Hasta la vista Arnie

Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t just the star of the ‘Terminator’ movies. He was the Terminator. Can the franchise survive without him?

Hasta la vista ArnieIt’s rush hour at Toronto’s Yonge-Bloor subway station, and startled commuters are milling about, snapping photos with cellphones as a movie star strikes a stiff pose on the northbound platform. There was no red carpet or limo to herald his arrival. He showed up in a cube van, packed in a wooden crate, and rode down the subway escalator on a tarpaulin, with six handlers hoisting the dead weight like pallbearers. His skull travelled separately, in a cloth grocery bag. Seven feet tall, and weighing 580 lb., the visiting Hollywood luminary is a T-600 robot from the set of Terminator Salvation. The subway stunt is part of a studio campaign to make this US$200-million movie the season’s biggest blockbuster. Opening May 21, it’s the fourth movie in the franchise built by Arnold Schwarzenegger—and the first in which he’s not the star. Which begs the question: can the Terminator franchise survive without Arnie? If the man famous for saying “I’ll be back” is gone for good, what happens to the world he left behind?

Schwarzenegger wasn’t just the star of the Terminator movies. He was the Terminator. Having adopted the role as a personal brand, he was still using its catchphrases as he morphed from Terminator to Governator. In 2003, he tried to save the world for the last time in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, then settled for trying to save California, which has become a losing battle. Schwarzenegger agreed to a brief cameo in the new movie, but on the condition that he would not perform—like a robot assembled from scrap, he makes a virtual appearance, scavenged from footage of him in the first Terminator. Still, the 61-year-old California governor is keeping his options open. He told a U.S. blogger he was happy to see the franchise revived “in case I want to jump over again and get into the acting when I’m through here.” (Or when “here” is through with him.) But it’s likely he won’t be back. And although the new film begins a projected trilogy, the Terminator’s salvation may prove elusive without Arnold—the ghost in the machine.

As the T-800 series Model 101 robot, the former bodybuilder was cast as a slightly more mechanical version of himself. It was a model role, literally. His character could be destroyed at the end of each movie, then rebuilt from scratch. When T3’s teen hero, John Connor, tries to jog the Terminator’s memory of him from the previous movie (“Hasta la vista baby—ring any bells?”), Arnie’s character says that was a different T-101. “What, do you guys come off an assembly line?” asks Connor. “Exactly,” deadpans Arnold. The line could have referred to the saga itself, which sank into routine self-parody with the third movie. But Salvation reboots the franchise, depicting the machines in an earlier phase of their evolution. And Arnie’s Terminator has been supplanted by a more primitive, less lifelike robot without a human face—or a sense of humour.

Of course, the flesh-and-blood star of Terminator Salvation is Batman’s Christian Bale. He plays the grown-up Connor, destined to lead the human resistance against the machine takeover of the planet. He roams a post-apocalyptic landscape with co-star Sam Worthington, who plays a half-human, half-robot cyborg. Worthington has a promising pedigree: he’s the lead in Avatar, the next sci-fi blockbuster from Canadian director James Cameron, the Dr. Frankenstein who created the Terminator and made the first two movies. And in Salvation he seems to be the prototype for Arnie’s cyborg. You could blow half his face off, and it wouldn’t faze him.

But even though Bale and Worthington share billing on Salvation’s movie poster, the image shows the T-600 robot—a red-eyed, heavy-metal skeleton. Bale has no lack of ego, judging by his profane tirade against a crew member on the set of Salvation, which went viral on the Internet after being surreptitiously recorded. Yet even he has to admit that he and Worthington have been upstaged by animatronic robots. “We went through filming thinking we were the leads,” he says, “but it ain’t so in the slightest. People aren’t coming to see us. Let’s face facts: the Terminators are the rightful stars of the movie. And they’re going to blow everyone away.”

Like Star Trek and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, two of the spring’s other big blockbusters, Terminator Salvation is a prequel of sorts. For the uninitiated, this requires some explanation. (Fanboys may want to read ahead.) The original Terminator is set in 1984, the year the movie came out. Schwarzenegger stars as a cyborg assassin sent from the future—from 2029, when the earth is ruled by a machine regime of artificial intelligence. His mission is to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to John, so he can’t grow up to lead the resistance against the robots.

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Arnold’s cyborg is recast from villain to hero. He’s sent by the resistance to save the 10-year-old Connor from a more sophisticated Terminator who has come from the future to kill him. T3 recycled that basic storyline and set it a decade later, with Arnie battling to protect Connor from a female Terminatrix. It ended with a nuclear holocaust unleashed by Skynet, the computer web that betrays its creators and sets about annihilating humanity.

Terminator Salvation is the first movie in the series with no time travel. It takes place in 2018, 14 years after nuclear Armageddon. As Skynet’s Terminator armies scour the ruined planet, killing and collecting humans, Connor builds the resistance with a small band of survivors, and finds a mysterious ally in the man/machine mongrel played by Worthington. Maintaining the Terminator fetish for ballsy female characters are a genetic scientist (Helena Bonham Carter), Connor’s physician wife (Bryce Dallas Howard), and a hot warrior babe (Moon Bloodgood).

The movie marks a break from the sleek style of its predecessors. Its dirty industrial look recalls the brutalist punk landscapes of Blade Runner and Mad Max. “I didn’t want a shiny robotic world,” says the director, who goes by the name McG and is best known for Charlie’s Angels. He drew on influences ranging from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “I wanted a distressed future. I wanted a dirty patina on the metal of the machines, like they’re a bunch of Soviet era tanks that haven’t been painted or tuned up in a long time.”

Although the movie employs computer graphics, its Terminator robots have been constructed as mechanical devices wherever possible. This is a throwback, considering that Terminator 2, which stands out as the definitive movie of the franchise, played such a pivotal role in Hollywood’s romance with digital imagery. When Cameron conceived of its villain—a shape-shifting Terminator that behaved like liquid mercury—he had no idea how to create it. He says, “It was a leap of faith that we were going to hang the success or failure of a $100-million film on a relatively unproven technology.”

Just as weapons invented in wartime change the way wars are fought, the computer graphics (CG) pioneered for T2 changed the way movies are made. They opened a Pandora’s box that led to Jurassic Park and a whole generation of CG spectacles. “Terminator 2 was the breakthrough film,” boasts Cameron on T2’s DVD commentary. “We set the bar to a new level, then Jurassic Park moved it.” Director Peter Jackson concurs: “Terminator 2 inspired me,” he says. “It ultimately led to a level of knowledge that enabled us to do Lord of the Rings.”

But now that CG is ubiquitous, physical effects have acquired a retro cachet. Just as rock music revolted against studio wizardry with punk and grunge, filmmakers like to go back to basics. Salvation incites old-time robo-phobia with a menagerie of heavy-metal monsters. And its robot foot soldiers—built from steel and urethane under the direction of veteran creature creator Stan Winston, who died during the making of the film—are largely controlled by puppeteers.

One pricey device that Hollywood still has trouble controlling is the movie star. With his on-set tirade, Bale upped the ante for prima donnas everywhere. Although he’s a far better actor than Schwarzenegger, he clearly lacks his largesse. Next to Arnie, Bale is a bloodless icon. And his span of compelling lead performances adds up to a disturbing composite. Draw a line from the homicidal butcher in American Psycho to the paranoid insomniac in The Machinist, from the manic prisoner of war in Rescue Dawn to the bipolar Batman in Dark Knight, and what emerges is a portrait of the artist as psychopath.

Graduating from villain to hero, Arnold’s Terminator has always been the protagonist. Like Frankenstein, he’s an inhuman figure who martyrs himself for humanity, a tragic hero by default. And as a machine with a literal view of the truth, he’s always had a droll edge. But Bale’s human hero appears to be the protagonist of Terminator Salvation. Which presents a curious paradox. At the heart of the franchise, instead of a machine that acts like a human, we’ve got a human who acts like a machine. Bale’s sense of irony seems profoundly less developed than Schwarzenegger’s. During a recent round of publicity, when the actor was asked about his tirade, instead of sloughing it off with a joke, he accused the crew member who recorded him of violating the “magic” of filmmaking. And when a journalist had the temerity to refer to the Terminator “franchise,” Bale rapped him on the knuckles. “Franchise just sounds so money-minded,” he said. “McDonald’s is a franchise.” The actor would prefer we call it a “mythology.” But it seems like the most mythological thing about the Terminator is Christian Bale’s overwhelming sense of his own importance—something Arnold never had to go out of his way to prove.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.