Terminator Genisys hit theaters in summer 2015, but the film’s semi-reboot approach to the franchise was not the fresh start that fans and the studio hoped for. Genisys only made $89 million domestically on a $155 million budget – a tell-tale sign that even with franchise star Arnold Schwarzenegger headlining, American audiences are tired of the series.
Luckily for Terminator Genisys, international audiences are showing a lot more love, pumping a combined $346 million (and counting) into the film’s earnings, for a saving grace total haul of $435 million. That sum is definitely enough for the filmmakers and studio to consider moving ahead with the franchise (including the already-planned sequels in this new Terminator trilogy and a spinoff TV show); but how to do it in a way that will attract the core fanbase back to the table is a question that remains. To help with that answer, here are some Ways to save the Terminator franchise going forward.
Get Back to the Horror Roots
James Cameron’s Terminator films (The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day) are still hailed as seminal classics – both within the franchise and the larger canon of moviedom – with good reason. Besides the technically innovative filmmaking and rich story ideas steeped in cultural concerns of the time (Cold War tech fears and “the great savior” mythology), the first two Terminator movies have something that the rest of the films in the franchise do not: they are essentially horror/thriller movies.
Both Terminator 1 & 2 mix in obvious slasher horror film tropes along with the heady sci-fi tech and philosophical rumination on fate vs. destiny; those same horror tropes drive the tension and frenetic pace as the Connors and their protector(s) try to outrun the killer cyborg threat. When the Terminator films adhered to this straightforward and simple narrative approach (essentially one long chase with a scary monster), then the results were good; after T2, the franchise left behind the horror/thriller tropes in favor of more convoluted sci-fi elements (time travel logic, etc.), and the fun sense of tension and suspense largely disappeared from the viewing experience.
GOING FORWARD: The Terminator franchise keeps on trying to “master” time travel logistics and/or flesh out elements like the future war of the 2020s – but it’s that exact “bigger is better” mindstate about sequels or reboots that’s actually strangling the series. Going forward, it’s time to strip away all the excess blubber this franchise has accumulated since 1991, and distill things down into the most basic and essential premise: important figures of soon-to-be history on a non-stop run from an unstoppable killing machine. It’s sad that in the same year, the indie horror flick It Follows managed to get that formula right, while Terminator Genisys made a floundering threepeat for bad storytelling (following Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation).
Stop Trying to Probe John Connor
After actor Edward Furlong’s teen angst portrayal of John Connor in T2, the Terminator franchise saw its focus redirected to exploring the man who is humanity’s savior. T3, Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys all positioned the mythic figure as a main character in their respective stories – but here’s the thing: John Connor isn’t the most interesting character in the Terminator franchise – nor should he be.
If anything, John Connor started out as the major MacGuffin of the Terminator franchise; the “important thing” that all the other characters are after. Furlong did the best at adding touches to John to make him an entertaining supporting character in T2 – but even then, it was the young actor’s interactions with Arnold Schwarzenegger (or getting dramatic with Linda Hamilton) that affected the film’s dynamics the most. John on his own was never that interesting or deeply explored, which is probably in part why John-centric installments like Rise of the Machines and Salvation failed to draw fresh water from that well.
GOING FORWARD: Stop trying to “dig deeper” into John Connor. Terminator Genisys proved one important point about this franchise: it’s Sarah Connor and Arnold’s Terminator character that are the real franchise standouts. Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor captured more of the “tortured by destiny” theme than any onscreen version of John, and Michael Bien’s Kyle Reese did the half-crazed soldier battling fate better than anyone else is liable to (hint hint, Jai Courtney…). That leaves very little narrative room for John Connor’s so-called “depth” to be explored without redundancy. Now that the franchise has no tricks left but to make John Connor some sort of vaguely-explained Terminator convert, doing Skynet’s bidding, it’s safe to say that there needs to be a new focal point to build these movies around. He may be the savior of mankind, but not of this franchise.
Make a Great New Terminator Design
It’s sad that as technology (and film technology) has advanced in the nearly quarter century since T2’s release, we still haven’t gotten a Terminator villain that can match the menace and innovative design of Robert Patrick’s T-1000. As a villain who is nearly impervious to attack, can impersonate anyone or anything, and can create bladed weapons out of his entire body (for horrific and brutal kills), the T-1000 is a hard foe to improve on – which is why the Terminator franchise has had such trouble doing just that.
Terminator 3 tried to sell the idea of the “Terminator-killing Terminator” known as T-X; Salvation gave us the Marcus Wright infiltrator prototype; and fans are still trying to figure out what the John Connor Nano-Terminator was all about in Genisys. None of these designs has been as memorable as the Terminators seen in the first two films, though, which means that it is ironically filmmakers with more advanced technical capabilities that cannot crack the code of designing a new Terminator worthy of Cameron’s work. Maybe ol’ “Avatar Jimmy” could lend a hand?
GOING FORWARD: With or without Cameron’s input, the Terminator franchise needs to invest some time, effort and R&D bucks into nailing down at least one new Terminator design concept that can truly stand head-to-head with the characters Cameron and his team delivered. It’s been nearly a quarter century and technology has (almost proverbially) invaded our lives; the franchise that helped inspire our collective nightmare over technology run rampant should be the first place we’re seeing innovative horrors of the digital era.
Stop Trying to “Fix” Continuity
At this point, most casual viewers would need a set of cliff notes on time/space theory in order to keep the continuity and circumstances of the Terminator franchise straight. Terminator Genisys attempted to “straighten out” the knotted continuity of the films (and Sarah Connor Chronicles spinoff show), by essentially creating a “fresh” alternate timeline, a la the Star Trek reboot.
The only problem is, Genisys then tried to layer on a new continuity which turned out to be just as confusing as the one they were attempting to “fix.” The film didn’t even bother to answer mysteries like how Skynet transferred itself into an organic body, or who sent the “Pops” terminator back in time, or who sent the T-1000 units back to attack Sarah Connor as a child and intercept Kyle Reese when he arrived in 1984. So if the point of Genisys was to help the Terminator franchise get back onto a more straightforward and clear path of continuity, it has instead left things in a more confusing place than ever.
GOING FORWARD: Stop trying to fix all of knotted continuity and time travel paradoxes this series has created for itself, and instead find story approaches that do NOT require a diagram and/or rudimentary knowledge of theoretical physics to get people onboard. Pick one time period and stick to it. Limit all the time jumping and alternate versions of Judgement Day. As it stands, there is so much more confusion and mystery than there are answers; we can’t help but feel that more “fixes” are only going to deepen the rabbit hole.
Think Laterally, Not Linearly
The Terminator mythos is so big and wide that it’s almost nuts that the only filmmaking and television endeavors have all revolved around trying to follow the same set of characters (The Connors and Kyle Reese) – and then, trying to make the conflicting versions of their shared story all fit. As stated, attempts to bend the continuity so that all 4 Terminator films have their space has only resulted in a more confusing and diluted mythos. So maybe it’s time to admit that this particular canal in the time stream has run its course.
GOING FORWARD: Taking a look around at Marvel, DC, or Star Wars, maybe it’s time for Terminator to expand laterally instead of linearly. Pick a set of soldiers from the future war, or some other characters in the “modern day” era who get sucked into the time travel machinations of Skynet. Tell stories featuring new characters; if it can be done smartly enough, pick characters who in some indirect way impact the fates of the Connors. Basically, do what Dark Horse Comics did throughout the ’90s, and imagine some new (quality) spinoff stories set within the Terminator universe. If that doesn’t work, go with big-name crossovers, like Terminator vs. Robocop. Fans would go wild.
How do you feel about the current state of the Terminator franchise? What do you think they should do going forward? Let us know in the comments!