Why Terminator is immortal

Plot out the box-office numbers for the first three Terminator movies and it looks like a mountain peak, with the biggest spike in the middle. But the fourth film, now opening, should change the trajectory.

Christian Bale

Plot out the box-office numbers for the first three Terminator movies and it looks like a mountain peak, with the biggest spike in the middle. But the fourth film, now opening, should change the trajectory.

Here is why Terminator once mattered and still does:

• Longevity: Twenty-five years, four films and one television show (the just-canceled Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and the franchise is still going strong.

• Power to the people: In those primitive days before spoilers, bloggers and Web chatter, Terminator opened and caught fire thanks to old-fashioned word of mouth.

• Changes all around: As the book Titanic and the Making of James Cameron recounts, Terminator made a box-office star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, put Linda Hamilton on the map and became a sleeper hit, outperforming two of 1984’s most-hyped sci-fi films, Dune and 2010. As writer Paula Parisi observes, “Cameron had crashed the Hollywood A-list and it would never be the same.”

• Numbers game: The initial movie cost a reported $6.4 million and made nearly $40 million in North America. All told, the first three grossed almost $394 million domestically (more than a half-billion dollars today) with much more from overseas, VHS and DVD sales.

• Ah-nold: Terminator was a key stop on Schwarzenegger’s path from bodybuilder and Conan the Barbarian to mainstream action and comedy star and, finally, California governor.

• Budget busting: Cameron spent as much as $100 million on 1991’s “T2,” making it the costliest film ever shot in the United States at that point. In this case, bigger was better, because it paid off.

• King of the world: Long before Oscar winner Cameron borrowed Leo’s line from Titanic, he gained a reputation as being over budget and behind schedule. Parisi writes that during the making of “T2,” reports surfaced that Cameron threatened to fire a crew member who left for the restroom, worked through meal breaks and hurled insults over the loudspeaker he used to choreograph action scenes. T-shirts proclaiming, “You Can’t Scare Me, I Work for James Cameron” and “Terminator 3: Not With Me!” became popular. Didn’t matter, though, because he delivered.

• Christian Bale: The 35-year-old anchored the new Batman franchise and appears poised to reinvigorate Terminator. He’s a tremendous actor who, inexplicably, has never been nominated for an Academy Award despite two decades of remarkable work.

We presume you’re familiar with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, so if you want to see more of him, rent 3:10 to Yuma, The Prestige, Rescue Dawn, Laurel Canyon, Little Women (the 1994 version in which he’s a rich boy next door) or Empire of the Sun, for starters. If you have a taste for darker material, opt for The Machinist or American Psycho.

• Brains and blockbusters: And here you thought Terminator was just about Arnie as a cyborg with “no pity, no remorse, no fear” and sometimes no clothes.

But in the new book Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am (Wiley), contributors examine a host of heady subjects connected to the trilogy. Among them: the ethics of termination, beyond the neural net and changing what already has happened.

An essay called Bad Timing: The Metaphysics of the Terminator even has charts explaining a vicious circle that suggests, “In order to exist, John needs to send Kyle back in time, but John already needs to exist in order to send Kyle back in time.” Or, to quote the machine, “I know now why you cry.”

• Getting your money’s worth: Patrons like to feel as if they’re getting their money’s worth at the movies, whether that translates into pricey star power, exotic locations, sensational stunts or special effects.

No one asked for a refund after “T2,” which delivered 2 hours and 16 minutes of wretched, wonderful excess, and Terminator Salvation is shorter but equally extravagant.

For a single scene that took three months to prepare, a tanker truck filled with 250 gallons of gasoline was exploded, producing a fireball 160 feet in diameter and 200 feet high. No word, however, on what that did to director McG’s carbon footprint.

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri(at)post-gazette.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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