I love the Terminator franchise; I always have. There’s such something so poignant about the Frankenstein Monster of the 20th Century. The T-800 isn’t just a robot, it’s a hulking reminder of man’s dependency on technology, and the terror of losing control over one’s creation.
Embodied as a red-eyed metal endoskeleton, the original story is an excellent Sci-Fi horror. Drawing upon his love of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), James Cameron gave us Terminator (1984). In true horror fashion, it sees a sentient AI travel through time with the one purpose of killing Sarah Connor and snuffing out the human resistance pre-infancy. With only time-traveller Kyle Reese to help her, a paradox is created when he becomes the father of future-saviour John Connor … it’s a simple horror, with a great Sci-Fi premise, and an interesting paradox.
Then there’s the sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), which gave us an even more formidable machine in the T-1000, and a closed paradox as Skynet is defeated. The reprogrammed T-800 gives his life in an emotional farewell, and we end with the powerful message of the future not being set – surprisingly similar to Back to the Future the more I think about it …
Regardless, these two films cemented the Terminator franchise in the hearts and minds of Sci-Fi fans everywhere. But it wasn’t built to last.
Following the expertly concluded Judgement Day, it was only natural to have a transmedia presence. There was of course a TV series – The Sarah Connor Chronicles. We got more sequels – Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, Terminator: Genysis, and that was only the start.
In comics, T-800s fought everyone from Robocop to Superman. There were games, merchandise, theme park rides, 4D stunt shows with exclusive appearances by the T-1,000,000. It was everywhere.
Now, we’re at Terminator: Dark Fate – a movie that hasn’t done very well considering its recognisability. So, for this post I wanted to explore what went wrong, and how a disorganised narrative led to the collapse of such an iconic Sci-Fi premise.
THE FUTURE IS NOT SET
One of the most infuriating aspects of this franchise is the convoluted nature of time travel. In the first two movies it’s simple. Judgement Day happens in 1997, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time from 2029, Kyle Reese fathers John Connor with Sarah Connor (then he dies). Then in T2 they destroy Skynet and alter the future … simple, right?
The issue is it’s a closed loop paradox – perfect for the message of creating a better future, but not great when you want to establish a long-running franchise.
Then you have Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which says that Judgement Day now happens in 2003. Then Terminator Genysis puts judgement day back again in 2017 following a mobile app created by Skynet disguising itself as “Genysis,” and that’s before you even consider the Sarah Connor Chronicles which was set after T2 in a non-canon timeline with multiple other futures and EIGHT different Judgement Days.
I bring this all up because a transmedia franchise needs mythos. Whenever you craft a world, you need to have a definitive idea of the history, characters, and most importantly – philosophy.
After the T-800 sacrifices himself to avert Judgement Day, and we get a speech about how the future isn’t set, one movie later and all of that doesn’t matter – ALL OF IT! Not a thing was changed, and the characters’ actions have no impact. Instead, the philosophy inadvertently becomes a nihilistic mess: “Judgement Day is coming, and you’re powerless to stop it!”
The franchise is dependent more on aesthetics than creating anything meaningful.
Not to mention, it’s impossible to even keep track of how time travel even works any more – in one alternate past/future Sarah Connor travels to 2017 … after a parallel T-800 goes back in time to raise her … and then John Connor becomes a Terminator?
If the franchise can’t keep its story straight, why should we care?
THE FUTURE IS WHAT WE MAKE IT
Let’s talk about reboots, or rather ignoring the past. Terminator: Dark Fate is marketed to us as “just forget everything after Terminator 2; this is the ‘real’ Terminator 3.” Except those films existed, and it’s difficult to forget decades-worth of story to make this movie work.
There are now 4 different “Terminator 3s:” Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, The Live Action Show, and now Terminator: Dark Fate. Again, it’s a mess.
Moreover, it’s very difficult to stay invested in a franchise that functions like this. I actually watched Judgement Day as a refresher, and the first scene in this movie feels like it ignores what happened in that instalment – especially with the shock right at the start.
Dark Fate is perhaps the best Terminator movie since the second one, this time with a story by James Cameron himself. I think this adds credence to the “auteur” approach to franchises that we’re starting to see.
Take Star Wars: The Last Jedi for example. As it’s not part of George Lucas’ vision, some fans refuse to view it as official “canon.” I think Dark Fate is an inverse of this way of thinking – with Cameron doing the story, this is the true sequel to T2. Yeah, it’s good. But it still irks me that it’s still predominantly driven by aesthetics.
The AI antagonist isn’t even Skynet, it’s some other thing that ended up creating their own robo-apocalypse and sending something practically identical to Terminator back in time. The action is great, and the original characters are cool, but that’s it – it’s just another Terminator movie; and that’s not a good enough USP for many.
I often wonder what risk I’d even take with this franchise – how do you develop a world where the main plot point is a paradox? Marvel’s done very well exploring different genres: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Comedy, Heist, teen drama, and next decade – horror.
Either way, something needs to change.
IT IS IN OUR NATURE TO DESTROY OURSELVES
Dark Fate risks losing a lot at the box office, and to me it’s clear why – the storyworld just wasn’t structured for expansion. It’s like trying to build a franchise out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It just wasn’t made for that.
Terminator may need to find a way to branch outside of their comfort zone, take a real bold risk like putting Skynet far in the past. Maybe they could try a different century, like the Victorian era, the 1700s. Maybe there’s a mistake and he winds up in early America and has to experience history first-hand; doing his best to find purpose when he can’t fulfil his mission … I dunno. They may be weird ideas, but you can bet they’d be different.
I think Terminator serves as a warning to any writers thinking that it’s just a case of writing a script and then selling it. There needs to be consideration on how to sustainably develop the world, characters, and how best to use the mediums available to you.
Otherwise, you’re reliant more on aesthetics and designs. Glowing red eyes and a metal skeleton is a fascinating concept and can be thematically interpreted a number of ways. But Dark Fate almost banked on this design, instead of taking a chance on a new concept for the film’s antagonist.
If you’re a terminator fan, I still suggest giving it a watch – there were some action scenes that warranted the silver screen treatment. At the very least it feels closest to the “one true” Terminator 3 we were promised. But sadly, I don’t see it resonating with general audiences the same way the first two instalments did.