Where next for the Terminator franchise?

Feature James Peaty 11 Feb 2013 - 06:59

What does the future hold for the Terminator franchise, and how can it regain its early 90s success? James takes a closer look...

It’s been a tough few years if you’re a fan of The Terminator franchise. With the creative belly flop that was Terminator Salvation (2009) coming just a few months after the cancellation of TV spin-off, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the game was finally up for the once venerable series.

However, thanks to the bankruptcy of former rights holder, The Halcyon Company, and the deep pockets of producer Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, the franchise now finds itself at a potentially interesting crossroads. Where once it was owned by a company overjoyed at hiring the dubious talents of director McG, now the franchise’s future is controlled by an outfit that has backed, in the space of a year, P.T. Anderson’s The Master, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

So, with the familiar red camera eyes of Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 potentially lighting up again very soon, what could a new Terminator feature look like, and how can it avoid the missteps of previous attempts to revive the series?

Despite the fact that both 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines and Terminator Salvation performed respectably at the box office, it’s been over 20 years since the franchise's pinnacle of creative and commercial success, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Both a critical and box office smash, T2 grossed around $800 million worldwide (adjusted for inflation), a level of ticket sales neither subsequent sequel has come close to matching. 

Many reasons have been banded about for this, but I’d argue that the chief reason for the subsequent weakness of the franchise has been the lack of involvement of series creator, James Cameron.

Famously selling the rights to future sequels for $1 in exchange for the right to direct the original film, Cameron only ended up making T2 thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger personally urging producer Mario Kassar (Total Recall) to bid for the log-jammed rights from original production outfit Hemdale.

Accounting for the success of the second film some years later, Cameron would say: “The thing we did with (T2) is that we reinvented the first film completely; spun it on its ass and made the Terminator the good guy, and came up with a whole new concept for a villain, it felt fresh.”

While all of this is certainly true, it certainly didn’t harm the film that it found Schwarzenegger – returning to his most identifiable role – at the absolute pinnacle of stardom, nor that the film featured a stunning visual effects breakthrough in the shape of the T-1000’s pioneering use of CGI.

Cameron himself also had something to prove after the financial disappointment of his hugely expensive underwater sci-fi pic, The Abyss. While now seen as something of a flawed classic, the failure at the box-office of the troubled production had left the sci-fi golden boy bruised, battered and with his industry stock lowered.

If the first Terminator saw Cameron proving himself as a director, the second was a chance for the Canadian filmmaker to show the world he could bounce back from adversity and return bigger, better and more successfully than before. 

Certainly, after the success of T2, Cameron has continued to make even bigger and more successful films, but I’m not convinced he’s ever been quite as on point again as he was here. By contrast, the third and fourth installments in the franchise were not the work of distinctive writer/directors, but rather that of industry journeymen who were helming franchise-mandated product built to service an audience familiar with the first two movies.

As Cameron himself said about Terminator Salvation: “I think (they were)…too referential to the mythos of the first and second film. (They) over-quoted them in a way… I didn’t feel the fourth picture was fresh enough. It also lacked a certain stamp of authenticity because Arnold wasn’t in it. I mean, he was in it briefly, digitally, but that’s not the same thing.”

Much as the original Planet Of The Apes franchise had ended up cannibalising its own lopsided, time-twisting continuity with ever diminishing returns, it's ironic to see the Terminator series forgetting the second film's prophetic line that ‘…there’s no fate, but what we make.’

Now, as a general platitude this is clearly fine, but when it comes to key decisions concerning multi-million dollar movie franchises… well, the fate you make has to be pre-destined into a pattern of continuity established nearly 30 years before. While the recent purchase of the franchise rights is an exciting turn of events, after recent experience, there is still some concern about what to expect from the series moving forward. 

It’s been common knowledge for some time that Schwarzenegger himself is attached to return in a potential new movie, and that for the past year and a half, predating the Annapurna purchase, he and director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) were working on a script for a potential Terminator 5.

Speaking about the proposed sequel while promoting The Last Stand, the former governor of California mentioned that the take he and the now departed Lin were developing wasn’t working and that newer, ‘better quality’ writers were now attached to the project.

Those writers are Patrick Lussier, a veteran B-movie writer, director and editor of films such as My Bloody Valentine and Drive Angry, and Laeta Kalogridis, screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, James Cameron’s as-yet- unproduced Battle Angel Alita and an exec producer (and uncredited script doctor) on Avatar.

While some have sniffed at the choice of Lussier, it’s worth noting that his more recent work has been of a notably more enjoyable B-movie vintage; Kalogridis’ recent credits are impressive, while her pre-existing relationship with Cameron gives her an important connection to the past.

Of course, prior form with Cameron doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. Back in 2010, Deadline ran a story about a two-picture treatment for T5 and T6 that had been written by T2 co-writer, William Wisher. This outline purportedly tied together both Cameron’s films and the two subsequent sequels in a time-twisting story that brought back not only Schwarzenegger, but also Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton as Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor. 

Now, while it’s fair to say that some people probably think this sounds like the best thing ever, can I just bring up the elephant in the room and mention Terminator Salvation. For years, people claimed that what they really wanted to see in a Terminator movie was a story set during the future war between man and machine. Fair enough. And then Terminator Salvation arrived.

Granted, Salvation is a badly conceived and unimaginatively executed version of that story, but the film wasn’t just poor because of the director and the script - it was poor because delving into the future war is essentially a waste of time. 

What we see of the future in the first two installments is just enough to set up the world of the film and give the rest of the story a size, scope and rationale to occur, but beyond that, it’s little more than a pointless wallow in backstory and exposition.

For my money, the only way to free the franchise from the dead weight accumulated from two pointless sequels is to return the series to its roots as a smaller scale, possibly slightly lower-budgeted, R-rated action movie that is set firmly within the present tense.

What makes Cameron’s two entries such bracing and enduring movies is that, despite all the talk of the future and the potency of destiny, it’s what the characters do in the moment that counts. This is helped by Cameron’s generally strong grasp of storytelling, and the choices he makes to not only keep the narrative simple, but also to throw focus on the characters rather than concentrate on purely empty spectacle.

In the first film, that focus falls on Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, while in the second it’s Sarah, John Connor, Miles Dyson and, by the movie's end, even the Terminator himself. And it’s this character-led angle that the series desperately needs to rediscover if it’s to survive beyond a solitary reboot attempt. One only has to look at other recent franchise revivals to see that it’s the ones that have placed the characters front and centre that have worked best.

JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek may not have given Trekkers the world over an in-depth discussion about the Federation’s Prime Directive, but it got people normally ambivalent about the property to relate to Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Enterprise as characters and not as pop culture fossils.

Similarly, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films built their increasing success on the solid foundations of characters established in the first movie, while this approach has also worked wonders for the most recent Bond movies.

While any new installment is undoubtedly going to hedge its bets and place Schwarzenegger’s iconic cyborg in a central role, I’d argue the most important thing the creatives in charge need to do is find an interesting new human side to the story and connect that to the broader mythology of the Terminator. 

My suggestion of how to approach this would be to ignore the events of the third and fourth films and tell a new story set after the events of T2 about a different set of characters, albeit ones with a connection to a potential Skynet-led future.

So far, all we’ve seen in the movies is how the Connors relate to the future world of the machines, but the human race is not just John and Sarah Connor. Surely it’s conceivable that Skynet would calculate that there are other variables, possibilities and anomalies that could be created to prevent their eventual defeat by Connor and his ilk.

If you approached the narrative from this angle, you could keep Sarah Connor around in the story to, essentially, fill the same role Kyle Reese occupied in the first movie. It would be Sarah who imparts information to a new lead character – either male or female – who would then drive the story forward in a new direction.

But who would/could play this part? From a purely ‘fantasy casting’ POV, I’d suggest Jessica Chastain as either a recast Sarah Connor or a new character, designed to step up and replace Connor within the story. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought Chastain’s performance (and even appearance at certain points) in Zero Dark Thirty evoked memories of Linda Hamilton.

Continuing the Annapurna connection, I’d also put forward Chastain’s ZDT director, Kathryn Bigelow as the ideal director for the revival. Her longstanding connection to Cameron is common knowledge, but in the last few years, Bigelow’s stock as a director of lean, compulsive and story-led action has risen to such an extent that she’s now considered one of the pre-eminent American film makers working today.

After winning her Oscar for The Hurt Locker and various other awards for ZDT, would Bigelow be interested in taking on a franchise picture? It’s hard to say, but Bigelow does have previous form when it comes to working on Cameron-derived material - and the original film is allegedly one of her top five favourite pictures…

Idle speculation aside, what is clear is that rather than focusing on securing obvious ‘star’ names and promoting ‘cool’ visual and narrative gimmicks, this new iteration of the series will only succeed if it has a similar level of quality and integrity both behind and in front of camera that it had in its early 90s pomp.

With the hiring of Kalgoridis and Lussier (alongside rumours of Jim Cameron consulting on the project) Megan Ellison’s most recent statement that the new movie will be R-rated ‘…as God and Jim Cameron intended’, has already gone some way to setting people's minds at ease.

Perhaps, after the long years of waiting, fans of Terminator can finally start to face the future with a sense of hope…?

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