The Terminator franchise is almost as resilient as its eponymous robotic killer – every time it’s knocked down, it comes back with more force.
However, since James Cameron left the series in 1991, none of the sequels has quite managed to live up to fan expectations or come close to the creator’s original duology. Rise of the Machines was a retread that played up the camp and, despite a daring ending that actually realized Judgment Day, felt like the lesser of the first three films. Then came Terminator: Salvation, which finally gave audiences a proper taste of the post-apocalyptic future glimpsed in previous films – the only problem is that it was a murky brown trudge and, an excellent turn from Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese aside, made a war between robots and humans rather boring.
No matter – half-a-decade later we got Terminator: Genisys, which attempted to take the franchise back to its roots with a time-travel-enabled redo of the original film’s events but collapsed into something plain dumb (in this version, Skynet is little more than Google). Each movie managed to disappoint more than the one before, to the point where after Genisys many long-term fans were ready to be done with the increasingly convoluted story of the Connors.
Thankfully, Terminator 6 has the potential to right the wrongs of the past and put the series back on track. Cameron has always been set to have the rights revert to him in 2019 once the original 35 year option expires, long giving some hope that we’ll get a movie from the original creator again eventually, and now new reports have revealed he’s already planning a next entry to reboot the series, with Deadpool‘s Tim Miller cited in the running to direct.
With only a director rumored and no concrete details on what Cameron’s new vision is there’s not much to speculate on, but in the wake of those previous failed attempts there’s still a lot of lessons we know need to be learned to ensure the sixth film is a winner.
Stop Focusing On Time Travel
The biggest mistake made by the non-Cameron sequels was to think that Terminator is a purely time travel franchise. Yes, time travel plays an essential part in the first two movies, raising debates about predestination and influencing key emotional moments, but it was mostly a plot device to enable a tech noir chase movie. If you want to have a waitress hunted down by an unstoppable robot, a post-nuclear war machine uprising trying to wipe out the resistance leader before he’s born is as good an establishment idea as any.
Cameron does an excellent job of infusing the method throughout the script, but if you go back and watch the original movie, all the action operates entirely apart from it. Terminator 2: Judgment Day increases the narrative prominence of time travel, using it to directly motivate several characters’ arcs beyond being hunted by the T-1000, but it remains predominantly a framing element.
All three sequels made it a much more key plot point. Rise of the Machines introduced an inevitability clause to Judgment Day‘s message that “the future isn’t set.” Salvation attempted to have Skynet advancing faster than they did in a previous timeline, and Genisys was all about time-hopping and timeline-twisting. However, despite expanding what is one of the most striking parts of the franchise, only Rise of the Machines had it work somewhat effectively. The others never seemed to fully understand the logic of what they were doing, because they overestimated just how important time displacement really needs to be. A reboot under Cameron can pull back from this faulty notion and accept that what makes the series work is the characters and the basic chase movie ideal, not the method that gets you there.
On the topic of time travel, it’s also important to note is that there’s zero continuity in the logic presented in The Terminator and Judgment Day. The first is a simple time loop, but the second introduces a more Back to the Future-esque rewrite. This can often confuse fans – per the first movie, there’s no new future made by the events of the film, just the realization of things that always happened, something reversed by Cameron’s sequel – and has led to later movies tying themselves up in knots to consolidate very different ideas. As Cameron is the one who introduced the two conflicting alternative ideas, he can hopefully ensure the series’ obsession with finding time travel continuity where none really exists is dropped too.
Respecting The Full Terminator Vision
Beyond that, there’s another creative crutch that hampered movies 3, 4 and 5; all three were essentially trying to craft a full 120-minute feature around a single element of the original film – the chase, the future war, and Skynet’s time travel scheme respectively. While it’s possible to make a movie work from any idea, in these cases taking only part of the Terminator mythos led to an incomplete vision. This is best seen with Salvation, which was dogmatically stuck expanding the brief glimpses of the war from the previous films rather than really getting to do something fresh itself. It’s one-track thinking that comes out of too much reverence for the originals without having enough of a unique idea to compliment it (something that is indeed true of many legacy-quels).
Cameron overseeing the project definitely suggests that won’t be the case with the sixth film, but the main boon here is Miller. The former VFX artist made an absolute smash hit with Deadpool, imaginatively approaching a very well-worn genre. Part of that creativity may have been spurred by budgetary constraints, but he still showed an eye for engaging blockbuster construction that Jonathan Mostow, McG and Alan Taylor never really have. He may actually be a director worthy of Terminator.
Another facet of Terminator that the latest two sequels missed (and one we know Miller can deliver on) is the R-rating. Judgment Day was the highest grossing film of 1991, yet whichever studio currently has the rights to the series think a new movie needs to be treated like a modern tentpole – PG-13 and all. This has a neutering effect, leading to toned-back films that lack the grit and intensity required; brutality is a core part of Terminator, allowing the story to feel genuinely high-stakes. Violence shouldn’t be there just for the sake of it, nor will it guarantee a good film – Rise of the Machines was rated R and still didn’t stick it – but it’s an essential part of the package.
Don’t Worry About Sequels (Yet)
The biggest hope for Terminator 6, however, comes from the actual report on the Cameron/Miller news. Deadline stated that the film will be “a reboot and conclusion of one of cinema’s great science fiction tales”. Now this could be unfounded elaboration on behalf of the report, but taking it as all writ, then this means Terminator 6 will be something no Terminator movie since Judgment Day has tried to be: an end.
Rise, Salvation and Genisys were all trying to be the start of a new trilogy – a John Connor revolutionary arc, a future-set series, and time-altering adventure respectively – and thus felt incredibly incomplete and ultimately unsatisfying. The recurring failure now means we have a trilogy of failed trilogy starters. Going into a new movie intending to tell a complete, single story with a semblance of finality is the ultimate thing Terminator needs. The war for humanity’s future means nothing if you know we’ve got two more final fights already green-lit. That’s not to say there should be sequel contingencies at all, just that it shouldn’t be the primary focus.
The Terminator mythology is vast, and non-movie efforts like The Sarah Connor Chronicles have shown that there is a way to consolidate them all into a satisfying movie experience (and that’s saying nothing of fan efforts). Although the movies have tapped out many of the creative wells, there are plenty of directions that Tim Miller’s reboot can go in that won’t feel regurgitative or lazy. The core of it, though, is addressing these ingrained problems with the previous attempts and returning to the series’ original ethos.