Terminator 5 has been mumbled about since last December, when Oracle kids Megan and Larry Ellison became the latest independents to buy the rights. Now the shambling freight train is on the tracks, with Paramount negotiating to distribute the film and Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing he’s on board and that filming will begin in early 2014. And so the latest franchise reanimation is underway.
What’s striking about a fifth Terminator actually happening is Hollywood’s crusade to keep restarting a story James Cameron decisively ended with Terminator 2 despite numerous underperforming attempts. Terminator 3 half-heartedly remade the second film, although with an admirable bummer of an ending. TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which, tellingly, ignored the third film) rated poorly and was cancelled after two seasons.
Terminator Salvation changed the format with John Connor fighting against Skynet in the future war we’d only previously glimpsed. Despite filling the Arnie-shaped hole with high-wattage stars Christian Bale and Sam Worthington, the oddly-titled Salvation was instantly forgettable and hampered by Bale’s insistence on playing John Connor. The character’s peripheral story was beefed up at the expense of Worthington’s, but so jarringly that the iconic Connor character feels like an interloper in his own franchise, hogging screen time for no meaningful reason.
None of these projects set the world on fire, and each was a new attempt to squeeze some extra juice from a universe that had dried up. Just because a film has one sequel doesn’t mean it can sustain several more. These days, franchises are built for sequelisation from the ground-up, and creatives need the clout of Christopher Nolan to be able to conclude them. Even when they don’t end, their continuation doesn’t feel absurd and paradoxical, however poor the films themselves may be.
But Cameron was allowed to close down his universe in Terminator 2, so Hollywood’s current franchise mentality clashes with how this particular franchise was established. Every subsequent Terminator has felt like a Frankenstein’s monster rather than a sleek new model off the production line.
And yet we don’t seem to question this. A new Terminator is undoubtedly happening because projections indicate that enough people will throw down $20 on opening weekend to make it financially viable. We’ll turn up to see Arnie reprise the Terminator role, either without questioning why Skynet would build a killing machine that resembles a 65-year-old version of an existing model or because we’re curious to see how the film renders that remotely plausible. We’ll be vaguely entertained, then go home and forget about it. Enough of us will do this that the film will break even and we’ll soon be talking about Terminator 6.
Terminator 6! That’s actually a distinct possibility. The Ellisons wouldn’t have bought the rights to just make one film. This kind of movie is in David’s company Skydance’s wheelhouse, as they’ve pitched in on the new Star Trek films and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, among other tentpoles. What’s telling is that Megan’s Annapurna Pictures bought into this, given that so far she’s produced smaller, edgier dramas like Zero Dark Thirty and The Master. Megan Ellison no doubt sees the potential rewards of even a sixth Terminator film as justifying the expense, to the point where she’ll risk the reputation of her brand as a supporter of fringe projects that might not get funding elsewhere. That’s how likely we are to show up and give this film our money.
Dismissing a fifth Terminator without even a nugget of plot information is a tad unfair, I know. But this is one of those safe bets that a new film couldn’t deliver anything new. We’ve seen three Terminator chase films and a future war movie. Nothing after Terminator 2 felt organic, so why will another film suddenly exhibit untapped potential? I’ve never read a speculative scenario that justified more Terminator.
And even if it’s a shockingly ambitious and well-written movie, it’s still built on the corpse of the retconned Terminator 2. The notion that a bad movie doesn’t ruin the great book it’s based on feels pertinent and reassuring here, yet they’re all movies. When sequels feel like crummy adaptations, how is that franchise sustainable?
Can we take a stand and just boycott reanimations like this? Yes, movies are about making money, but why be insulted while we hand our money over?