If the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to revive the Terminator franchise’s fortunes, then it’s fair to say that this year’s Terminator Genisys fell short of expectations. While the fifth film in the series fared well in the Far East, Genisys’ sour reviews (not least our own) and lacklustre US box-office clearly took their toll. Late last week, we heard that the once-planned trilogy of Terminator films – and a related TV series – were “on hold indefinitely.”
Appropriately for a franchise about time travel, it’s a case of history repeating itself. Only six years ago, Terminator: Salvation’s middling critical and financial reception left The Halcyon Company’s plans for its own Terminator trilogy in limbo. The Terminator rights were put up for sale, Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures won the bidding war (reported hammer price: $20 million), and the process of rebooting began once again.
The producers behind Terminator: Genisys had clearly taken a long hard look at Salvation and then promptly drew all the wrong conclusions. The reason Salvation had failed, they reasoned, was because Schwarzenegger hadn’t been a part of it. What fans wanted was a bit of the old Terminator magic: Arnold back in his shades and leather jacket, lots of stunts and chases through benighted LA streets. In short, a return to the form James Cameron had established in 1984 and 1991 – a form which neither Jonathan Mostow or McG had managed to replicate.
Producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg admitted as much when we visited the set of Terminator Genisys last year. “…there are going to be great Easter eggs in there,” Ellison said. “There’s going to be a respect for canon. But also, if you haven’t seen a Terminator movie before, we view this as Terminator 1. You don’t have to have seen anything before you see this movie – it’s completely standalone.”
The result is one of the weirdest would-be blockbusters in years. Terminator Genisys is a kind of greatest hits reel of Terminators past; a muddled check-list of things that might, on paper, have sounded like perfectly sound ideas. The start of the film takes place in 1984 with a recreation of the film that started it all – perfect for getting older fans on side. But then it throws in a variation on the mercury-like T-1000 to please those who preferred its 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And to capture a bit of that lucrative Asian market, the T-1000 is played by Byung-hun Lee.
Then, just to keep the younger members of the audience interested, the action shifts to 2017, where the end of the world comes not with a bang, but with the friendly glow of an iPhone app. For extra geek points, former Doctor Who star Matt Smith is thrown into the mix as an evil AI phantom with plans for world domination.
It shouldn’t work, and it doesn’t. The muddled plot, which jumps between time periods like a frog on a hotplate, essentially boils down to a string of “trailer moments” – stunts and sequences that look nice enough in isolation, but fail to add up to much of a whole. A young Arnold fighting an old Arnold. A school bus flipping over on the Golden Gate Bridge – a scene which looked like three memorable scenes from The Dark Knight, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and, weirdly, Dirty Harry, all slammed awkwardly together.
That flipping school bus sums up quite a bit about what’s wrong with Terminator Genisys. Why did Sarah Connor (now played by a wide-eyed Emilia Clarke) and her fleeing gang of friends steal the slowest vehicle in the parking lot? Why did it flip over like that, anyway? Just because. Don’t worry about it. There’ll be another stunt coming along fairly soon. Look, it has a helicopter in it.
So now that we’ve established that Terminator Genisys didn’t really work, the question remains: what can be done about it?
The likely answer is: not a lot, probably. At least for a few years. If production company Skydance really isn’t doing anything more with the franchise, it seems certain that its rights will revert to James Cameron in 2019. He may well have his own ideas for a further Terminator reboot, but with all those Avatar sequels he has planned, will he have the time to direct it himself? It seems more likely that he’ll serve as a producer and story consultant, but will ultimately hand over the task of making the thing to someone else.
Should all this happen, it’s not hard to imagine Cameron, with his current taste in all things expensive and expansive, in rebooting The Terminator as a $200 million summer movie in the vein of T2. The nature of Skynet and its takeover of Earth will almost certainly change, as it did in Genisys, but the central concept of a time-travelling cyborg and its unwitting prey could – and should – remain intact.
In fact, if we had a suggestion for a Terminator reboot, it’s this: strip the budget right back and reboot it from the ground up.
Forget about the multi-million dollar budget, the four-quadrant check list, the absurd action set-pieces and PG-13 mayhem of Genisys. Learn from the essence of the 1984 original: bring the horror element back to The Terminator.
It’s important to remember that the first film was inspired by a nightmare, and felt like a nightmare from start to finish; a relentless, benighted chase through a Los Angeles that seemed somehow diseased and decaying.
Forget the time-hopping complexity of Genisys. The Terminator was only glancingly about time-travel, and wore its sci-fi coat relatively loosely. Make the reboot a simple chase thriller again. We don’t really need Arnold Schwarzenegger back – wonderful though he was in the first two films – or even Sarah Connor; what we do need is the hunter and the hunted, the former implacable and seemingly indestructible, the latter unprepared and vulnerable.
Get in a director who’s young and promising – who can bring a youthful, angry energy and cinematic tension. Look again at this year’s horror hit It Follows and note just how Terminator-like its premise – about a group of teens pursued by staring ghouls – really is. Look again at how perfectly those filthy, infectious supernatural beings dovetailed with the bankrupted Detroit setting, as though the run-down landscape had spontaneously belched them up.
Now imagine the director of It Follows, David Robert Mitchell, at the helm of a Terminator film – one made for a lean $20 or $30 million.
A great Terminator film needn’t be expensive or laden with stars – the first iteration was proof of that. The scene in The Terminator, where the T-800 smashes a fist through a car windscreen in an attempt to choke the life out of Sarah Connor, has more tension and impact than the sequence in Genisys where the bus flips over – a scene that likely cost more than The Terminator’s entire stunt budget.
A shot of the T-800 staring with steely resolve through a gap in a door carried more unspoken menace than all the goofy iterations of Genisys cyborgs put together.
Genisys made the usual Hollywood mistake that more is more: that what made T2 such a success was its special effects and huge explosions, so they heaped dozens of them on top of each other. But T2 was a great film because it was about characters reclaiming (or discovering) their humanity – the battle-hardened, traumatised Sarah Connor, Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed T-800 – not just action and special effects. Without relatable characters and a solid, engrossing story, stunts are just that: stunts.
Like the T-800 itself, the next Terminator film should be a combat chassis, an engine designed for one thing and one thing only – to stalk, to kill, to thrill and terrify.