” Terminator: Salvation therefore expands on the relationship between man and machine and the blurring of the line between the two, as seen in the first three films, but constitutes a radical break with Terminator-tradition by creating a truly liminal character.

The above shows that unlike Terminator 3: Rise of the machines, Terminator: Salvation constitutes a radical departure from earlier films. This is done primarily through setting the film in the future and by reconceptualising the terminator. However, the film retains continuity with the earlier films by depicting the fulfilment of the prophecy of the war against Skynet, and the new terminator can be seen as a continuation of the increasingly human-like terminators in the previous films. As seen in Tables 1 and 2, Terminator: Salvation received a mixed reaction: the film did not receive much critical acclaim, but not the worst, and it did not earn well at the box office, but also not the worst.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

The fifth film in the Terminator-franchise, Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015), returns to the plot of the first three films by following the familiar pattern of sending a terminator back in time, as well as a protector. However, the timeline is altered: Kyle Reese (played by Jai Courtney), returning to the scene where he arrived in The Terminator, finds Sarah Connor (played by Emilia Clarke) expecting both him and the T-1000 (played by Lee Byung-hun) from the second film. The terminators of the first two films are promptly destroyed, making this the first Terminator film in which terminators are easily overcome. Another T-800 (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) had been sent back in time to protect Sarah as a child, and this T-800 has become like a father to her, like the T-800 had become like a father to John in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It is however unknown who sent this T-800 back in time. As in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the main characters attempt to destroy Skynet (now called Genisys), which is not conceived as an exclusively military technology as in previous films, but rather a civilian app (virtually identical to Apple’s IOS) with military applications. Genisys is however equated with Skynet, as young Kyle repeats in front of the mirror: “Genisys is Skynet.” The name change is presumably the result of the altered timeline in Terminator Genisys. In a radical departure from previous films, John Connor (played by Jason Clarke) becomes the new terminator that is sent back in time to stop them. As always, the hostile terminator is destroyed, which in this case means killing John Connor himself.

Terminator Genisys expands the concept of a human/machine hybrid as was done in Terminator: Salvation, but whereas Marcus Wright in Terminator: Salvation had sided with the humans, John Connor sides with the machines in Terminator Genisys. However, the new John offers something novel: peaceful co-existence if humans are willing to become hybrids. The increasing humanity in previous terminators therefore evolves into the first offer of a ceasefire between machine and man since the franchise started. This is also the first opportunity for a compromise that does not entail the total destruction of one of the parties to the conflict. Fearing that hybridisation would entail the destruction of mankind, Sarah and Kyle reject this offer, and ultimately destroy their son. On the other hand, the T-800 in Terminator Genisys is closer to a human being than the T-800s that preceded it: Sarah’s relationship with him is much closer than the one John had with him in Terminator 2: Judgement Day as they have known each other for over a decade by the time the film starts, he is seen to compete with Kyle for Sarah’s attention, and he makes jokes.

As the new terminator is a hybrid between man and machine, so the depiction of Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys is a hybrid of the Sarah of The Terminator and the Sarah of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. She has the strong character of the Sarah in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but with a softer appearance more similar to her character in The Terminator. Her character’s strong element is however foregrounded: The viewer meets her in the role of saviour of Kyle Reese in the scene from The Terminator, thus subverting the protector/protectee role found in the first film. She even says the line, “Come with me if you want to live,” which Kyle said in the same scene in the first film (and to Marcus Wright in Terminator: Salvation), thus also subverting the protector/protectee role through dialogue. Sarah, who transformed from the damsel in distress to the legendary mother of the leader of the resistance in The Terminator, therefore has transformed to the point where even her earlier character is rewritten, erasing the character that the audience first encountered.

Terminator Genisys constitutes a radical departure from earlier films by rewriting the timeline, reconceptualising Skynet as Genisys, and casting John Connor in the role of the terminator. At the same time, there is a strong continuity with earlier films by recreating the settings and terminators of the first two films (notably not scenes from Terminator 3: Rise of the machines), having Genisys developed by Danny Dyson, the son of Miles Dyson, who was the developer of Skynet according to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and by finally depicting the scene where John sends Kyle back through time, which was told in The Terminator. In addition, the theme of Skynet being its own creator, as was seen in the first two films when Skynet could not have been developed had it not sent a terminator back through time that would leave its arm and microchip behind, is continued by having John work on the Genisys project. This film was not well received and as shown in Tables 1 and 2, received some of the worst critical acclaim and did not perform well at the box office.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

The sixth Terminator film, Terminator: Dark Fate (Miller, 2019), resumes the storyline after Terminator 2: Judgement Day and ignores all the films that came after it. Following the successful destruction of Skynet in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Sarah (again played by Linda Hamilton) and John (again played by Edward Furlong) live in Guatemala, where John is killed by a terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger). Subsequently, Sarah now spends her time hunting and killing terminators, with the help of a mysterious source.

The viewer learns that while Skynet had been destroyed, a different AI entity, Legion, had carried out the same destruction of mankind as Skynet had done in the previous timeline. Following successful human resistance, Legion sends a terminator back in time to kill the leader of the resistance, just as Skynet had done. The new terminator, the REV-9 (played by Gabriel Luna), is even stronger than any of the previous terminators and is capable of splitting himself in two. The new leader of the human resistance is a young woman, Dani Ramos (played by Natalia Reyes), and the protector that was sent back in time is also a female, Grace (played by Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced human. Sarah teams up with them and the T-800 who killed John to protect the new leader of the human resistance.

The feminisation of the cast is Terminator: Dark Fate’s most obvious departure from earlier films: the character of John Connor has been replaced by Dani Ramos, and Kyle Reese has been replaced by Grace. Note the similar-sounding names of the protectors: Reese and Grace. It is also noteworthy that while the hope of mankind had hitherto been a white male who shares his initials with Jesus Christ, the new hope of mankind is a Latino female with no obvious religious connotations, which is likely due to changing cultural norms regarding representativity.

This film places greater emphasis on the ability of AI to learn: in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the viewer saw how the T-800 could learn to act more human, but in Terminator: Dark Fate, this ability to learn has made it possible for the T-800 who killed John Connor to live a normal life as a human, even to the point of forming a relationship with a woman and starting its own business selling drapes. The T-800 now even has a name, Carl, whereas he was simply called Pops in Terminator Genisys and Uncle Bob in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. While previous terminators were mistaken for humans in all previous films, this T-800 is therefore accepted as a human and integrated into society. He also admits to helping Sarah because he wanted her to have a purpose, since he realised he had taken her purpose away by killing John. This shows a form of remorse that no previous terminator had shown.

The formation of Legion after Skynet had been destroyed also places a question mark over mankind’s ability to change fate, as the mantra in earlier movies stated: “No fate but what we make.” Sarah seems forever doomed to fight terminators and if one self-aware AI entity is destroyed, another takes its place. She laments,

I get these texts. Precise GPS coordinates, dates, times, down to the second. They always end with the same two words. “For John.” So I pack up every weapon I’ve got, and I head to those coordinates to kill whoever is messing with me. The air splits open above a parking lot and a terminator drops out. So I destroy it. And then two years later, same thing. Location, time, date, “For John.” I frag that one, too.

While previous Terminator films had preserved a large measure of narrative continuity by retaining the core elements of the Terminator-franchise, namely that Skynet will ultimately declare war on humans and that John Connor would save mankind, Terminator: Dark Fate constitutes a new timeline. Despite Terminator: Salvation’s radical departure from earlier movies, it still retained these elements, and the same can be said about Terminator Genisys. At the same time, the new timeline of Terminator: Dark Fate is not reinvented as in Terminator Genisys: John is merely substituted by Dani, as Skynet is merely substituted by Legion. This film is generally not highly regarded in the Terminator-franchise, and as was shown in Table 1, the film was rated the lowest by the highest number of rating platforms and also earned the lowest at the box office as shown in Table 2. Beis (2021:3) also excludes the film from his study, arguing, “it cannot be considered representative of the Terminator films,” partly because of its lack of innovation.


From the above, it appears that the most major innovations were introduced in the later films, in particular in the most recent three. This may be an attempt by directors to regain the audience’s attention; as noted earlier, Heath et al. (2015:72) found that major innovations perform better later in a franchise, while minor innovations are more successful early in the development of a franchise. From Tables 1 and 2, however, it does not seem whether these attempts at innovation were successful, with the first three films being more successful at the box office and achieving higher critical acclaim than the latter three.

While the various directors responsible for the Terminator franchise have not created a consistent storyline, one thing all these films have in common is the inevitability of AI destroying most of mankind, but mankind ultimately triumphing. While the characters did not attempt to stop Judgement Day in The Terminator, they succeeded in doing so in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, only to discover that it had been postponed in Terminator 3: Rise of the machines, or substituted by another AI entity in Terminator: Dark Fate. Nothing has come from Kyle Reese’s message in The Terminator, “The future’s not set”; no matter how many terminators the characters kill or how many research laboratories they destroy, the end result is a nuclear holocaust. The same also applies to the AI entity: whether it is Skynet, Genisys or Legion, and regardless of how sophisticated its terminators become, it always loses against the humans, and yet it always manages to recover.

What does change over the course of these six films, however, is the relationship between man and machine. The Terminator films all highlight the increasingly difficult line of distinction between a human and a machine. Note the following timeline:

  1. The Terminator: a machine is mistaken for a human being;
  2. Terminator 2: Judgement Day: a machine develops a relationship with a human being;
  3. Terminator 3: Rise of the machines: a machine defies programming to save a human life;
  4. Terminator: Salvation: a machine identifies as human;
  5. Terminator Genisys: a machine becomes Sarah’s only relationship until Reese arrives;
  6. Terminator: Dark Fate: a machine integrates into society, forms relationships and starts his own business, even exhibiting a form of remorse.

Regardless of box office success and critical acclaim, the films that radically reinvented the concept of the terminator offers, in my view, the most interesting commentaries on the future of mankind’s relationship with AI. The human terminator in Terminator: Salvation, who himself identifies as human, or the T-800 who forms a relationship with a woman and starts his own business in Terminator: Dark Fate, finds a parallel with the robot, Sophia, who was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia (Reynolds, 2018). The hybrid form of John Connor in Terminator Genisys not only provided a possible solution for the never ending conflict between the two sides in these movies, but also finds a parallel in contemporary AI-driven prosthetics (Nayak and Kumar Das, 2020). The remorse shown by the T-800 in Terminator: Dark Fate finds a parallel with current AI conversational agents that show emotion towards humans and above all, the friendship that developed between man and machine in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Terminator: Salvation, and Terminator Genisys finds a parallel in current AI conversational agents that develop friendships with humans (Daalderop, 2020). The never ending conflict between man and machine, each never achieving the ultimate victory, shows the inextricable fates of man and machine.


The current study explored the Terminator-franchise, a series of six films that were released over three decades apart. It was shown how each film found ties with previous films, while simultaneously trying to distinguish themselves by creating something novel. This novelty entails, in each film, reconsidering the relationship and the boundary between man and machine, while also depicting gender roles differently and reinterpreting the timeline and the inevitability of Judgement Day.

While the continuing conflict between man and machine in the Terminator films is undoubtedly in the interest of profit for Hollywood, it also signifies the inextricable destinies of man and machine. No matter how hard the characters fight against the machines, or how smart the machines fight back, neither ultimately wins. This, I believe, is the core message of these films: we need each other.


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[1] The designation T-800 refers to the skeleton, while the designation T-101 refers to the skin. Films sometimes refer to the T-800 and sometimes to the T-101, but for the sake of consistency, I refer to the T-800, except in Terminator 3: Rise of the machines, where the skeleton is the T-850.

[2] The T-850 is virtually identical to the T-800, but specified as a T-850.