Terminator - Still going great guns?

It's been 25 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger fired up a franchise that set a new standard in sci-fi. But can the new 'Terminator' movie carry the same clout, asks Tim Walker

Can you hear it? The thud, thud, thud of an approaching monster? That's the sound of composer Brad Fiedel's seminal synth soundtrack for The Terminator, and this time it's set to the trailer for one of the most anticipated films in a summer packed with science fiction blockbusters, Terminator Salvation. A vivid sense memory of the new movie's three predecessors, Fiedel's theme makes the heart pump with the fear and excitement they provoked.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger first materialised on the streets of Los Angeles wearing nothing but his birthday suit, it was 1984; a year of unsatisfactory sci-fi sequels and one grandly conceived blockbuster disaster. Star Trek III: the Search for Spock conformed to the common wisdom regarding Trek movies – even numbers good, odd numbers baaad; 2010 was never likely to live up to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey; and David Lynch's epic $40m visualisation of Frank Herbert's bestseller, Dune, had Sting in it.

The Terminator, meanwhile, was a lean, low-budget (about $6.5m) production with big ideas – the end of the human race! – compacted into a story with just three characters: Schwarzenegger's unstoppable killer robot; his quarry, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton); and his human adversary Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Unlike its competitors, which contrived to attract the blockbuster audiences weaned on Star Wars, James Cameron's concept was from a more upmarket strain of science fiction, one previously cultivated by Ridley Scott in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), based on the Philip K Dick science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Like Alien, The Terminator wasn't hokey, it was horrifying. Cameron and Scott seemed less concerned with space battles than with the implications of technology. Was humanity in the process of destroying itself, creating, in sentient cyborgs (The Terminator, Blade Runner), or biological weaponry (Alien), the tools to make itself redundant? What would happen if machines started thinking for themselves? And, more pertinently for sci-fi fans, was the burgeoning special effects technology about to render such things as plot, character or theme surplus to requirements?

While Dune flopped, Cameron's film flourished. By 1991, when The Terminator's sequel was released, he could command rather larger budgets. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was the first film to cost more than $100m. (Titanic [1997], another Cameron creation, was the first to break the $200m barrier). However, in his hands, that cash was used to craft groundbreaking digital effects that, crucially, helped to advance narrative. The molten metal T-1000 assassin was, in Cameron's own words, a Porsche to Schwarzenegger's Panzer. Sarah Connor and her now 10-year-old son, John (Edward Furlong), future leader of the human resistance, were on the run from the T-1000 with the help of Schwarzenegger's T-800 cyborg, who was co-opted as an ally.

Hollywood had been suffering from a science fiction drought. Earlier in '91 another Star Trek movie had made it to the screen; Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (an even number, and therefore a passable sequel) was the last film captained by Shatner's Kirk before the next generation took over. T2 was the only major sci-fi to appear that summer, and it was huge – the highest grossing film of the year, in fact, making more than $200m in the US alone. With its effects innovations and box-office success, it rebooted the entire genre.

In the eyes of many fans, T2 is still the best movie of the bunch, though it ended on an optimistic note at odds with the bleak vision of its fellow Terminators. In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, directed by Jonathan Mostow, Judgement Day finally arrived; the third film ended with the nuclear holocaust foretold in the first two instalments. The rest of T3, however, was a cartoonish retread of T2, with a fat Arnie and a wimpy, twentysomething John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl) trying to stay ahead of a sexy Terminator upgrade, the T-X, and halt Skynet's ascendance.

By 2003, the Terminator franchise was tired, and the sci-fi genre seemed to have run out of ideas. Both Matrix sequels, The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions were released that year, with considerably more fanfare than they eventually deserved, while John Woo directed the forgettable Paycheck (also from a Philip K Dick story) starring Ben Affleck. Each of these films once again asked when technology would stop serving humanity and start destroying it. But none of them managed to do so with the originality or vitality of either of the first two Terminator movies.

If The Terminator mixed Blade Runner's grim sci-fi pallet with some zombie/slasher horror tropes, and T2 was a Lethal Weapon-esque mismatched-buddy movie set on the road, then T3 is an apocalyptic coming-of-age romance. The latest film, on the other hand, is a straightforward war movie, set during the future struggle between humans and machines, from which the original's protagonists were sent to 1984. And the formerly fey John Connor has finally matured into the hero we were promised.

Terminator Salvation, however, is coming over the horizon into a landscape dotted with other potential sci-fi spectaculars. Already this season, the eleventh Star Trek film has broken the evens-odds rule by being the finest Trek yet. Bruce Willis is set to star in Surrogates, about a near future in which the human race lies at home while robotic ciphers live their lives for them; it could be awful, but it could be as slick and satisfying as Minority Report (2002) and I, Robot (2004).

Pandorum stars Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid as two crew members who wake aboard their spaceship unable to remember who they are, or why they're there. Of course, there are fellow travellers hiding in the depths of the craft, intent on killing them.

Among 2009's lower-profile releases will be Moon, the 2001-ish debut by the British director Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie, son of David); Gamer, about a supersoldier stuck in a futuristic first-person videogame; and District 9, a South African production backed by Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, which explores immigration through the lens of an alien visitation plot. And then there are the two really big-hitters: Michael Bay's supersequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Cameron's endlessly, hotly anticipated Avatar.

Terminator Salvation's most interesting character promises to be not Bale's shouty John Connor, now leading the resistance against Skynet's robot army, but Marcus Wright (played by newcomer Sam Worthington): a former death-row inmate who – one way or another – encapsulates the battle between humans and machines. To judge from the trailer and some middling US reviews, the film itself is fighting an internal battle between the dark, thought-provoking sci-fi of Cameron and Bay's big, dumb, thought-crushing robots.

Though he bestowed his blessing on McG, the new film's director, Cameron left the Terminator franchise behind some time ago. Indeed, Titanic was his last major Hollywood film. In the intervening years he has concentrated on underwater, 3-D documentaries such as Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005). Avatar, which will also be in 3-D, features a wounded ex-Marine (also played by Worthington), who reluctantly takes part in the invasion and exploitation of a new planet. The idea has been gestating for more than a decade, but Cameron waited until 2006 to begin production because he wanted to develop the technical tools and effects necessary to realise his vision. When it finally arrives in December, Avatar is expected to blow the genre – and film technology – apart once more.

Blockbuster sci-fi is whirring into life again, bigger and more powerful than ever. Now, the question must be: is Terminator Salvation going to resuscitate a dying franchise in style, like Star Trek, or has the series become merely another source of disappointing, robotic clones?

'Terminator Salvation' opens on 3 June

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