While there is no hard or fast rule, I usually like to do one of these Franchise Fracas entries when a movie series of at least three films comes out with a new installment. We haven’t really had one of those lately (the Jurassic Park series notwithstanding), but this week, we get a big release for fans of action movies or just cinema in general.
Terminator: Genisys opens in theaters tomorrow (with some special screenings tonight). It is the latest in the long-running Terminator franchise started in 1984 by James Cameron. This is a series that has had a lot of ups and downs over the years, but, surprisingly, continues on with an ever-present popularity – I am sure this is why Hollywood continually tries to bring back the property every couple of years or so.
But why is that? What is it about the Terminator films that keep people coming back to them (even when an entry is incredibly subpar)? Granted, four of the five films have featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in what is arguably his most iconic role. But that can’t surely be enough? Can it? Or is it riding of the popularity of the earlier installments? Let’s look back at this series and see what we can find.
1984’s The Terminator is really a film that could only have been made in 1984. The style, the soundtrack, the cinematography, and the action sequences – it has such a 1980s aesthetic. Even the future sequences have that 1980s feel to it. Action films made during this time are just so unique in that the filmmakers didn’t give a rat’s ass about being over-the-top with the violence. Not that the film is gory or anything like that, but there is this real-world grittiness to it. Later movies (including Terminator sequels) really sanitize the violence to make it more marketable.
But beyond that, for as mind-bending as it could be, the story is really unique and high concept. However, Cameron is able to distill that down for anyone to really pick up and get (made even better given that the actually narrative is, in essence, one big long chase). It also surprisingly fits into the four quadrants that film studios love.
The Terminator was a runaway hit in 1984, but in 1991 the sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day (or T2 as it has since been known) was a bigger hit in every conceivable way. And, as many would argue, is an even better movie than its predecessor. Despite it being a sequel, T2 is basically a remake of the first film with just a bigger budget and even more creative control by James Cameron. Don’t believe me? Just look at the story. A robot from the future goes back in time to kill a human before he is able to grow up. The film is also one big chase with several sequences lifted from the original film.
The Gold Standard
But, you know what? Who cares? T2 is a classic. With the higher budget, Cameron was able to push the visual effects to new limits (back in a time when visual effects were there to enhance the story) and delve into more philosophical ideas and themes. T2 is probably one of the best science fiction films ever made because of it. Instead of it being more of a straight-up action film, it has a deeper levels to it supporting the action.
Yes, Edward Furlong is insufferable in this film, but everything else just works. Future generations are going to come back to this film again and again, because it is a solid action film. It may not have the grittiness of the 1984 original, but it replaces it with a timelessness that will never, ever go away.
Originally, Cameron was finished telling the story he wanted to tell with Terminator. He had no plans to make third. That didn’t stop other people from doing it. It took several years, but 2003 saw the release of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. This film is looked down upon by many, and I can understand why: it is largely a retread of T2. While the “remake aspect” might have worked for T2, enough was enough for T3. Audiences became restless.
Here is my confession: I actually like this movie. I think it is a solid action film that uses a healthy mix of practical effects and CGI stunt work. It isn’t as deep as T2 or as original as T1, but on its own merits, it isn’t all that bad. Plus, the unexpected ending really sold me on this film overall. Its biggest sin is that it isn’t as good as T2.
If the series would have ended there, I think we would have had a sold trilogy of films comparable to the Star Wars trilogy (Good first one; Great second one; middling third one). Instead, Hollywood said more was needed.
This is where things really start to get weird.
In 2008, the FOX network began airing Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles. During its two season run, the series side-stepped the events of Terminator 3 and began to weave its own mythology about the creation of villainous Skynet and the Connors fight for survival. I got into the series pretty heavily during that first season, but lost interest quickly during the second. That show wasn’t all that bad – it just stopped becoming appointment viewing for me. Apparently that was the case for many people as ratings plummeted and the show was cancelled on a cliffhanger in the spring of 2009.
To me it seemed strange that The Sarah Connor Chronicles was made at all. For starters, the fact that it outright ignored the events of Terminator 3 even though that film was made only a few years prior seemed incredibly bizarre. I get why they did (there is more story to tell), but I can’t help but wonder if some executive wondered if it would be confusing to the casual fan. The even stranger oddity is that a fourth film was in development and was going to have no ties to the TV show. Not that the two projects needed to be in sync with each other, but given how relatively small, but visible the franchise is, it makes for an odd choice.
In any event, the show was over by the time 2009’s Terminator Salvation was released. This film gets a lot of flak. I cannot actually talk on the quality of it as I have never seen it, but from what I gather, it is entirely deserved. I give it points for doing something different from the previous films since it takes place in the future and shows the origins of John Connor becoming the resistance leader as opposed to a movie-long chase. It just seems that the execution was flat.
The Bad One
I can only imagine that there were two problems at play here. The first being no Arnold. He is kind of the glue that holds this series together. The second being…was there really that much of a demand for a future war movie? Even when this film was in production, I always wondered why they were making this. The future war provided a good narrative background, but likely wouldn’t have been all that interesting itself. I just don’t think people cared all that much.
This film greatly under-performed and the potential direct sequels were scrapped. Hollywood is attempting to try again to restart the Terminator franchise now with Genisys which looks to be a hybrid reboot/sequel in the way Star Trek and X-Men: Days of Future Past are. Originally, I was looking forward to this film as it just seemed incredibly crazy, but after recent trailers have given away some major twists about the film, my excitement has been curbed considerably.
I go back to my original question: what about The Terminator not only draw people to it, but makes Hollywood want to go back to that well? Overall, it is an entertaining franchise, but it is also one of diminishing returns. What can it be?
Here is my theory: Audiences and Hollywood wants to recapture T2. As expressed above, it is a great film. But even if you are not a fan, you have to recognize that T2 was a cultural event. Does anyone else remember how big this film actually was? That summer, Terminator was everywhere. Likely taking a cue from the Batman franchise, the marketing was out of control for T2! You could not go five feet without seeing something connected to Terminator.
There were video games, t-shirts, pin-ball games in arcades, books, comics, etc. There were even action figures and other toy lines created in 1991 that were aimed directly towards children – something that would never happen today for a “hard-R” movie. This might not seem that strange for today (all summer blockbusters get big pushes), but in 1991, this wasn’t the case. And since it wasn’t the case, T2 stood out among the other films. Seriously, without looking it up, can anyone immediately name another big film that came out in the summer of 1991?
This push cemented Terminator 2: Judgement Day into our culture forever. That’s what people want. Audiences and filmmakers want another Terminator 2 experience. Unfortunately, it is not going to happen. I don’t mean to suggest that past or future Terminator projects won’t be good. T2 was lightening in a bottle. Replicating something like that is going to be near-impossible. Look at the follow-ups since T2 – they have all struggled in one way, shape, or form.
The New One
So, how successful will Terminator Genisys be? Who knows? Early reviews are not promising, but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to box office potential. Genisys is following the pattern that T2 went in having Arnold back as the “good” Terminator and by opening on the long 4th of July weekend. Anything is possible, but I suspect that Genisys will be out of the public mind when the next big blockbuster comes out (Ant-Man probably).