Not only are James Cameron’s two Terminator films representative of modern sci-fi mythology at its very best, but they have thus far proven a series far more flexible and inventive than George Lucas’s comparatively superficial Star Wars movies. Evoking the timeless Frankenstein theme of mankind’s self-destruction by way of invention as it applies to our own technological present, his are masterworks of genre exercise, their perfectly envisioned narratives matched by exquisite blockbuster artistry, each film a stylistic and thematic ying to the other’s equally developed yang. Jonathan Mostow’s underrated third film isn’t so much a continuation of the series—the story in that film is more or less a formality—than it is a loving ode to them, but that hasn’t stopped fanboy disapproval from ignoring its existence in the same way the new Sarah Connor Chronicles series does.
Picking up precisely where Terminator 2: Judgment Day‘s nighttime highway faded to black, the series purports to continue the story of survivors John (Thomas Dekker) and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) as they live in the world they believe they had already fought to save, the fight for the future becoming increasingly more complex as additional Terminators and resistance soldiers travel back in time to ensure the creation/destruction of Skynet. One wonders how the coexistence of this and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines will affect reception of the series over time (in addition to S.M. Stirling’s excellent novel trilogy, there are now three separate post-T2 timelines to consider), though such multiple narratives almost seem appropriate, even necessary, to a mythology build upon the paradoxes of time travel.
Dealing with those paradoxes is one of the ways in which this new television series comes up short, though even at its most aggravating, it is not without simple pleasures. This is Terminator through an Abercrombie & Fitch lens, glamorizing everything that should be roughly hewn and rendering sloppy all that should be tight and focused, the latter exemplified through a lazy Greengrassian aesthetic, chopping up action scenes with needlessly disorienting editing schemes and employing jittery camerawork as a shortcut to a sense of urgency. Though disappointing, this chosen aesthetic is mostly tolerable given both the technical competence at work and, more importantly, the series’s genuine, if misguided, focus on story and character. It is in this arena that this continuation proves most dichotomous.
Suffice to say, writer Josh Friedman has done his homework when it comes to the complexities of the Terminator universe, a fact apparent in many of the narrative elements and plot details at hand. Less fortunate, however, is the fact that the storyline thus far has only sporadically adhered to these rules, defying the basic groundwork upon which the series has been built. In a way, this is admitted fanboy squalor, but on the other hand, these lapses remain indicative and constant reminders of the generally lazy screenwriting of the show, which seems more intent on drawing out the story for as many episodes/seasons as possible than letting it play out on its own terms.
Case in point: It has long been established that it is impossible to take anything non-organic with you when traveling through time, the films’ travelers always appearing naked after the jump through the time rift (the cybernetic Terminators have always been able to make the journey because, as Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese explained, “they’re surround by living tissue”). Sarah Connor Chronicles‘s pilot episode, however, sees the endoskeleton head of the villainous Cromartie (Owain Yeoman) accidentally accompanying our protagonists as they travel from 1997 to 2007, throwing accepted structure to the wind in the name of easy thrills. Cameron’s original films tend to lack the serious consideration they deserve because of their existence as action-driven entertainment, but also exceptional is their being deeply rooted in the laws of the physical world, a virtue this series fails to grasp in its flippant and needlessly disconnected style. It is telling that among the first critical responses to the series was the whorishly lame quote “Hasta La Vista, Boredom!,” summing up the series not as one of thrills compounded by deeper moral exploration, but easy distractions devoid of rumination.
As far as typical Fox soaps go, though, the series is decidedly above par. Despite lacking the trashy allure of House or 24, its sporadic inventiveness within the realm of the Terminator universe makes it agonizingly interesting—moderately brilliant in spurts before reverting to the same old clichés. Each episode opens with a succinct recap of the first two films, but Sarah Connor Chronicles never feels genuinely rooted in Cameron’s saga, forgoing the religious overtones of our protagonist’s extended struggle (it’s no coincidence that the fated savior’s initials are J.C.) in exchange for petty profundities, most of which are but reheated leftovers from the source material. John and Sarah have been on the run from Skynet’s goons for going on 20 years but they still need to be reminded of the same old things, such as the fact that machines don’t sleep and sacrifices must be made in the name of the greater good (nuclear apocalypse is a bitch). Such obvious revelations drown much of the show in needless logical retreads, not only padding but condescending in their use toward superficial character development.
Sarah Connor Chronicles brings to mind a minefield in its alternation between embarrassment and nuance. For every moment of excellence, such as Terissa Dyson’s (Charlayne Woodard) heartbreaking emotional reveal in the pilot episode, there exists one or more cardinal sins, such as the fact that Owain Yeoman’s Terminator bears more likeness to a mugging Bruce Campbell than anything ever produced on an assembly line. No doubt, it’s cool to see new models of Terminators with varying “personalities,” but the creators take far too many liberties in the name of being cool, forgetting that these machines are the ultimate badasses not because of their memorable one-liners (which, from “I’ll be back” to the aforementioned “Hasta la vista,” were always the result of absolutely precise logic), but their breathless efficiency, the full-bodied extension of HAL-9000’s terrifying red eye.
The most infuriating element yet has been the almost-comparison drawn between the series’s seemingly inevitable Judgment Day and our own 9/11, the day-to-day threat of terrorism a newfound presence Sarah Connor must come to terms with after leaping forward in time to the mired political world of 2007. Here is a rich well of possible revelations, acknowledged but purposefully not drawn from, the result of simplistic and gutless attempts at rendering the material “important” without potentially offending anyone in the process, forgoing the implicit political commentary of T2 in favor of empty lip service. This failure to examine the relationship between our technological advances and social regression is even more disheartening when considering the fact that John Connor has always stood as something of a reminder that, as is stated by Hal Phillip Walker in Robert Altman’s Nashville: “All of us are deeply involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not.” Just as John is born into a position of unimaginable responsibility from which he cannot possibly veer, so to do the Terminator films acknowledge every human being as an irreplaceable component in the outcome of the entire world. No act is worthless and no life wasted.
Too bad, then, that Sarah Connor Chronicles sees fit to render these philosophies with schmaltz instead of worked-to-the-bone grizzle. To be blunt, Headey is no Linda Hamilton, following in the footsteps of her predecessor’s exquisite two-film character arc with a performance better suited for the part of a depressed fashion model, her voiceover pontifications more tired than felt and her presence less lived-in than deliberately grating (maybe she’s still recovering from 300‘s impossibly obnoxious sex montage). The very fact that this series even exists works to affirm Sarah Connor’s centrality to the original films, but gone here is the sense that her lessons have been hard-won from day one, the sense that something is actually at stake. Only time will tell if this exhibited teasing is building to something more worthwhile. Until then, Sarah Connor Chronicles will be just another wannabe worshipping at Cameron’s altar.