They're back: The Terminator Anthology has arrived

Terminator AnthologyThere's no question that James Cameron’s contribution to modern SF cinema has been considerable. Quite where he stands in the ranks of significant SF writer/directors is debatable, but to my mind he's up there with Ridley Scott. As with Scott, Cameron hasn’t written and directed a great number of SF movies, but what he has produced has been undeniably influential. No doubt Cameron has plenty more to offer in years to come, even as he plugs away at the two sequels to Avatar, the most commercially successful movie of all time, but when the dust settles in years to come, I suspect that it will be 1984’s The Terminator and the wealth of material that flowed from that creative epicentre that will be recognised as his foremost contribution to SF cinema.

Few SF movies in the last three decades have been as influential or so embraced by audiences as The Terminator. While there’s disagreement about the merit of the last two movies in the sequence, there's no question that Cameron's original idea (with a little help from Harlan Ellison) has resulted in an unusually rich and engaging narrative and mythology, not to mention a superb (though prematurely terminated) spin-off TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles (damn you, Fox!).

But yes, the narrative arc across the four movies does have its ups and downs. Most will agree that the first two movies, written and directed by Cameron, are the highpoint, but the merit of Jonathan Mostow’s Rise of the Machines (T3) and McG’s Terminator Salvation (T4) is widely questioned. Personally, I dislike Rise of the Machines. The best that can be said about Mostow's contribution is that it drags the narrative arc established by Cameron to a seemingly inevitable Judgement Day without contributing much else of value. On the other hand, my fairly upbeat appraisal of Terminator Salvation is not shared by all. While Cameron kicked off the flirtation with Phil Dickian questions about what it is to be authentically human (and can a machine be authentically human?), McG’s treatment of this idea in Terminator Salvation is, I think, more dramatically and emotionally satisfying. Sam Worthington steals the show as the human-machine hybrid Marcus Wright – a machine with a human heart and the memories of a man.

Marcus Wright and John Connor

A serious look at the story arc and ideas across all four movies is definitely worth undertaking (stay tuned), but now is not the time for that. Now is an opportunity to take a look at the new 5 disc Terminator Anthology which has miraculously landed on my desk for review. In short, there's nothing new to this set as far as I can tell – the versions of the movies and the extras have been released previously - but for the first time the set does collect all four movies in blu-ray along with a wealth of extras in one very handsome package.

Terminator Anthology

In terms of overall picture quality and extras, the most disappointing disc in the set is Disc One: The Terminator. Considering the time, effort and money expended on cleaning up and enhancing movies beloved by many, including genre classics such as Star Wars, surely The Terminator is worthy of some spit and polish? On the other hand, the narrative stands the test of time well, even if some of the effects don't (notably the animatronic Terminator’s eye surgery mid way through the movie). When all is said and done however, this is still a great movie and while it could look better, the transfer to blu-ray is an improvement, at least compared to my long-in-the-tooth DVD version. Sadly, the extras are limited, but do include 7 deleted scenes, the short documentaries Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects and Music and Terminator: A Retrospective, which includes an entertaining discussion between Schwarzenegger and Cameron.

(Disc Two) Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the high point in the series in terms of narrative, drama and emotional intensity. Here the Phil Dickian theme of "what is it to be authentically human" (and can a machine be authentically human?) takes root. Cameron doesn’t really cover any new ground with this, identifying authentic humanity as nothing more (nor less) profound than the capacity for free will, but in a narrative that centres on thinking and learning machines it’s critical that the ideas are at least touched upon.

For me the highlights of this movie are Sarah Connor's transformation from a vapid and ineffectual non-entity in T1 to a powerful, tormented and driven voice in the wilderness, as well as Schwarzenegger's complete mastery of his role, a career defining performance that sees him evolve from a machine to something almost human. The series’ recurring theme that all human life is fundamentally valuable finds its most eloquent and emotional expression in T2 through the Terminator’s self-sacrifice at the end (ensuring that its components can’t be reverse-engineered as the first Terminator’s components were), but also through Sarah Connor’s experience. Sarah knows what terror the future has in store for humanity and identifies one man as the unwitting father of it all, inventor Miles Dyson. And yet, when she has the opportunity to alter the future by killing Dyson, she can’t pull the trigger. It's a truly moving moment when she lays down her weapon.

Other notable SF concepts drawn out in the T2 narrative include the paradox that Skynet sends the first Terminator back in time so that human engineers are able to reverse-engineer the Terminator’s CPU and create technology that results in the creation of Skynet! Time paradoxes abound in the narrative by now and  Skynet's self-creation has a striking parallel in John Connor's sending of Kyle Reese back in time to father him. The future is changed with each intervention by the Terminators and by the end of T2, Judgment Day appears to be off the agenda, Skynet a thing of the future-past (never to be) and John Connor now on a different path to the John Connor who sent Kyle Rees back in time.

Disc Two includes the 137-minute Theatrical Version and the 154-minute Special Edition, two audio commentaries, including one with Cameron and writer William Wisher; deleted scenes and more.

Disc 3 holds T3: Rise of the Machines, in which any optimism about the future at the end of T2 is obliterated: Judgment Day was not avoided, only postponed and Skynet emerges not as a supercomputer founded on futuristic hardware, but as an emergent consciousness in cyberspace. The least said about this movie the better (the only interesting revelation is that Sarah Connor died of leukaemia in 1997, the year she put an end to Judgment Day, or so she thought). The movie looks good and the disc holds lots of extras, including three audio commentaries with cast and crew offering them way too many opportunities to express their enthusiasm for the movie, as wel as an In-Movie experience in which director Jonathan Mostow does his best to justify this addition to the Terminator franchise. Actually, there might be more, but frankly I was as engaged with the extras as I was with the movie and didn't take note.

Discs 4 and 5 hold two versions of Terminator Salvation – the Theatrical and Extended versions. When all is said and done I am fairly upbeat about this most recent addition to the franchise, not least because it attempted to do something new with the series. Like the very best sequels, T4 took a risk and gave its expectant audience something different from what we've had before. In short it reinvented the franchise. Instead of a classic science fiction movie (The Terminator) or a heart-pounding action thrill ride (Terminator: Judgement Day), Terminator: Salvation is first and foremost a futuristic war movie. And if you accept that, then other criticisms, such as its lack of humour, fall away: given the brutal context, there's really not much scope for belly laughs. Having said that, there is fun to be had in the movie’s over the top action.

The extras for T4 are by far the most impressive in the Anthology for one reason: Maximum Movie Mode with McG in which he takes the audience through the entire movie making process with considerable enthusiasm. If you like the movie, as I do, this is a must see, blending commentary with picture-in-picture video, interviews with cast and crew, and behind the scenes footage. Also included are two separate documentaries, Reforging the Future in which McG and co look at what it means to reboot the Terminator series, and The Moto-Terminator, which takes a look at the Ducati inspired motorcycle Terminator.

All'n'all, a very highly recommended set. You can own the Terminator Anthology on Blu-ray from 28 August.

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