Upon watching the new spoiler-filled trailer for Terminator: Genisys, I finally accepted something that I’ve been feeling for quite some time. The Terminator franchise is officially dead. Over the span of 12 years, it has slowly been lowered into a vat of lava, melted down to its core parts. But there was no thumbs up at the end of the chain…just a giant middle finger to fans.
Lets travel back in time to 1984. A young, unknown writer/director named James Cameron released a little film starring newcomer Linda Hamilton and Conan star/Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of a killing machine from the future who was handy with a phone book. On the surface, it was an inventive sci-fi flick that played with the tropes of time travel featuring groundbreaking FX by wizard Stan Winston. Underneath, it reflected a Cold War society’s fears of rapidly emerging technology. The Terminator proved to be a hit, redefining both the sci-fi and action genres. The way they were made, the way they were watched, everything. It also verified Schwarzenegger’s star status and made a name out of Cameron who would soon go on to direct Aliens, The Abyss and…
Jump forward 7 years to 1991 when Cameron released the highly anticipated sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Doing what he did with Aliens, Cameron redefined what a sequel could be for a franchise, giving us what is undeniably an example of a second being equally as good if not better than its first. It flipped the script, making its villain the hero and its damsel in distress a heroine. And following suit, reinvented the sci-fi/action genres and the time travel subgenre, playing with its timeline cleverly in a wibbily wobbly timey wimey way that not even Doc Brown could explain on a chalkboard. As for FX, well Terminator 2 was groundbreaking once again with Cameron at the forefront of emerging computer generated visual. The film to this day remains a prime example in the ever raging war between practical FX and CGI and how both can be used effectively when blended. For a movie made almost 25 years ago, it still looks better than a lot of the instantly dated big budget CGI-filled blockbusters released today.
And then the franchise went offline for over a decade until 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, featuring Arnie making good on his promise that he’d be back. Absent though were any other familiar faces from the franchise (though it did feature a promising performance by a young up-and-comer named Peter Hardwick, who was never heard from again). Also absent was Cameron, as well as the style, tone and innovativeness he brought to the films. What Director Jonathan Mostow (U-571) and company gave audiences was basically the bootleg Japanese action figure version of a Terminator movie. A repacked shell of references that felt more like a bad multi-million dollar fan film.
It would be another six years until the wrongs of T3 would attempted to be righted (with the short-lived 2 seasons of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles in between). I’ll admit, 2009’s Terminator Salvation looked like it could have been the series’ savior. It was an interesting, potentially promising concept with a star-studded cast, including Christian Bale as John Connor –which brought some gravitas with it. Directed by McG, the film vacated the modern day past to show the post-Judgement Day Future War – which had only been discussed and briefly seen in frightening flashforwards in T2. The film unfortunately and ultimately proved that it should have remained that way, with the terror being far more effectively heard about than seen. And to its credit, while it had some memorable action set pieces, Salvation was revealed as another Hollywood attempt to make a big budget cash grab with the franchise’s familiarity.
And now here we are once again, when 2015 will inevitably give us a fifth Terminator film directed by Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World, Game Of Thrones), having apparently not learned any lessons from two failed attempts. You would think in a franchise about choices and rewriting the future, that would be more of a focus? Guess not! Having not seen the film myself, I of course have to reserve final judgement. But based on what’s been released (including the aforementioned controversially spoilery trailer) this latest film, amidst its cringeworthy humor and groan-worthy twist, just looks like it plain doesn’t get it. The theme that runs through all three of the latest sequels is that they seem to be made by people who don’t understand the world they are playing in. Or perhaps it’s just as simple as Hollywood scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel. Every time the lore is revisited, an attempt is made to fill in the blanks and over-explain the original established timeline, or in Genisys‘ case, rewrite it.
But that’s the inherent quality about the Terminator franchise that filmmakers are failing to understand–it is those blanks that make the original two films so compelling. The thought that the future is both written and not written–that there is “No fate but what we make” is what makes it truly effective. Only horrifying glimpses of a Future War and a nuclear Judgement Day, leaving our brains to imagine the true horror in a kind of “Choose Your Own Ending” version of the end of the world. We don’t need to see the other side of the orb time travel device. We don’t need to see the events that led up to the first film. And we certainly don’t need to see the first film redone as the same but different. Any attempt to try and fill in those blank spaces is unfortunately doomed to not live up to what’s in our collective heads or what has been shown before, as it already exists in its best form. All it was ever really intended to be was two acts, so any attempt to further show or explain the timeline just causes it to collapse on itself.
Which is why at its best, the Terminator series really works as a two chapter story, with the third left open ended for any sequels to take place exclusively in our minds or nerdy conversations about the “what ifs.” Which is also why the best thing for the Terminator franchise would be to travel back in time and stop Hollywood from making any sequels after 1991, but until we have that technology, they should just stop making Terminator movies.
Side Note: Paramount has announced back-to-back Terminator films in 2017 & 2018 and another TV series a la Terminator: TSCC (Why?!) before the rights reportedly revert back to Cameron in 2019 so who knows what the ultimate fate of franchise will be. Cameron noted (at LA’s Hero Complex Film Festival in 2014) that while he had been approached by Fox around the time of Titanic to make another Terminator film, he stated “I felt like I’d told the story I wanted to tell.” so it seems like he’s long been done. Though things could of course always change. It is important to note he is tied up with Avatar 2-4 until at least 2019 and has The Informationist and Battle Angel lined up after that. I for one would much rather see James Cameron make original films and Arnie (who will be 72 in 2019) make more films where he has a beard.