Why the Terminator franchise is effectively doomed

The rights to the Terminator are going up for auction. But perhaps it'd be best if the franchise was simply left alone now...

Big-money franchises are all too often plagued by the tragically astute belief that more of the same, just with some extra whizz-bang explosionry lumped haphazardly on top, will guarantee financial paydirt. Unfortunately, a lot of the time this turns out to be true, and now every new IP with a half-decent budget is mooted as the first part of a sprawling possible series.

Some sequels, like The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Hellboy 2, Blade 2, etc., surpass the originals in almost every respect. Yet when sequels become franchises, cracks generally can – and do – begin to show. Some just get too big for their boots and try too much too soon (here’s looking at you, Pirates Of The Caribbean and The Matrix) but Chapter 3 is often where things tend to go a bit skewiff.

Coherent plot and character development can go out of the window quicker than a startled milkman when cigar-chomping movie executives start wandering menacingly around film sets trying to make sure they see a healthy return on their two hundred million dollars. And sometimes ideas just dry up and fatigue or ennui set in (sorry, Spider-Man).

An ill-advised change behind the camera can put some poo in the pie (like when X-Men got Ratnered) but, whatever the reasons, beyond Harry Potter it’s difficult to name a sizeable franchise that hasn’t eventually buckled under the groaning weight of its own wobbly follow-ups. While most end up putting more than enough arses on seats to justify themselves financially, their names are forever tarnished with the bitter aftertaste of a cynical cash-in. Enter: The Terminator.

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Terminator was for a long time the example to which sequels should have strived. The first film was a thrilling and iconoclastic slap in the face to the early 80s and Terminator 2 remains to this day right up there with The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back and Aliens as one of the truly great sequels of all time.

It expanded the mythology set out by the first film and took the characters somewhere that didn’t feel contrived or remotely unnecessary. And despite the megabucks budget, megastar lead actor and megatastic effects, you got the impression that it was Cameron’s world and the only reason a sequel was made was to further the story set within it. Indeed, James Cameron has managed the not inconsiderable feat of performing this trick twice (Aliens is worthy of equal praise), only to see his efforts later diluted to unrecognisable mulch by following franchise instalments with which he declined to be involved.

Even from within his impenetrable Titanic/Avatar smugosphere he must occasionally glance at the canon he so lovingly crafted and mourn the depths to which it has sunk since he honourably, but sadly, turned down the sums offered to him to round off the Schwarzenegger trilogy.

Undoubtedly, Terminator 3 was better than it had any right to be. And considering Jonathan Mostow’s orders to tone down to PG-13 to help bring in more spondooleys at the cinemas, it could even be considered quite brave, with the unexpectedly melancholy ending that almost made up for the ‘comedy’ of seeing the once mighty Terminator in Elton John specs and vomit-inducingly quipping “Talk to the hand” and “She’ll be back”.

Yet, the relentless menace and enthralling bleakness of the first two films was gone, the void filled with garish primary colours, an onslaught of set-pieces and inoffensive tea-time cartoon violence to ensure a maximum return at the box office.

However, there were some good action scenes, the premise successfully managed to get around the fact the proposed end of the world came and went in 1997 and The Governator was just before the tipping point that would have made him just that bit too old. But it just didn’t feel quite like it belonged with the other two; the first Terminator was, to all intents and purposes, a low-budget horror movie, the second an exciting, sinister chase movie and the third no more or less than a decent enough summer blockbuster.

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But it did good business despite its perceived shortcomings and paved the way for another Cameron-less sequel.

Terminator Salvation, while an enjoyable enough actioner, like Rise Of The Machines, reeked of the studio money thrown at it to ensure the CGI was up to scratch, even if the script and director weren’t. Rise Of The Machines had effectively backed it into a corner by removing any possibility of setting the story in the present day. So, in creating a post-apocalyptic setting, a vast investment was inevitable and with that comes an unwillingness to take too many risks; the character development and plot necessary to elevate this above its modest narrative aspirations went to the underrated, thoughtful and prematurely canned Sarah Connor Chronicles.

So, the news that the keys to the once mighty Model-101 are now to head to the highest bidder should fill any remaining Terminator fans with dread. The rights will certainly not be cheap and, as such, whoever finds themselves in charge will be expected to recoup this investment double-quick-smart, which leaves the likelihood of a return to the originals, at least in terms of quality and tone, roughly equal to that of finding a four leafed clover growing betwixt the arse cheeks of a passing Leprechaun.

Any sane person would think that studios would be aching to acquire a franchise to reboot after The Dark Knight proved that hugely popular blockbusters could be dark, intelligent and utterly brilliant without the need for pesky R ratings. But, no doubt, a grunty post-apocalyptic shoot-em-up will appear in a few years as another nail in the proverbial coffin and soon Terminator vs Robocop will appear on a DVD near you, followed by a sequel starring a shoehorned-in Lance Henriksen for some inexplicable reason.

Another TV show would be good, although the last one being axed despite positive reviews makes this an unlikely and possibly unwise investment, at least in monetary terms.

Coupled with DVD boxset sales, a decent TV outing could feasibly make some money back for a studio though – a Terminator Salvation themed series perhaps? A tale of the desperate woes of humanity after it myopically and naively brings about the apocalypse, where the last broken band of humans puts aside its differences to unite against its treacherous synthetic creations, some of which can hide among the survivor,s calling into question the very nature of what it actually is to be human in the first place. Oh wait, that’s Battlestar Galactica, isn’t it. Never mind.

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Anyone who was raised on the first two Terminators doesn’t really expect too much from any further films anyway. Maybe we can hope that Christopher Nolan gets bored of Batman and fancies playing with killer cyborgs and perhaps even a mimetic polyalloy or two while he’s at it. And we can still always hope that Brett Ratner is busy on other projects for the rest of time.

Oh, and I for one am also hoping that Joss Whedon was definitely joking.