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'Terminator Genisys': My kind of feminist film

Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role as the Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role as the Terminator in "Terminator Genisys," in theaters Wednesday, July 1. Photo Credit: TNS / Melissa Sue Gordon

I've always been attracted to apocalyptical narratives -- "The Day after Tomorrow," "The Abyss," and of course, all five "Terminator" movies -- plus its ill-fated TV series.

I indulge in wishful thinking while watching; the fantasy that humanity might somehow, at the eleventh hour, prove itself better than it's been so far. That our true grandeur will shine through, saving us from ultimate annihilation.

But what's even better than the fantasy of human salvation and redemption is the fantasy of human salvation and redemption led by a strong woman. And this is the part that's usually missing from my moviegoing experience.

I can't say how many times I've watched the "Terminator" films over the past 30 years. I keep coming back for one simple reason: Sarah Connor. And in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," Kate Brewster. (Well, and Arnold, too, of course . . . and Sam Worthington isn't hard on the eyes either.)

But getting back to the topic at hand: what keeps me coming back is seeing in them the tangible possibility of strong, multidimensional women characters; revolutionary, historical figures who get the chance to grow and learn, just like fully developed male characters do. As viewers we hardly ever get to see strong, female heroes who fight, lead, fall, get back up, and most of all, evolve.

In the first "Terminator," released in 1984, Connor is an innocent waitress with no idea that she's destined to give birth to the future revolutionary who will save humanity. As countless feminist critiques have pointed out, being the mother, or wife, or girlfriend, or daughter of a male hero is a cop-out notion of importance when it comes to women's cinematic representation; a simplistic way to "confine" and dilute the strength of a female hero who could have just as easily stood alone, like men usually do.

It's unfortunate that Sarah Connor's claim to fame is that she's the mother of John Connor. Just as in "Terminator 3," Brewster's importance is that she's John's future wife as well as the daughter of the man who made Skynet (artificial intelligence) possible. In fact, Brewster only really exists as a mediator, as John point out, so that the two important historical men can meet. Troubling, but even within these confines, the franchise manages to find some room for feminist progress.

Right from the start, Connor learns how to make bombs and fight back. She can load weapons and fire rounds as fast, or faster, than the men and machines around her. And by the time we get to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," she's developed into a savvy, razor-sharp soldier; lean and muscled as she does steely-eyed chin ups in her hospital room.

When the time comes, she makes the most of a forgotten paper clip on a desk, breaking herself free from a heavily guarded mental institution. She fights with frighteningly precise skill and this Sarah Connor goes a step further than most of the others in the war against the machines.

Deciding that it's up to her alone to save humanity, she sets out on her own without a word to anyone, to find and kill Miles Dyson, the scientist who will later invent Skynet technology. As he lays wounded and bleeding on the floor of his home, pleading for mercy, she delivers what has to be, for my money, one of the best cinematic feminist speeches ever.

" . . . men like you built the hydrogen bomb," she growls animallike under her breath. "Men like you, thought it up. You think you're so creative. You don't know what it's like to really create something . . . to feel a life growing inside you. All you know how to create is death and destruction . . ."

And then, at the height of her power, the warrior-savior Connor disappears from both "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and the fourth installment of the franchise," Terminator: Salvation."

Enter Brewster, Terminator's second most powerful leading woman.

From the start, she, too, smartly defends herself against both herself against both man and Terminator, already a fighter as the daughter of a high-ranking military commander. Brewster stuns John Connor with his own paintball gun when they first meet, hurling him into a locked animal cage, and by the end of the film, she's even faster on her feet than he is, lunging for a machine gun at the last possible moment and shattering a hovering cybernetic weapon into a thousand pieces.

"What?" she asks as he stares at her in awe.

"Nothing," her future husband answers. "You remind me of my mother."

So what happened to these strong women in "Terminator Salvation"?

Connor is absent and what we see of Brewster is so abysmally insignificant that it would have been better to have left her out. Instead of the resourceful doctor -- the one who figures out how to reprogram the Terminator and send him back through time -- this Kate is mostly silent, sad-faced, and to top it off, pregnant. Never, do we get the sense that she's a brilliant commanding officer in a critical leadership position. There's no heart in her power, which is ironic given that the beauty of this particular film is precisely its message about the strength of the human heart.

But then comes "Terminator Genisys": a cool drink of water for my thirsty feminist soul.

In this version of the future, we're introduced to Sarah Connor's strength even before seeing her in the flesh. During a fight between two Terminators, she makes her presence known as the sharpshooter from a distant, unseen rooftop. When she does eventually appear on-screen the story line is a classic reversal of the first "Terminator."

Whereas in 1984, Kyle Reese lurched forward in a screeching car to rescue the innocent waitress, now the opposite is true. It's Sarah Connor who comes barreling through buildings in an armored truck to rescue Reese, her future lover. She's even stolen his classic line: "Come with me if you want to live." When that's not enough, she adds, barking, "Now, soldier!"

"I don't need saving," she says, explaining that the future he expected, the one he was prepared for, has changed. "There's a new mission," she adds. Not only is the naive waitress gone from this story, but she never even existed. In her place is a woman who's been fighting since the age of nine.

But there is yet another, even more important change, in Genisys' version of the future.

For the first time, Sarah Connor gets a chance to blow the whole motherhood-as-heroic construction to smithereens. When it turns out that her future son has become the enemy instead of the savior, it's up to her to find the strength to destroy him, where even his father cannot.

"I won't stop until Skynet rules the world," declares the "bad" John Connor.

"Rule this," says Sarah coldly, blasting him into pieces.

The Sarah Connor of "Genisys" may still end up being the mother of humanity's savior, but this time, as the film makes clear, that future is going to be an act of her own choosing.

Kristal Brent Zook is a professor of journalism at Hofstra University. She is the author of "Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain." Follow her @KristalZook.