Written by Andrew McGee
With the recent announcement that Linda Hamilton will be reprising her iconic role as Sarah Connor in the next Terminator film, while jettisoning whatever the hell happened story-wise in the last film, Terminator: Genysis, it got me thinking: should supposedly established continuities and narrative events in franchises be respected, no matter how bad they are, or are studios justified in simply ignoring failed attempts and pretending those films never existed?
The first two Terminators are undisputed classics of the sci-fi/action genre. Then came Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in the early 2000’s, which I consider to be rather soulless and over-polished, but at least ends with the bold move of committing to ‘Judgement Day’, showing the machines winning in a horrifically beautiful final scene of nukes taking to the skies - and coming back down. I can’t think of many other Hollywood franchise films which end on such a downer, and it’s much better for it.
2009’s Terminator: Salvation picks things up in the post-apocalyptic world, with Christian Bale’s John Connor starting to become the hero he was always destined to be. Although it wasn’t particularly well-received, I like it more than most, and certainly more than the third. It does settle into generic action territory with plenty of plot flaws, but it at least pushed the franchise forward into a new direction and created some kind of identity for itself, rather than relying on the set formula of a time-travelling killer robot. It also has a very cool trailer, but I don’t know how much of that comes down to Nine Inch Nails.
Then came Genysis. I don’t want to dwell too long on everything wrong with this film, because we’ll be here until Judgement Day. In short, it cynically attempts to recapture what made the first films so special, by literally recreating classic scenes through a convoluted plot which tries its best to retroactively wreck everything that came before it. It wasn’t a reboot or a direct sequel, more of a timey-wimey means of continuing the franchise with a new cast and not dwelling on the third or fourth films.
Jai Courtney hopelessly tries to capture a fraction of Michael Biehn’s charisma as Kyle Reece, and Emilia Clarke doesn’t fare much better as Sarah Connor, with none of Hamilton’s edge or trauma. Oh, and John Connor’s a bad guy now – the only new and interesting plot point wastes its potential for emotional conflict and was spoiled in the trailers anyway. It does open with an exciting future war scene though - purple lasers and everything – before creating a clusterfuck of timelines and destroying any established continuity.
So with two classic films, two bad-to-alright films depending on who you ask, and one terrible film which made a mess of any logical narrative, what happens now?
Ideally, studios would have enough integrity to not let something like Genysis ever happen, but riding the train of nostalgia can be a bankable tactic, as the last couple of Star Wars films have successfully shown. We’re left with a franchise which should’ve stuck to the future war, but instead decided to look backwards to the glory days of Terminators stalking in the night with exciting chase scenes, and it didn’t pay off. Now they’re doubling down on that nostalgia, coming full circle to bringing back Hamilton rather than an Emilia Clarke-shaped imitation.
Going off the suggestion that this next film will simply ignore any Terminator film made in the last 15 years and pick up the story after T2 is a fairly unique position though, and one I’m not sold on.
This is a marketing move from producers who are clueless about what direction the franchise can possible go in (the rights to the series have changed studios several times), so they’re going back to basics with its peak as a jumping off point. But Hamilton and Schwarzenegger are older, and audiences and the landscape of cinema have changed dramatically since then. I’m a big fan of action films from the 80’s and 90’s; to me they were the cinematic sweet spot of realistic action and special effects, before CGI dominated action films and things became too sleek and inconsequential. See Rise of the Machines for instance, or compare John McClane pulling out shards of glass from his feet in Die Hard with him falling through countless windows in A Good Day to Die Hard.
Like I said, unless the films move forward, this is not an easily franchisable series. The heart of the series lies with Sarah Connor, as producers have come to realise. The future war was never intended to be anything more than a framing device, but there’s very little room to tell another story within the familiar framework of Sarah Connor's story. Perhaps there’s a decent story to tell with an older Hamilton/Connor in a pre or post J-Day world, haunted by a somehow now older Terminator, and I’ll admit I’d be excited to see her on screen again. But however good the story is (and it better not be a 12A, but probably will be), this was surely a case of Hamilton first, along with that sweet sweet nostalgia, and script second. Will it be worth throwing out three other films in order to tell this story? Cameron’s producing, but then again he highly endorsed Genysis (probably to fund a Na’vi nostril hair).
Even if it’s on par with the first two and caps off a trilogy, with the rest of the films being alternate realities, such a lucrative property won’t stop for the sake of something as irrelevant as integrity. More Terminator films are as inevitable as Skynet nuking the Earth.
Franchise films are designed to be renewable, sustainable, and most of all profitable through the audience’s built-in awareness of the story and characters. That’s common knowledge, and studios have been rebooting and reworking since the Hammer Horror days. The franchise model is always adapting and reinventing, with cinematic universes being the latest trend thanks to Marvel. But when it’s decided that the last films haven’t worked out, and they’ll instead start again from the high point without rebooting and ignoring the failures until they get it right, it seems to undermine that narrative integrity. At least X-Men, with its time travel and older/younger cast, made a tiny bit of effort in keeping its universe somewhat tied together when erasing big events (clumsily, with cellotape and bits of string), without any hard reboots.
Every film has its own life, from production to release and beyond, but we’re being asked to simply ignore half the Terminators and their narratives. As much as I’d be happy to forget Genysis, I do think it sets a dodgy precedent. And how on Earth will the boxsets be organised?
In the case of the Terminator franchise, not much can be done to repair things after the state Genysis left it in without ignoring at least one of the films, so at this point, I suppose why not? Although there’s not much too lose, this move does pave the way for allowing studios even less responsibility with their properties. Hopefully it’ll continue to be the exception, but going to the cinema knowing the story you’re about to see might end up being overwritten without any impact on future films, or not being a continuation of previous ones, isn't a great mindset. We’ve seen plenty of abrupt ends to series in TV and film and reboots (The Amazing Spider-Man, which ironically spent a lot of time setting up future installments, comes to mind), but rarely are certain installments simply ignored. Of course, films should first and foremost be able to standalone as a story in their own right, but part of the appeal is in an ongoing story with familiar characters. Playing frivolously with it devalues that investment.
I’m sure there aren’t many who are heavily invested in what constitutes Terminator ‘canon’ or bothered that the strands set up in Genysis won’t be continued – and the franchise is too far gone to be concerned with continuity. It didn’t commit to expanding the universe after Salvation, and soon, for the second time running, it’s going to attempt to repackage the originals – let’s hope it’s for the best.
But as much as I’d love to see a Blomkamp-helmed Alien film – I’m unashamedly an admirer of his style, his writing perhaps less so – I have the same concerns as above. Alien 3 has its merits and I don’t think it deserves to be derided (am I controversial enough for clicks yet?), and it’s a suitable end to Ripley’s story (although not Newt and Hick’s, which is its major flaw). Resurrection was a strange tonal misstep. Once again, as exciting as it would be to see Sigourney back, jettisoning half the established franchise seems extreme. From a marketing and audience perspective it may be we want to see, but how much of that is simply the nostalgia of a golden age of sci-fi action? Can that magic truly be recaptured, and is it worth ignoring the continuity of several films until they get it right? I'm not convinced.
Studio execs are out there. They can't be reasoned with, they can't be bargained with. They don’t feel pity or remorse or fear. And they absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.
Den of Geek by chance posted a very similar article today on the same subject, and it's well worth a read (I’m sure they need the website traffic).