Tom Jolliffe offers his thoughts on the direction to take the Terminator franchise…
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is 30 this year. It’s also fair to say it’s the last film in the franchise that proved unquestionably successful. It was a massive box office hit, launching James Cameron to gargantuan levels of production. At the time T2 was one of the most lavish productions to come out of Hollywood, tipping the budget scale well over $100 million. Nowadays that’s almost the prerequisite for the tent-pole picture. Back then, films of that scale were rarer. There have been four sequels since Judgment Day. Across the board, to varying degrees they’ve disappointed fans, critics and studio bosses hoping for bigger financial returns. They’ve all been big budget too.
Despite this, for a number of reasons, the cyborgs aren’t quite ready to be lowered into molten steel with a very definitive thumbs down. Skydance Media and Netflix are teaming with screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (The Batman) for a new anime series set within the world of the franchise, and rumours continue to persist that there are still fanciful ideas of turning the system off and on and hoping things work as they should when the movie series reboots. Each of the post-T2 sequels have been pre-occupied with following Judgment Day, which as far as mega blockbuster action, hasn’t been matched since, by anyone, let alone anything within the mythology. So how can you make Terminator work again? Here’s a few suggestions…
If ever a franchise was hampered by attachment to the past, it’s Terminator. They just can’t leave it alone, but Arnold in particular (latest rumours suggest he may go villain again). His ending in T2 was a perfect finale for his character. Cameron had already pushed the limits of logic in bringing Arnold back in the first place. To an extent, it was an early exercise in a board driven, slightly cynical approach to creating blockbuster content. Arnold, by 1991, a mega-star at his apex, was brought back, made good and then turned into a surrogate father for a young and precocious kid (and future leader of humanity) to give the film a wider appeal to slightly younger markets (even though it still retained its R rating). It worked, and additionally, in displacing Arnold as villain, Cameron went about revolutionising CGI to create an iconic villain in the T-1000. Despite Robert Patrick’s physical inferiority to the gargantuan Arnold, we never believed until the very end the T-1000 could be stopped. A mixture of great writing, direction, visual effects and a brilliant performance from Patrick.
Still, each sequel has tried to defy logic once more and bring Arnold inexplicably back. Every reappearance is marred by the same problem. In trying to distance its reasoning enough from the second, they spend too long explaining his reappearance. In the last two films particularly there’s also the small matter of always having to pause the film to explain Arnold’s increased age, or in the last one making it abundantly clear that having set up life with a human woman, that their relationship isn’t physical (groan…). Terminator: Dark Fate wasn’t terrible, and for the first 30 minutes was chugging along reasonably well until a wrench of the steering wheel diverted it off course… to shoehorn Arnold into the picture. Then it descended into a mess of blockbuster checklists for a dull final 30 minutes.
Arnold is The Man, but his association with the franchise, for its own good, should end. He’s 73. Time to put the jump leads away and get back into the steel mill. An old Conan could still work. Old Terminator reboot #4 cannot.
Back to the roots
Prior to becoming the action blockbuster of the 90’s, this was a property that existed almost as much in the B-movie slasher genre than all out action. Cameron’s original film wasn’t loaded with groundbreaking CGI, it was from an era of full practicality. In some ways it was a groundbreaking melding of genres that successfully blended sci-fi, horror and action (something that is still popular now). It perfected what many films in the 80’s were doing at that budget level but did so with the kind of precision Cameron would become synonymous with.
The Terminator is one of the greatest nightmare films. It’s straight out of your most horrifying lucid night terrors with Arnold as the unstoppable and fearsomely mechanical monster. The first film exists almost with Freddy, Jason, Michael. It’s a masterpiece and it undoubtedly would never be bettered by a reinvention, but it took a small budget and amped up the tension superbly. It used the lower budget as a creative challenge (shooting predominantly at night gave the film a wonderfully haunting visual palette). It kept things confined, didn’t over explain its plot and had a small cast played with an incredible level of sincerity from its human contingent (notably Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn as the two leads).
Bigger isn’t always better
The first film is the best. Let’s just state that right now. It’s a masterpiece, possibly one of the best B movies ever made (if not the best). It did this without splashing out a huge amount. In a time where studios will increasingly struggle, and following a string of big budget flops, it’s time this franchise took a more character focused approach and stripped everything back to the core. The Terminator needs to be a living nightmare again. It should embrace its horror. We need a minimalist approach to the sci-fi elements and we need effectively gripping set pieces (part of which always rests on how much we care about characters). They need to stop idolising T2 and the Marvel films and pelting out money unnecessarily on visuals and set pieces that are big, but without thrills.
Likewise the last few films, despite costing enormous amounts, have looks decidedly cheap (because the even bigger films probably monopolise the attention of the best CGI companies). There’s something so monotonously production line about them. A blockbuster formula photocopy, from the cinematography, to the grade, to the set piece tropes, scores, to the tired attempts at humour. I look recently at a film like Upgrade which was low budget but brilliant. There’s an approach to follow, on a film that wasn’t a new concept, but brilliantly delivered. They can follow a Blumhouse/A24 approach in trying to create something with an indie sensibility that can still provide high concept thrills.
There was a great symbiosis between soundtrack and film in the first two films. A big part of that was because Brad Fiedel’s music was more about being an atmospheric part of the film, embracing mechanical sounds from a synthesizer and a soundscape that sometimes aimed to create disconcerting sounds over harmonious. Many of the scores since have felt routine and a bit generic. I love the original synth score. Terminator 2 did a brilliant job of creating more grandiose music, whilst still embracing the machine roots. Every musical accompaniment to the appearance of the T-1000 was great, almost bordering on nails on a chalkboard. It was a score to provoke a discomforting, almost physical response. It’s the kind of thing Hans Zimmer gets lauded for now in his work with Chris Nolan (among others) for example (or Ludwig Goransson’s Zimmer-esque composition for Tenet).
The right direction
The potential new film needs a director who has the creativity and also freedom to create something that embraces and challenges the formula. Leigh Whannell’s aforementioned Upgrade was a great example of low budget Sci-fi genre blending. It was action heavy too, and some elements of horror. Whannell certainly has a grounding in horror too (as further proved by last years excellent Invisible Man reboot), if a new Terminator goes more directly into those origins again. He’d do a great low budget Terminator film, and has shown he can find interesting ways to re-spin and old story. A few others come to mind like Chad Stahelski, whose John Wick franchise shows he can work on a budget and has a strong visual style or David Robert Mitchell, whose It Follows had the non-stop intensity of the original Terminator (even if he hasn’t quite followed that up as successfully yet).
I’d also be very keen to see what someone like John Hyams could do in re-galvanising a dormant franchise like this. He did some challenging and wild things to the Universal Soldier franchise, which embraced some darker human themes, and bluntly executed its violence. In Day of Reckoning in particular, which even had a full on nod to Terminator’s police station sequence, he also took the franchise down a few horror avenues. Additionally, his recent thriller Alone has that relentless chase aspect and a very intimate focus on human character in a survival scenario. We never pause too much to soak in exposition, as much as we experience it during the chase itself. He’d do something potentially great I’m sure.
What would you like to see in a new Terminator film? Is it time to just call it quits? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/