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."
But both continuations of James Cameron's vision are also asking very different questions: at its root, Sarah Connor Chronicles is about what it means to be human (in a similar way than BSG was), while Terminator Salvation will reportedly be all about how we view technology.
In T: SCC, our human characters struggle with the issue of fighting machines without losing their own humanity in the process. It's a constant question in the show: how far can you go before you lose what you're fighting to save? And at the same time, all of the show's artificial intelligences are probing the nature of humanity, and trying it on for size. Trying to understand what makes us humans tick (or stop ticking, if you apply enough pressure in the right spot.) You've got Cameron (Summer Glau) who's done ballet for no apparent reason other than enjoyment, who's tried to figure out how to become a better manipulator, and who's seemed to be practicing seduction on some occasions. You've got Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson) who's struggling to pretend to be a good mother for the cameras. And then there's John Henry, who's literally getting schooled, not just in ethics, but in the nature and value of human life, by former FBI agent Ellison. Every week, the show opens up the question of human frailties, and human greatness, a little more.
Meanwhile, in every interview, McG hits the same notes about Terminator Salvation: it's about our relationship with high tech. We can now give people replacement hearts, replacement joints, replacement limbs, brain pacemakers, and so on. What does all this technology mean for our future, and can we trust it? (It seems like a good theme for a huge-budget movie that can afford to show lots and lots of shiny toys.) In the film, Marcus (Sam Worthington) thinks he's a human, until he realizes his own body is mostly made of metal. And then, in the movie's third act, John Connor has to decide whether to trust this apparently sympathetic cyborg, Marcus, with his life — and everything hinges on that question. Can we trust technology?
So in a sense, you could say Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Terminator Salvation are going in opposite directions with the same ideas. The good news is, they're both pretty exciting. And hey, did I mention there's a new T:SCC episode on tonight at 8? There is.