The (longstanding) problems with Terminator

posted in: Creation, Media, Movies | 0

I have always been a big fan of both Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron.  Huge.  Enormous.  I can spell Arnold’s name without having to look it up (believe it or not).  Terminator and Aliens were two films that had huge impacts on me when they first came out.  Both, plus Terminator 2, are still some of my most favorite films, ever.

Yet I never saw Terminator 3; and still haven’t.  One day, years ago, I was at someone’s house on some holiday – I don’t remember which one, one of the summer holidays – and tv channels were being flipped through.  Terminator 3 came up, and I watched about three minutes of it before walking out of the room.  It was bad; worse than I’d feared.  I didn’t go out to see Terminator Salvation, but I did take a look at it once it hit video.  Not a good movie.  Then we arrive at the newest stab at the franchise, Genisys.  Not a good movie  Not at all.

In my view, each of the three cash grab attempts to continue the story have one inarguable flaw; they ignored the creator’s advice that the story was done.  Cameron created the characters, the stories, and the films.  Without diverting this into a James Cameron article, Cameron had a very bad experience on Piranah II (where he was brought in as a hired director working for the producers of that project), and he decided he never again wanted to work on projects where he didn’t have a much greater level of control.  And he hasn’t.  That’s important, something that plagues not just The Terminator franchise, but also most of Hollywood.

Creators are not interchangeable.  Hollywood likes to treat them like they’re Lego blocks, pull one and put another in the same place, and nothing changes except the color of the block.  That’s not how it works.  And despite decades of film history, the decision makers in cinema continue to not learn it.  There’s always some other reason a film failed.  It’s always the director’s fault, or the script’s fault, or the actor’s fault, that a sequel or a reboot or a reimagining flops.  They never seem to figure out that you can’t replace that essential creative spark.  That’s what makes great movies, the kind that earn the huge profits Hollywood so desperately wants.

Terminator and Terminator 2 are both complex stories, both centered around dealing with an unstoppable force.  In the first film, Sarah Connor is a target, a victim, being pursued by a force that is almost mythical in its overwhelming power.  As Kyle Reese says very memorably in a great scene, it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, and absolutely will not stop.  Ever.  And as the movie plays you, we feel that very strongly.  The entire movie is constructed around this base, and is a suspense story; not an action one.

The second film dials up to more of an action story, but still retains the same concept as the first one.  Cameron replaces Terminator with the T-1000, but doesn’t replace the unstoppable nature of the new antagonist.  The audience is treated to groundbreaking effects that are used to create the new villain; and that’s what they’re used for.  Not to dazzle or play smoke-and-mirrors, but to establish and explain how overwhelming the T-1000 is.  When played against Terminator, which was the can’t-be-stopped force in the first one, it works really to set the stakes.  Plus we get a reversal with Sarah Connor as well, who is no longer a victim.  And the whole story is finished off with themes of “what cost is worth paying to save the world”.

At this point in the franchise, Cameron exits.  He felt there were no more stories to be told.  While I think more good Terminator stories are out there, when Cameron was out, I lost interest.  And now, three movies down the road from his exit, I think we’ve more or less established he was right.

What have the other three films done wrong?  First and foremost, they’re not Terminator stories.  Just because they license the characters and universe doesn’t make them Terminator stories.  None of them share the same heart and soul as the two classics that created the property.  Second, they all thought a more or less generic action film could satisfy the franchise’s fans.  And third, none of them had any substantial amount of craft poured into their creation.

This is not just a uniquely Hollywood problem.  More and more often, especially these days with trad-side publishers pushing for literary franchises, stories are extended and sequelized and spun out until all the juice has been sucked out long past dry.  They want to stick with the ‘known quantity’, and forget how that’s not enough to create a story.  The cleverness and spark that went into creating what is now a franchise is lost, and the quality keeps dropping further and further.

Fans don’t like to get burned.  Today’s audiences are more sophisticated than ever before.  That’s not a trend that’s going to cease; creators can’t just pull the curtains closed and expect to get away with phoning it in anymore.  And when you burn them, they don’t forget.  Authors don’t have million dollar marketing campaigns behind them, shaped by marketing experts who are well experienced in controlling a message.  A misstep story that feels like a cash grab is something that can really drag on a creator’s career like a megaton boat anchor.

Ernest Cline saw some success with Ready Player One.  While there are issues, craft issues, with that story, it is not without entertainment value.  There’s fun to be had with it, despite the problems.  Cline didn’t write a direct sequel (yet) to RPO, but he has followed it up Armada.  Fan response has been less than thrilled; many call it a pale shadow attempting to imitate RPO’s focus on niche nostalgia.  The reviews have been savage, and comments on forums and discussion groups have been worse.  Cline might manage to survive Armada, but it’s going to take him stepping up his craft to dig out of the hole.  Because the disaster of a ‘story’ he released as Armada has put him deep in the pit, and deservedly so; because the book is hugely bad.

With Terminator, the rights have been passed around from one investor to another.  They all look at the first two films’ grosses, at the reverence and success, and forget to look at what made those two work.  They then pay for effects artists, bring in writers who also miss the point, and are then surprised and disappointed when the movies fail.  The comments coming out of Skydance, which currently controls the franchise, are exactly this.  They’re disappointed, surprised, ‘considering their options’.  What they should be doing is studying.  They should be worrying less about “what if we invent a new kind of Terminator to spring on the audience” and more about what story can we build around the core concept of dealing with an unstoppable force.

Oddly enough, once upon a time in Hollywood, there was a rule and expectation that sequels were always bad.  That they just weren’t done.  Money changed that rule.  These days money has proven that it’s perverted the point of the rule.  Money wins out over story.  Pursuit of profits beats back crafting a good idea.

Authors, even screenwriters, need to always remember that if they want to follow up an existing story, there must be a story there.  The name, the characters, aren’t enough.  Shitting out a paint-by-the-numbers project that shares a name, that presents a few known entities once more, isn’t enough.  Even a sequel must have a story.  It’s especially important to remember as an indie, because a lot of successful indies are working exclusively in series.  A series is just a fancier word for a succession of sequels.  Calling it a series doesn’t render it immune to the same problems that make people sigh in disgust as they walk out of a bad sequel at the theater.

Whatever you write, remember you’ve got to keep your eye on the story.

I’ll end with the Pixar rules.  Every creator should look at these, and at least be aware of them.  Pixar’s storytellers have built a multi-billion dollar empire from these rules.  They’ve touched hundreds of millions of lives with their stories, with heart and joy.  There’s a lot to be learned by studying these rules and thinking about why they work.  And by applying them in your own work.