Judgement Day is Inevitable
By Mother Brain
When it comes to established film franchises based on classic movies, TV shows, and comic books, we live in an age where the moviegoing public is divided. There’s the general public that pays good money on a Friday night with little to know knowledge about the movie they’re about to see. Then there’s the hardcore fans of a franchise who want a properly told story that honors the source material and/or the previous entries. When the filmmakers often take liberties in a sequel, reboot, or adaptation, the hardcore fans will rant online and post the nastiest comments in hopes someone high up will listen and learn.
I have ranted on quite a few film and wrestling-related topics over the past few years right here at CosBlog. Now I’m taking a slightly different approach in this piece about the Terminator films and my honest thoughts about the upcoming Terminator Genisys. From my personal perspective growing up on these films forever, my thoughts are about how special the first two blockbusters were and why all the relaunch attempts starting with T3 have done more harm than good.
At age 7, I never knew much about James Cameron’s 1984 classic for the obvious reason of being young and more interested in Ghostbusters, Robocop, and Batman. Yet, I knew of Arnold Schwarzenegger because of his popularity at the time and I would often pass by the Terminator poster outside a sunglasses store in the Staten Island Mall. That year when Total Recall came out on VHS, I remember going to a family friend’s house to watch it on his big screen TV. The first trailer that appeared before the film was the teaser trailer for Terminator 2: Judgement Day where the new T-800 is being created at Skynet. Once Arnold appeared with the glowing red eyes, it left as serious of an impression on me as the Batman trailers.
Sadly, I would not see T2 in its theatrical release. One of my many regrets in life was seeing Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey over it; however, my cousin and I did manage to sneak into the theater at the now infamous “hasta la vista” moment. That was enough for me to go on a Terminator craze that summer, collecting the Kenner toys, trading cards, and the video games. Once it came out on VHS that Christmas, I had to rent it.
T2 is widely considered to be one of the greatest sequels ever made. Everything has already been said about it. It marked the transition point between old school special effects and the magic of CGI with the T-1000. Amazing stunt work all around and lots of fun. But most importantly, it advanced the story of the 1984 film. The heroine of the original, Sarah Connor, would evolve from helpless target to stone cold warrior. There’s the heart of the story about the relationship between Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and young John Connor. The latter finds his protector to be the missing father figure in his life while the former slowly learns about humanity through emotion. Even the Sarah/John relationship is three dimensional as Sarah cannot bring herself to become a nurturing mother because of her determination for John to live out his destiny.
I did not know that Schwarzenegger was the villain of the original Terminator until I saw an Arnold interview promo for T2’s release on Pay-Per-View. So when my family and I went on vacation in Jamaica the following summer, I begged them to go to the hotel video store and rent out Terminator with a room VCR. Now witnessing the story from the beginning, I was even more gripped by the grim, relentless nature of the film. It was odd for me then to see Sarah Connor as an all-American girl and for the protagonist to be this average soldier from the future named Kyle Reese.
As I mentioned in my Underrated Actors piece on Linda Hamilton, the original Terminator was a perfect storm: A talented matte painting artist-turned-director with only one credit (Piranha 2: The Spawning), a famous bodybuilder with limited acting ability as the selling point (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and two unknown leads (Hamilton and Michael Biehn) who have to drive a love story without making it cheesy. It was James Cameron’s vision that triumph over a limited budget. Having worked and studied under the legendary Roger Corman, Cameron knew where the money needed to be spent (i.e. the endoskeleton and the future war flashbacks) and where to cut corners (i.e. limited use of stop motion effects for the endoskeleton in favor of Stan Winston’s puppetry work). If done poorly, Terminator would have been nothing but a throwaway B-movie of the period. Yet, the intelligent use of special effects, Schwarzenegger’s subtle but terrifying performance, and a narrative with many dimensions helped to make The Terminator a quintessential piece of American cinema.
The Terminator craze continued throughout most of the early to mid-90s as fans anticipated a third installment. Cameron found the coolest way to capitalize on that by teaming with Universal Studios to create the T2: 3-D: Battle Across Time movie attraction. He got the T2 cast to reprise their roles in an audience participation piece where they witness Skynet’s latest attempt to kill John Connor only for the T-800 to take him through a portal where young John is thrusted in the middle of the future war. It was an incredible combination of stunts and groundbreaking 3-D effects that gave the audience the feeling of being part of the chaos of T2. Many believed Cameron was testing new technology and ideas for T3. Sadly, this was the last high point of the franchise.
Rumors of T3 would float around for years. The hold up had to do with unfinished scripts, legal issues with the rights after the Carolco production company had collapsed, and the difficult schedules of Cameron and Schwarzenegger. After he became ‘king of the world’ with 1997’s Titanic, Cameron became a different kind of filmmaker who chose to put the past behind him. Although Schwarzenegger would not agree to do it unless Cameron was directing, the director gave his blessing to his star to move on without him. Some believe Cameron leaving the franchise had more to do with the fact that the home of his production company, 20th Century Fox, failed to win the bidding war for 50% of T3. The T2 producers from Carolco “blindsided” Cameron and destroyed their relationship with him.
The hype around Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003 was nowhere near the levels of T2. Although Schwarzenegger was back, the actor was now age 54 and coming off a slump of misfires at the box office. Linda Hamilton, feeling her arc was done after T2, turned down the film, resulting in a rewrite where Sarah Connor dies before the story begins. Edward Furlong didn’t receive a phone call due to his drug problems and Nick Stahl replaced him as an older John Connor. The new baddie Terminator was always rumored to be female as established athletic celebrities as WWE’s Chyna and Famke Janssen were said to be in the running. But the T-X would instead be cast with a young model named Kristanna Loken. Director duties would be handled by Jonathan Mostow, the director of the submarine thriller U-571. An aging action star, new actors, and new director were perceived to be discouraging for fans. Also, the marketplace had changed between 1991 and 2003 because of newer franchises such as The Matrix, Spider-Man, and the Star Wars prequels taking further steps in breaking new ground in cinema.
I saw T3 on its opening weekend that summer in 2003 with low expectations. I knew it would not break new ground as the Cameron entries had done; however, I was surprised about the story being better than expected. I loved the ideas of John Connor struggling to find his place in the world, how Judgement Day would still happen regardless of T2’s ending, the T-X hunting down Connor’s future associates including his future spouse Kate played by Claire Danes, and Schwarzenegger’s new T-800 being more driven by the mission unlike T2 where he took time to understand emotion. The ending itself when Skynet unleashes nuclear disaster around the world was bold for Hollywood standards. It also had some of the best practical stunts of the time, specifically a destructive truck chase and fight between the T-800 and the T-X. Sure it lacked the rhythm and style of the bike chase in T2. But experiencing that on a big screen still rocked.
There’s no arguing T3 as the weakest of the initial trilogy. Yet, it still managed to advance the story properly while giving the audience a bang for their bucks. At this point, Schwarzenegger got busy as California’s governor and the fans were ready to move on with a T4 that plays out the future war between Skynet and the human resistance. Once again though, delays and changes in rights holders, and several rewrites resulted in a whole new cast and crew. Charlie’s Angels director McG would tackle Terminator Salvation with Christian Bale as the adult John Connor. The hype was up when the teaser trailer was released with The Dark Knight in the summer of 2008.
Yet, a year before Terminator Salvation hit screens, the franchise made the jump to television with The Sarah Connor Chronicles. With events taking place between T2 and T3, the story follows a female terminator (ironically named Cameron) who leaps John and Sarah ten years into the future where they remain on the run from the authorities and new terminators sent by Skynet. With 300’s Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker tackling the Connor roles, they also come across new characters tied to the established characters from the film including Kyle Reese’s brother. Ratings were strong in the first year, but a split in fan reaction led to its cancellation after two seasons. Some praised it for adding new dimensions to the franchise while others felt it was nothing but a cheap cash-in.
I had my reasons not to see Terminator Salvation in the theaters and no Schwarzenegger was not one of them. When I first heard it was PG-13, I knew that would be the creative kiss of death since the first three entries carried an R rating. Going PG-13 meant a plethora of merchandise and tie-ins with chains like 7 Eleven. Also, there was word during production that John Connor was a secondary character as the main focus would be an ex-con named Marcus Wright who had his body volunteered for science and ends up becoming a cyborg. Sam Worthington, who I knew nothing about, was cast in the role just after completing Avatar for James Cameron which had yet to be released.
The film tanked critically and did not meet studio expectations. I didn’t see the movie until it was released on DVD. The problems I had with it were painfully obvious: Worthington’s bland performance, Bale playing Bruce Wayne more than John Connor, Helena Bonham Carter playing the ‘face’ of Skynet, a CGI 1984 Schwarzenegger cameo, references from past entries that came off too cheesy (i.e. Connor’s variation of “I’ll be back.”), the lack of characterization of Kate Connor, and a bombed out 7 Eleven. Those are just the nitpicks. What is supposed to be a spectacular and crucial moment of advancing the Terminator story ends up offering nothing new. There’s no theme to the story besides John meeting Kyle Reese, becoming a leader, and getting a scar. Yet, the only true high points of the film are Anton Yelchin’s dead-on portrayal of a young Kyle Reese and John Connor not being widely accepted as the resistance leader due to the older, established generals of the planet looking down on him like a nut job which echoes Sarah Connor’s treatment in the mental institute in T2. Besides that, the switching of the narrative to Marcus Wright made it feel like this was a non-Terminator movie. It reminded me of the negative reaction gamers had to Metal Gear Sold 2 when the majority of the game play emphasized the new Raiden character than the established hero, Solid Snake.
In 2015, we will see the release of a full blown reboot oddly titled TERMINATOR: GENISYS. Due to more legal trouble and bankruptcy from the Salvation producers, the rights switched over to Paramount. The new producers from Skydance Productions felt they needed to avoid mistakes made on the last entry by making two key decisions: Consulting James Cameron for story advice and bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800. This time, the story takes the same direction as the 2009 Star Trek reboot as Schwarzenegger is sent back when Sarah Connor was an orphan child and trains her over time before the events of the 1984 film. This new T-800 ages over time and becomes more human by the day. It’s an all new cast around Schwarzenegger with Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke as Sarah, Jai Courtney from the last horrendous Die Hard film as Reese, and Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke as the adult John Connor. Adding to the lack of faith is Thor: The Dark World’s director Alan Taylor at the helm.
There’s already a fan shitstorm around the internet when the first official stills leaked on Entertainment Weekly. Between the shocking story twist details and the embarrassing facial expressions of the actors, fans already feel like this is going to be a perversion of everything they came to love about Terminator. It’s like a group of studio hacks in a room watching the past films, eating potato chips, and making jokes about what they would do if they had the chance to reboot the series. This was the same exact mistake made with Salvation. Throwing away the legacy of two beloved films is just an excuse to squeeze more life out of a devalued franchise that had no story left to tell. When you see the original Robocop, it’s a perfect three act story with no call for a sequel; however, producers went forward with unnecessary sequels and TV adaptations with belief the story could move on and they all failed miserably, tarnishing the legacy of a classic film.
As of this writing, the Genisys trailer has yet to be released. But the description I read about it may have a chance to alleviate any fears the fans might have. It is fair to say with Schwarzenegger in it and Cameron’s ideas being implemented, it should be given an open mind; however, the title and the star alone will not guarantee gigantic box office as previous entries have done. At a time when Disney is taking over the world with Marvel and Star Wars films as well as a DC cinematic universe on the way, Terminator might be considered retirement home material now because no one was screaming for another movie after Salvation. For a new generation of moviegoers that have already passed on Schwarzenegger’s post-governor releases (The Last Stand, Escape Plan, and Sabotage), they are likely to see this as a generic action picture with no superheroes, aliens, giant fucking robots, teenage vampires, or young wizards kicking ass. That’s why I believe when it comes to the Terminator franchise on its last legs in 2015, its own Judgement Day is inevitable.