To many people, the Terminator franchise consists of two movies, and it ended in 1991. Those people are missing out. The Terminator universe will never be as complex, and crazy-making, as it is now. Spoilers...
On the one hand, television's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has finally hit its stride, and it's asking similar questions about artificial intelligence and apocalypses as Battlestar Galactica or Twelve Monkeys. On the other, Terminator Salvation is looking like one of the summer's most interesting movies, with a plot about a man who discovers he's a cyborg.
These two versions of Terminator are utterly different from each other. They don't just contradict each other, they approach the basic premise of "killer cyborgs from the future" in wildly different ways. (Obviously, I haven't seen Terminator Salvation yet, so I'm going by the clips I've seen and my conversation with McG and some of the actors.) I can't remember a situation like this ever happening before: the Star Trek movies were on at the same time as TNG, DS9 and Voyager, but they were part of the same universe. Maybe the closest thing is The Dark Knight being in theaters the same year as Batman: The Brave And The Bold hit our television screens.
The difference is — apologies to Brave and Bold fans here — that both versions of Terminator seem ambitious. They're both trying to make a grander statement and create something better than disposable pop fluff.
If you've been watching Sarah Connor, you won't need to be told how ambitious that show is. It's like a sweeping novel, which delves intensely into the psyches of a half dozen or so characters. Every episode is full of introspection, but also little metaphors and artistic touches that reinforce the show's psychological investigation. Sarah Connor has grown into a fractured, paranoid, asskicking, reflective, complex character. Derek Reese's story arc, with his lost love from the future and all of his regrets, feels operatic. And then there's the great interplay between Ellison and John Henry. If the show has a weakness, it's that it's sometimes too ambitious and falls short of its aims. But even its harshest critics wouldn't accuse it of lacking ambition.
Meanwhile, I have no idea whether Terminator Salvation will be a great movie. But I do know that McG, and everyone else involved in making it, has been saying the right stuff about trying to create something more meaningful than just a summer splodebuster. McG's attempts to bring a new look to the series, with that "distressed" filmstock and a reliance, where possible, on practical effects by Stan Winston and company, seem like brave steps forward. Bringing on Jonathan Nolan to replace the Terminator 3 screenwriters also seems like a blessed relief. At the very least, it'll be miles better than T3 — the other day, someone asked McG about the humor in his film, and he said there isn't any. "There's not a great deal of humor and warmth in this world," he said. So no funny sunglasses, or "Talk to the hand."