[Originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of DEADLY Magazine] There is a scene 75 minutes into 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day,  in which James Cameron pinpoints the humanity amidst all the time travel, liquid metal and state-of-the-art special effects. Young John Connor (Edward Furlong) is bonding with the T-800 machine assigned to protect him (Arnold Schwarzenegger), by teaching him how to high five. The moment is designed to underscore the father/son dynamic between John and the Terminator, as well as provide a visual symbol of the hope for mankind – that we are able to co-exist alongside technology. And, if we’re reading even more deeply, that we can still master it.

A great deal of Terminator 2’s running time is devoted to the connection between John and Schwarzenegger’s T-800. However, it’s telling that the most poignant shot – the one that says the most about their relationship – is from the perspective of John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), as she observes from a distance. It turns the scene into one about a mother owning up to her mistakes, making choices and sacrifices for her son. The moment reminds us that this isn’t John’s story at all. It’s Sarah’s.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance and impact of The Terminator, one of the best science fiction films of the 1980’s and arguably one of the best action movies ever made. It’s the movie that kicked off a multi-billion dollar franchise – as of this writing, four sequels and a TV series. It helped legitimize science fiction in the 80’s. It pioneered low-budget special effects and inspired generations of future filmmakers by proving just how much was possible by using your imagination to stretch a dollar. Most importantly, though, it announced the presence of two of the biggest names in Hollywood for the next three decades: star Arnold Schwarzenegger and writer/director James Cameron.

A huge reason why the first two Terminator films work as well as they do – and they’re two of my favorites – is because of the Sarah Connor character. Cameron has always excelled at writing kickass females, from the transformed Ellen Ripley of Aliens to the warrior Neyteri in Avatar, and Sarah Connor is among his best creations. Like Ripley, Sarah is an action hero, not in spite of her maternal instinct, but because of it. Like Neyteri, she is a fierce and passionate warrior. But what Sarah has that the others don’t is a touch of madness. It makes her unpredictable. It makes her compelling. It makes her the heart of the Terminator series.

It’s in Terminator 2: Judgment Day where Sarah really comes into focus. Haunted by a future only she knows is coming, moving John around the country, and transforming herself into a survivalist weapon, Sarah is eventually institutionalized after attempting to prevent the Skynet takeover by bombing a computer factory. She’s broken out by pre-teen John and a new T-800 that’s been sent back to protect him from the new T-1000 model, a liquid metal robot with the cool, unstoppable ferocity of a shark. Because Sarah’s future is not predetermined, she is afforded agency and the ability to make choices. Can she learn to trust the machine that looks identical to the one that tried to kill both her and her unborn son 10 years earlier? Can she murder someone who is essentially innocent if it means stopping Skynet from being created?

Even with its hefty price tag and groundbreaking use of computer-generated visuals, the transformation of Linda Hamilton from girl-next-door to ripped, half-crazy badass is Terminator

2’s best special effect. From the first moment we see her doing pull-ups in her room/cell, it’s clear that this is not the same woman who crushed the Terminator back in 1984. The Sarah Connor of Judgment Day is irrevocably damaged by what she has been through and what she knows is coming. She is terrorized by visions – playgrounds full of children turning to ash – and her relationship to John is less defined by maternal love (though that’s part of it) than by a need to protect him and ensure the survival of the species. T2’s masterstroke is that it’s as much about incredible action on a massive scale as it is about the humans – and one machine – at its center. Characters make difficult choices, change and grow the way they’re supposed to in good drama. There is no fate but what we make, and Terminator 2 ends with the future uncertain but hopeful – an open road stretching before Sarah and John. Literally.

Contrast that with 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which offers two hours of wheel spinning – endless destruction and a $200 million budget in the service of little more than putting John Conner (now played by Nick Stahl) and his girlfriend Kate (Claire Danes) in a room together to repopulate the planet when Skynet goes online. Sarah Conner is nowhere to be found; the film tells us she succumbed to cancer between T2 and now.

Rise of the Machines has a lot of problems – forced humor, an uninteresting villain and new director Jonathan Mostow calling the shots – but its greatest sin is taking Sarah out of the story. Her absence is deeply hurtful, her removal a betrayal not dissimilar to the fate of Hicks and Newt in the opening moments of Alien 3. Though she appeared in early drafts of the script, Linda Hamilton opted to not return to Rise of the Machines, telling The Independent that the script she read gave Sarah no new direction. Rather than rewriting the role to win her back, Sarah was unceremoniously killed off as a plot point in passing. It was a fate not worthy of the character.

Screenwriter Josh Friedman attempted to right the franchise ship by creating the short-lived Fox TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which ran from 2008-2009 and finds Sarah Connor (the excellent Lena Heady) and John (Thomas Dekker) still on the run from the constant threat of Terminators sent back to kill them, aided by a female Terminator (Summer Glau) and Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), Kyle’s brother. The show did its best to adhere to the chronology of the film series, acknowledging the whole “Sarah Connor dies of cancer” mistake before sidestepping it completely by having the characters travel forward in time, bypassing the years where the disease took Sarah’s life – in the process ensuring that Rise of the Machines be wiped from our collective memory.

It’s no coincidence that The Sarah Connor Chronicles – the show that brought Sarah back into the Terminator universe – is the best Terminator project since T2. Rather than playing out events we’ve already been told will come to pass, the series actually explores uncharted territory. It provides plenty of shootouts and cool robot action, but is far more interested in exploring characters and science fiction concepts than in rehashing beats from previous entries.

Heady’s interpretation of Sarah Conner continues the tradition of her being the best and most interesting character in the franchise; though she’s less of a soldier than she was in T2, Sarah continues to struggle with how far she is willing to go to protect John and keep his identity a secret. She attempts to adjust to normalcy, holding down a job and even flirting with the possibility of romance. Such hopes are fruitless, though, and Sarah knows it. The cancer subplot is transformed from a liability to an asset, as Sarah is shown to spend weeks living in fear not of dying, but of no longer being around to protect John.

Though it was released in theaters just a few months after The Sarah Connor Chronicles went off the air (which ended with Sarah very much alive), 2009’s Terminator: Salvation ignores the TV series and picks up 14 years after Rise of the Machines’ apocalyptic finale. Sarah is still dead and John, now played by a humorless Christian Bale, is married to Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) despite the fact that TSCC leaped past the point where the two of them would reconnect and fall in love. Though written to focus on a Terminator named Marcus (Sam Worthington), the fourth entry was reworked to essentially make John the lead despite the fact that he was intended to be little more than a cameo. It’s wrong for the series. The more John is pushed to the fore, the less the films work. Rise of the Machines may have written Sarah out of the series, but at least her presence is felt in the film – John’s solitary aimlessness is more or less defined by her absence. That’s more than can be said of Salvation, which references Sarah only in a deleted scene featuring the photograph taken at the end of the first film (the one with the German Shepherd). Her complete excision robs John of any connection to his past, which is absolutely crucial for a series that skips around in time as much as this one. But it also deprives the audience of their entry point. She was our surrogate in the first film, our emotional investment in the second. Even her loss in Rise of the Machines was our loss. With no Sarah, we’re left with no reason to care. The law of diminishing returns continues as far as the movies go, and Salvation is the weakest entry in the franchise.

But the Terminator series is the ultimate “do over” franchise; not only are the films themselves all about remaking the future by remaking the present (or the past, depending on how you look at it), but the series has constantly given itself do-overs as well. It loses Sarah and makes John the focus; it gets Sarah back for a TV show then takes her away  again in the movies. The series constantly shifts perspectives, changes its rules and ret-cons its own mythology. It’s in that tradition that Terminator: Genisys, the fifth film in the series currently in production, is learning from the mistakes of Salvation and bringing back Sarah Conner (this time played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke). The best and most interesting character is returning, hopefully in the process restoring the series’ soul. An unknown future for the franchise is rolling toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope. Because if a sequel, a Terminator sequel, can learn the value of Sarah Conner’s life, maybe we can too.

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on About.com, DVDVerdict.com and fthismovie.net, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.