The Way Forward for the Terminator Franchise

It feels like we were just here.

Remember Terminator Genisys? Remember when James Cameron endorsed it and people took that as a sign that the film might actually be worth bothering with? Remember how that turned out?

Well, here we are again, two years later, and another Terminator reboot, Terminator Dark Fate, is in theaters. This time Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong are back alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, reprising his iconic role as the Terminator T-800, along with a new cast of heroes and villains. Once again, James Cameron has endorsed the film, and once again people have taken that (and his extremely limited involvement as a producer) as evidence that the Terminator franchise might finally, thankfully, bring something new and interesting to the table.

And though Dark Fate gets a passing grade from critics and audiences (the ones who bothered to buy tickets to see it – the movie is looking to be a box office flop), it sounds like director Tim Miller’s (Deadpool) sequel is just more of the same – a rehashed mash-up of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And while that’s not at all surprising considering the rights issues that have plagued the franchise since its existence, it is disheartening. And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

People have been saying for years that the Terminator films should never have been a franchise to begin with. And maybe those people have a point. I’m fine with fewer franchises in favor of more new ideas. Rarely are genres reinvigorated by clinging to old ideas. Movies like The Terminator and The Matrix weren’t born from a desire to milk an existing story for more money; they are the products of people with vision and a passion for telling stories. Having said that, it’s not impossible to take an existing idea and make it new again, and with the Terminator franchise, the answer lies with the source.

WWJD?

Flush with his success on the original Terminator, James Cameron did the impossible. He made a sequel to Ridley Scott’s hugely successful Alien. And he did it without ripping off the original film. Where Scott’s movie was a taut, claustrophobic horror film, Cameron’s sequel was more of a big budget action movie. Five years later, Cameron pulled the same stunt with his own baby and gave unto the world the last great Terminator film, T2: Judgment Day. Again, Cameron moved away from the horror elements of the original film and went balls to the wall action. The result is a masterclass in genre storytelling and the resulting success of that movie is the reason the rights to Cameron’s story and characters have held market value all these years, despite repeated failures to recreate the magic of his original films.

The problem is, in attempting to retell or rehash the story of Sarah and John Connor, the ever-changing rights holders and creatives involved have missed the obvious: Instead of attempting to recreate what came before, you take a page out of Cameron’s book (What Would Jim Do?) and go another direction with it. Change the genre, change the setting, change the characters. Tell a new story. And there’s already plenty of fertile ground to be found in the original two films within which to plant the seeds of a potentially profitable franchise. Prior filmmakers and financiers have just been looking in the wrong place.

The Future War

The Connor storyline is a closed circuit. Attempting to retell the story of Sarah and John has not worked. Whether you can get an audience to care or not, it ultimately doesn’t matter. T2 tied that thread up perfectly and left no room or reason to go back to it. Previous attempts have just made a convoluted knot out of what was a perfect ending to a two film story.

But that doesn’t mean there are no stories left to tell.

Not every movie has to deal with the fate of humanity. In fact, though The Terminator is set against the backdrop of an impending nuclear holocaust, the plot of that movie largely concerns itself with three characters, Sarah Connor, Kyle Reece, and the titular Terminator. It’s a chase film, and a pretty small one. I think this is often overlooked because of how much Cameron expanded the scope of the world he created in T2. We only remember it being grander than it really is. 

But one of the many reasons that first movie worked as well as it did, despite having far inferior effects to its sequel, is because of how well-written and relatable the characters are. If we didn’t care about Sarah and Kyle, if Arnold’s T-800 didn’t scare the absolute shit out of us even before the skin suit comes off at the end, The Terminator would have died in obscurity.

So, without Sarah and John Connor, where do you go with a Terminator movie?

The Future War, or War Against the Machines, (as depicted in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is where you reboot the Terminator franchise.

Fans of the original films have long wanted to see more of this world, and not the desaturated, Matrix-inspired version McG gave us in Salvation. Terminator fans are very specific on this point. It needs to be James Cameron’s vision of the post-nuclear wasteland, complete with blue color grading and purple laser beams. There’s always room for interpretation, but sticking to Cameron’s sparse, desolate, but highly stylized aesthetic would win alienated fans back. And it would be a novel change from the washed out, colorless dystopias audiences are used to.

The beauty of pursuing this line of storytelling is that there’s 30+ years of post-apocalyptic timeline to mine between Judgment Day, when Skynet goes live and launches the nukes, and 2029, when Kyle Reece and the original T-800 are sent back in time in The Terminator. So you accept the central conceit of Cameron’s films (that an apocalyptic war occurs between the machines and humanity, even if only in an alternate timeline), you leave the big events alone, focus on character, and tell self-contained stories that have little to no impact on the main storyline. This opens the door for different genre storytelling, and because the scope is limited and the focus is on character, these films could be made relatively cheaply compared to the last three sequels, all of which cost over $150 million to produce. (Think Dredd, Predators, Attack the Block, or Ex Machina – all of which were made for $50 million or less).

The Way Forward

There’s a series of books and short stories by author Fred Saberhagen that were published over the course of 40 years (beginning in 1967) called The Berserker series. The Berserkers, within the context of Saberhagen’s fictional world, are a sentient race of machines built with one purpose: to destroy life where they find it. Saberhagen wrote novels about these machines, but he also wrote several short stories set in the world of the Berserkers. I can’t help but wonder if Cameron had read some of these before he conceived the story of The Terminator. But that is an aside.

It’s been years since I’ve read any of Saberhagen’s books, but I remember the short stories being very self contained vignettes. Though set against the backdrop of a much larger story, with much higher stakes (the highest stakes – the annihilation of all life in the universe!), the short stories themselves set aside the grander conflict in favor of telling the stories of individual characters in individual locales. And while the scope of those shorts were far less broad and sweeping than the main storyline, they added texture to the world of the Berserker series and made it feel as if it was populated with real people with real lives that would be impacted by the bigger events of the series. The stakes, though much smaller than those of the main conflict, felt no less important and often had more weight to them than those of the main storyline. If the novels threatened the obliteration of all life in the cosmos, these self contained stories represented the stories of the individual casualties.

I think Saberhagen’s short stories could be the model for a potentially long-running and very lucrative Terminator franchise. And once you reestablish that world, the blue-hued world we all know from the first two films, you can branch out from there and experiment. In fact, going this route with the franchise would lend itself to experimentation, especially within different genres.

Genre Genre Genre!

The Terminator is a hybrid of genres and subgenres. It’s a chase film. It’s a horror film. It’s a sci-fi film. T2 is also a mashup of the action, sci-fi, and chase genres with a dash of the western thrown in for good measure. If studios want a Terminator franchise, genre is the perfect place to locate it. They, and the filmmakers they employ, only need to ask themselves better questions.

The Western

Picture a dusty border town. A town far enough from major cities to have escaped the initial destruction of nuclear warheads. A western setting. The town is home to a small group of survivors, survivors unaware that a resistance even exists. Maybe this story is set before a resistance has even begun to take shape.

What would happen if a slightly malfunctioning Terminator found its way to the town ? The survivors have managed to stay off of Skynet’s radar, but the appearance of the Terminator threatens their fragile peace. How would this ragtag group, huddling among the aftermath of nuclear fallout, deal with such a threat? Would they stand and fight? Would they hide? Would a Clint Eastwood-like character emerge and lead them to fight for their survival?Would they live or die?

The War Movie

Imagine a small group of resistance fighters, men and women in their teens and early twenties. Their mission is to hunt down and terminate a Terminator. Flip the premise of the original film but leave off the time travel. How would the Terminator react? Maybe it’s wounded. Vulnerable. Terminator’s don’t feel fear, but maybe it’s aware that it can’t win a fight against a dozen humans armed with plasma rifles and grenades. How would the machine react? How would the human resistance fighters react? I imagine this story being told at least partially from the perspective of the Terminator character. 

The Horror Movie

Remember the end of Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead? The scene where Barbara and the local rednecks round up, torture, and destroy the zombies? What would a film that explored the capacity for human brutality, but visited upon a seemingly unsympathetic character like the Terminator, look like? What situations or conflicts would this set up? What potential tensions between characters could be used to tell a story?

The Suspense Thriller

And, it might be hard to market, but not every film has to involve a Terminator as the direct antagonist.

What would happen to scientists at research stations on Antarctica in the aftermath of Judgment Day? If the fallout doesn’t kill them, what would their lives look like after the machines take over? Imagine a new group of scientists arrive at an Antarctic research station shortly before Skynet goes live and blows the shit out of the world. Somehow news of the events reach the stranded scientists (this may seem far fetched but Hollywood has gotten away with way more contrived shit before. Remember Armageddon? The Day After Tomorrow?). One of them dies suspiciously. Pretty soon, paranoia sets in. They begin to wonder if one of these machines might be among them. If you’re thinking of John Carpenter’s The Thing, you’re on the right track. 

“No Fate but What We Make”

With all the potential different genres to tap as inspiration and unlimited locations in which to set the stories, making a Terminator franchise work shouldn’t be difficult. But, as is bound to happen when financiers get hold of something that was once created and cared for by an artist willing to risk his career and future to tell the story he wants to tell, instead of prioritizing story and character, mitigating risk becomes the studio and filmmakers’ first priority and we end up getting “safe” remakes of the original films. I put “safe” in quotation marks because the last two Terminator films have not done well financially and ultimately failed to launch the trilogy of films the studio had hoped they would. Which makes smaller to mid range budget films seem so much less risky and more reasonable than investing $200 million into a soft reboot. Twice.  

The Terminator franchise is a mess. Some people are saying this is the end of the line for Arnie and the gang. And they may be right. Maybe it’s time to stop trying to make a Terminator series of films a thing. Maybe the whole thing needs to be terminated. But I think there’s still a way to make it work. And maybe now that several attempts to repackage and resell the same story to audiences have failed somebody somewhere will decide a new approach is necessary. If James Cameron wasn’t obsessed with making Avatar sequels absolutely no one wants, maybe he could take a crack at it. Anything’s possible, right?

The future’s not set, y’all.  


Now I want to know what you think. I know, I know. Let the past die. Kill it if you have to, right? But if – if they were going to keep making Terminator movies regardless of what you think, what would you like to see a filmmaker do? How would you go about making a series of Terminator movies?

Let us know in the comments below. Until then, hasta la vista, Wasteoids.

Author: Billy Dhalgren

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts.” -Andrei Tarkovsky