As if he were some hapless excess baggage trapped forever on a carousel in the federal witness-protection program, 15-year-old John Connor (Thomas Dekker) has had to change his story every time his mother changes their address. Only one detail stays the same: “My dad’s always a hero, and he’s always dead.” John, of course, is on the run from the future and, more specifically, those robots, androids, and cyborgs—Schwarzeneggers, liquid metal—dispatched by that future to destroy him before he can grow up to lead the human resistance to the revolting (and genocidal) machines. What with the fate of 3 billion people hanging over his head, not to mention the drag of being the new kid at yet another high school, it takes John longer than it takes the rest of us to realize that the real hero on his event horizon is his mother, Sarah—a marvelous Lena Headey.
Not to bad-mouth Linda Hamilton, who, playing Sarah in the big-screen Terminator 2: Judgment Day, depicted a Rambimbo so buff that she resembled a Polaris submarine. But in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Headey (of The Brothers Grimm and 300) has about her the adult sexuality and lacerated pride of a Liv Ullmann, the flamboyant weariness of a Melina Mercouri, and the Druidic ferocity of Boadicea, the queen of the Britons who took on Nero in the first century A.D. and cut the Ninth Roman Legion to pieces. She can also crack wise. When the robotic teenybopper Cameron (Summer Glau) quizzes her about how she knows what John’s been up to when the women are out of the house, Sarah is caustic and exasperated: “You don’t have to be a Tin Man to figure that out.” Merely a mother.
Tin Girl Cameron, the latest model in jailbait androids, underscores my point. With her button nose, heart-shaped face, and lithe little pompon body—one presumes that the name “Cameron” is an homage to the director of the first two Terminators—she may have been sent back in time by the Resistance to help keep John alive, but she has been included in the Fox TV series to give teenage boys in the audience someone to drool over between chase scenes. Fair enough. Except that Headey’s Sarah, loading a gun, stitching a wound, stealing a motorcycle, even reading The Wizard of Oz aloud to John in Spanish, is so much sexier that poor Cameron seems by comparison to be if not completely puerile, then oddly inchoate, like the first draft of femaleness. Headey is what that idea looks like wholly evolved.
Which isn’t to deny that The Sarah Connor Chronicles is mostly chase scenes. And very nicely staged they are, by director–executive producer David Nutter (Supernatural, Smallville), an adrenaline junkie equally adept at terrorizing a classroom, blowing up a city, rebooting a cyborg, or time-warping a bank vault. (Sarah, John, and Cameron are catapulted from 1999 to 2007—convenient, since Sarah was to die of cancer in 2005.) Among the chasers is James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) of the FBI, although there are indications that he may convert later in the series to Sarah’s principled paranoia. I converted after only two episodes. But it’s the killer robots who are relentless about their mission to search out and destroy John. Think of them as the semiconductor-and-microchip equivalent of the brain-dead zombies in a George Romero movie.
Better, in fact, than the usual sci-fi alternatives of triffids, pods, blobs, and body snatchers; of man-eating dandelions, meteoric slimeballs, blood-sucking carrots, and collectivized Bolshevik killer ants. At least zombies derive from one of our traditional religions. In voodoo lore, zombie refers both to a West African python god and a dead body brought back to cataleptic life by magic. Against this creepy notion, this Arnold Schwarzenegger–as–Baron Samedi, The Sarah Connor Chronicles enlists the gorgeous exertions of what Sigourney Weaver in the Aliens films taught us to appreciate as the most powerful force in the known universe—Mother Love.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Fox. Premieres Sunday January 13 at 8 p.m.