One could argue that Terminator 2 actually begins the process of retconning the original film, at least in terms of the characterization of our heroes and villains. Schwarzenegger ceases to be the villain, instead transforming his T-800 into a father surrogate for John Connor. The shift of focus from one baddie to another means that the audience no longer knows quite what to expect – because these machines all look the same, the same actor can portray both the villain and the hero in the same franchise.
With multiple and variable timelines and characters being sent backwards through time to alter the events of the future, anything becomes possible – but with each sequel and each change in the timeline, more confusion arises, and the opportunity for hopelessly muddling the audience increases.
The latter two Terminator sequels undo much of the good of the original films, instead choosing to draw out the threat of “Judgment Day” (when the machines take over) despite the apparent destruction of that in the latter half of the second film. If Terminator 2 was slick, the later films got slicker and simultaneously more confused.
James Cameron directed neither of them – nor does he have his directing hand in the latest installment to the franchise. But what is truly problematic about the later Terminator films is not just that they don’t work – it’s that they don’t need to work. The first two films successfully closed off the narrative, and did not need longer or more drawn out examinations of John Connor and his world. Connor is actually largely an uninteresting character, as cinematic saviors so often are. From his ribald youth he becomes a very serious man, bent on saving everyone from the machines. That trajectory fails to be interesting because it stops being immediate. One almost gets the sense that each new Terminator film owes nothing to its predecessors, and that the events we’re asked to invest in can be easily changed in the next installment.