So, as you’re probably aware, the Terminator franchise is in a bit of a shambles these days. The latest instalment, Terminator Genisys, was a commercial flop and the entire future of the franchise is in question at this point. There’s been a great deal of debate on the subject of why this is the case. Everything from the writing, to the low rating, to Kyle Reese going from a malnourished, PTSD-ridden former child soldier to a muscular, snarky stud-muffin has been raised as a possible cause.
But really, what ruined Genysis was something that no one seems to have realised. In fact, Genysis came closer to what the franchise needs than ‘Rise of the Machines’ or ‘Salvation’ managed. You see, Terminator’s problem is that no one seems to have realised that neither John Connor, nor the T-800 are the heroes of the franchise anymore and they haven’t been for a long time. In an interesting twist of fate, every single one of the zig-zagging decisions the franchise has made since the original film, has made Sarah Connor the more obvious hero that the films should be focusing on.
You see, while Terminator is a sci-fi franchise, it has strong roots in fantasy. You have John Connor, the destined chosen one who will save humanity from annihilation. His future greatness is foretold thanks to time travel and Sarah works to raise him to be the great man the world needs him to be. And for the first film, John is undeniably the hero; everything Sarah and Kyle do is to ensure John’s existence so he can save humanity. John is the messiah with liberal dashes of military leader and alpha male. The paradoxical nature of his existence only adds to his messianic overtones; he only exists because the machines attempted to erase him from history. He literally came into existence because humanity needed a saviour.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s initial role in this tale of humanity’s greatest trial revolves around the fact that she is a woman with lady parts. Her primary role in the narrative is to have vigorous, unprotected sex and then survive long enough to give birth to and name her child; anything else is a bonus. But then T-2 came out and Sarah’s place in the series began to change.
Sarah’s essential role in John’s destiny is over by this point; John has been born and she’s taught him all sorts of tricks he’ll need to survive. The T-800’s lack of interest in saving Sarah underlines this; as far as John’s grand destiny is concerned, she doesn’t matter anymore.
But Sarah doesn’t want to just sit back and accept her role; she doesn’t want John to have to deal with the future she knows is coming; not if she can help it. The thing I want to highlight before I get to the core point of my argument is that Sarah’s motivation as a character sharply contrasts her evolving role in the series. Women in fiction, especially those written by men, are generally motivated by the men in their life. Whether their lover or their child, their role in the narrative often revolves around these men. In this respect Sarah is no different; everything she does in the series is motivated by her feelings for either Kyle or John.
Where Sarah breaks the mold, is what she does with this motivation. All too often, fictional women are relegated to supporting their men rather than taking action themselves, or else they fail easily and have to wait for the men to rescue them. Sarah, on the other hand, becomes determined to avert the looming disaster and takes action decisively. True, she does end up locked away in an asylum, but she never gives up on trying to escape.
More to the point, from T-2 onwards, in any film or TV series where Sarah appears, Judgement Day is not inevitable. The timeline split after T-2 makes this very clear; in Rise of the Machines, Sarah is dead and Judgement Day cannot be averted. Arnie-bot only plays along to get John to safety before the nukes start launching. Meanwhile, in the Sarah Connor chronicles, Sarah survives and Judgement Day is once again something that can potentially be stopped.
Furthermore, the reason for the timeline split is whether or not Skynet realises how dangerous Sarah is. In the ‘Rise of the Machines’ branch, no more Terminators are sent back after John until Sarah is dead. In the ‘Sarah Connor Chronicles’, Sky-Net continues to send Terminators back, prompting Sarah and John’s jump forward in time.
The ‘Sarah Connor Chronicles’ was also the first instalment of the franchise to hint that John isn’t as irreplaceable as was initially thought. There’s an episode where John gets jumped forward into a potential post-Judgement Day future where no one has heard of him and the resistance is doing just fine.
Basically, if John is the chosen one of the Terminator franchise, Sarah makes herself into the unchosen one. While John gets soldiers and robots from the future to set the stage for him to fulfil his destiny, Sarah gets no help that isn’t related to her role in John’s destiny. In the original Terminator, she gets a soldier from the future to protect her. In T-2, if the T-800 had its way, she would have been left in the asylum until the nukes launched. But while Sarah doesn’t get outside help, she’s not bound by destiny either. The more Sarah pushes back Judgement Day, the more John is relegated to his off-screen role in leading the resistance. In other words, John’s role as a badass saviour of humanity is tied to Judgement Day.
This brings us to Genysis and how it fumbled what could have been a franchise-redeeming idea. The film opens with the core moment of the entire franchise; where John defeats Sky-Net and sends Kyle back to save Sarah, setting the whole series in motion. This is a crucial moment for John because, up until this moment, he’s always had information from Sarah’s tapes to guide him in his actions. But once he sends Kyle back to ensure his own existence, he reaches the end of Sarah’s advice. Plus, he’s closed the loop on his paradoxical existence. Up until this point, his existence depended on his own future actions; something that basically ensures his survival until then. Once Kyle is sent back, he becomes, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary man, his destiny fulfilled.
The instant this happens, he’s attacked from behind and converted into Skynet’s slave. And the qualities that helped him defeat the main Skynet only make him a more useful slave. His incredible will and determination allow him to be the first human to survive the conversion. Ultimately, it comes down to Sarah and Kyle to prevent Skynet being reinvented as a de-centralised version of itself that would be impossible to eradicate fully.
Where Genysis dropped the ball was the assumption that John should exist in the new timeline as well. This is why Sarah and Kyle, who had one night of adrenaline fuelled sex in the original timeline, fall in love for little, to no reason. No amount of Kyle staring lovingly at Sarah’s picture in the future explains his infatuation with a woman who treats him with barely veiled annoyance for most of the film. Meanwhile, the bitter and traumatized Sarah of the new timeline has even less reason to fall in love with Kyle. Certainly not over the course of the few days the film covers from their point of view.
John Connor is entirely irrelevant to the series at this point. Judgement Day has been pushed back far enough that the more advanced tech makes John’s role in leading an army entirely pointless. Any future incarnation of Skynet won’t have a central hub for John to point his army at.
If the franchise wants to survive at this point, they need stop trying to set up the birth of a new John Connor in the new timeline; and to accept that Sarah Connor is, and has been for a long time, the true hero of the series.