A few months ago, while trawling YouTube for Terminator videos (a frequent activity of mine), I stumbled across a series of videos titled, “What Happened to the Terminator Franchise?”
“I’ve been asking myself that for years,” I muttered to myself as I clicked play. “I hope this guy knows what he’s talking about.”
And boy did he:
Over the course of five videos, Calum O’Donnell (“LittleJimmy835” on YouTube) chronicled the rise and fall of my most beloved sci-fi franchise with his intelligent, funny commentary, the type of thing that we love here at Overthinking It. I knew I needed to get in touch with him for some serious talk. Thankfully, around that time, the recent surge of Terminator sequel news (“reboot” confirmed for 2015, with two more movies to follow) gave us, possibly the two biggest Terminator nerds on YouTube, the occasion to join forces and speculate wildly on the unknown future of Terminator.
This is what we came up with.
About this Terminator “reboot” that’s been announced. We have no idea what that means, but “reboot” is the word that Hollywood wants to use to get people to forget about the (disappointing) recent history of a franchise. They also want to remind fans of other successful recent reboots: Batman and Star Trek, chief among them.
Let’s start with the basic question: are you at all optimistic about this new Terminator? Or is there something about this franchise that, unlike Batman or Star Trek, leaves little room for a new storyteller to reinvent the franchise? I tend to lean towards the latter, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
I know you were more forgiving of Terminator Salvation’s faults than I was. So maybe you have more of an “endoskeleton half full” mindset when it comes to this franchise?
Hey now! Don’t say anything you can’t take back mate! Just because I said Terminator Salvation wasn’t as bad as everyone else says, doesn’t mean I think it was a great movie. I just felt that Salvation, in spite of its flaws, was closer to the original two films than its predecessor Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was. I guess it’s like comparing being punched in the stomach to being kicked in the groin. Neither are particularly good, but I know which one I’d prefer!
How about “neither”? Is that an option?
No, You must choose. There is no fate but what Hollywood makes for you. Anyway, I don’t really know what Hollywood even means by “reboot” anymore. Hollywood is using the term “reboot” to describe just about anything nowadays, regardless of whether they’re outright restarting a series continuity, or just taking the established canon in a different direction. I’m afraid that the term has become so overused that it’s now just a Hollywood marketing buzzword robbed of all meaning.
I’m really not sure how to feel about the continuation of this franchise. The ending of Terminator Salvation didn’t really leave much to go on as far as continuing the story, but on the other hand, outright restarting the series storyline runs the risk of simply going over what we’ve already seen before. So I guess the question is, how do you think they’ll go about rebooting it? Will they simply ignore the previous films and restart the continuity? Will they make a sequel to Terminator Salvation? Will they pull a Star Trek and use the time travel to create and “in universe” plot device for re-jigging the series continuity?
I find it interesting that Annapurna Pictures has acquired the rights to produce this new flick. For those who don’t know, they’re the guys whose most recent production of note was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. So my guess is that the next Terminator is going to be about an alcoholic T-800 who becomes a Scientologist.
Don’t look at me like that; it could happen.
Actually, I like the idea of the founder of Scientology being a Terminator. It goes a long way towards explaining the e-meters.
Anyway, about continuity: I had assumed they would restart the continuity, but I hadn’t considered a Star Trek-like in-universe plot reset. The time travel nature of Terminator certainly lends itself to that. Just like how Old Spock met Young Spock, they could have an Old Sarah Connor travel back in time to meet a Young Sarah Connor, to warn her about how the future turned out differently than what the T-800 foretold. It would probably be nonsense, but it would at least create a plausible reason to bring Linda Hamilton back to the franchise. Note that the only two good Terminator movies are the ones with her in them. Coincidence? I think not.
But the real question is this: Terminator stories, or at least as they’ve been imagined thus far, suffer from the same constraints that a lot of other time travel-centric sci-fi stories do: it’s a prisoner of its own mythology. Take the typical superhero movie franchise, like Spider-Man or Iron Man. It’s not so difficult to keep telling new stories with these heroes; you just throw a new super-villain at them and give them new obstacles to overcome. It’s not so simple with Terminator. You can’t keep throwing bad guys back in time to kill John Connor; it just gets silly (Terminator 3). You can’t keep throwing bad guys at John Connor to kill in the future, either (Terminator Salvation); it presupposes too much the existence of that future and never gets us back to the present, which is what everyone is actually fighting over in Terminator stories.
So where is there new territory to tread with these stories?
Yeah, you can only send so many Terminators back in time to kill John Connor before it starts to get ridiculous. You’ll notice that in the first Terminator, they tried to establish during the interrogation scene at the police station that, for whatever reason, Kyle and the Terminator were the only ones who had the chance to travel back in time, therefore establishing a nice closed loop timeline. Of course they abandoned this with the sequels, and therefore opened the door to all kinds of paradoxical questions: Why doesn’t Skynet send a more than one Terminator back at once? Why doesn’t Skynet send a Terminator back to when Sarah was born? Why can’t Skynet tell if their previous assassination mission fails before it happens? Why did my brain hurt so much from thinking about that last question?
Heck, even Terminator 2, otherwise known as “The Good Sequel” suffered a little from this problem. The only thing that saved T2 from this mess was that movie kicked so much arse in every other area that it made you overlook these plot gripes.
So that pretty much nixes the angle of “Let’s send another Terminator back in time to kill John!” And even if you could make it work, it’s just retreading old ground anyway. The area I always wanted to see explored was a prequel film that showed the origins of the robot uprising; how Skynet was invented, how the war started, and the birth of the human resistance. All the previous Terminator films ever showed us was glimpses of the machine war. Even Terminator Salvation limited itself to post main-conflict skirmish fighting. So stop pussyfooting around and show us the actual war already!
All fine and good. This would probably be the safe thing to do. And it has a decent chance of producing a good movie. But part of me craves a totally brand new take on Terminator, one that stakes out new territory, not just for the franchise, but for sci-fi writ large. Like T1 and T2. Is this too much to ask for? Probably, but consider how much has happened since Terminator gave us the current reigning benchmark vision for the Robot Apocalypse: huge advances in machine learning. The rise of the surveillance state. 3D printing. Human organs grown in petri dishes. Wouldn’t this make for an incredible new starting point for the Terminator/Skynet story? One that is far more relevant to our day and age than the original Cold War, Pentagon/DoD-heavy birth of SkyNet?
The whole idea of technology advancing faster than we can understand it is an old maxim of science fiction, but it’s probably more relevant today than ever. Look at your smart phone; it’s a miniature supercomputer right in your pocket. Not so ago that would have been the communicator from Star Trek: pure science fiction. Your XBOX is about a zillion times more powerful than the computers NASA used to send the astronauts to the Moon. That’s Moore’s Law in full effect.
Everything we do today is through the internet; our work, our entertainment, even bloody refrigerators and vacuum cleaners have connections these days. Everything we do is mercilessly catalogued online through social media. Big companies like Google and Facebook are demanding more and more of our personal information for us to use their services, and we’re either completely unaware of it, or we reluctantly go along with it due to our utter dependence on their technology.
We have all of this technology, and yet most of us don’t even have the flimsiest idea of how it works. And as the technology is advancing faster and faster, we are finding ourselves more and more dependent on it, to the point where all of a sudden we think we can’t live our lives without it. Heck, now I can’t even take a dump without bringing my iPad in with me so I have something to read.
I find it funny how people online always joke about their “Zombie Survival Plan,” how they would survive in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Yet I’m willing to bet most of these people would end up shooting themselves if their Internet went down for more than 48 hours. Hell I’m guilty of it too; the other day my Internet connection shit itself while I was studying for an exam, and I went into a complete panic. “How on Earth am I meant to study for my next exam? Read a textbook like some kind of primitive animal?!”
And I haven’t even got into all of the military’s recent investments in robotics. We all know of the use of attack drones and UAV’s, but were you aware that they’re actually investing into powered exoskeletons, automated gun turrets and walking robots? Combine those three together you’ve just about got a Terminator.
So to get back to the point, yes, I think thematically a Terminator movie is still very relevant to today’s world, because the robots already are talking over!
Maybe that’s the problem: the gap between Skynet’s science fiction future and the present is much more narrow now than it was in 1984. One of the many things that makes The Terminator such a compelling movie is the way that future technology infiltrates and corrupts the present. The most advanced piece of technology that Sarah Connor owns is a Walkman; Kyle Reese, a pump-action shotgun. The gap between that and a Terminator is huge. The gap between drones and exo-skeleton prototypes, not so huge. Why bother having a time travel element in the story, then, if the distance traveled is not so great?
Can you have a compelling Terminator universe without any time travel at all?
Well, our current advances in technology do make this kind of story more relevant today than ever. Sarah was never really ever at risk of her Walkman rising up against her, but when you look at today’s military drones, it makes you wonder where’s this technology going to be in even just 10 years?
So perhaps a Terminator movie doesn’t need to be set in the distant future at all. Maybe you could have it set in the the near future as the robots begin their takeover. It’d be like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, except it would be the Rise of the Machines.
They already used that title.
They did? Shit… Let me work on that one…
But here we run into a problem. Isn’t time travel an integral part of the franchise? I mean, what if someone were to propose a sequel to Back to the Future without the Delorian? Or a sequel to Hot Tub Time Machine without a… uh… Hot Tub Time Machine? Is a Terminator really even a Terminator movie without time travel? And besides, getting rid of time travel would also pretty much nix our idea of Linda Hamilton back “Old Spock” style.
So how would you go about this? Do we need time travel? Do we need to bring back Sarah? Or are we better of starting completely afresh?
I think it needs time travel to still be Terminator. Recent movies like Looper and Primer have shown that it’s still possible to give fresh takes on time travel. And I’ve yet to see a good Terminator story absent Sarah Connor, so I’d strongly advocate for her to be in it, front and center.
And I know that just brings me closer to advocating a straight up remake of the first Terminator movie, which would be safe and predictable, not to mention the absolute wrong thing to do and totally antithetical to the message of T1 and T2. Those movies were, at their core, meditations on fate versus free will. How sad would it be that a groundbreaking sci-fi movie is so successful that it fates itself to just be repeated in a lesser way?
Here’s another solution: send a robot back in time to kill James Cameron, so we don’t have to be face the future awfulness of Terminator 5.
Looks like you can’t fight fate after all. Well, you get the robot and and I’ll set up the time displacement field and we’ll… Wait a second… If we send a robot back in time to kill James Cameron, then he’ll never make Terminator. If Terminator never gets made we’d never have this conversation, so we’d never send a robot back in time. So then James Cameron would be alive, and he would make The Terminator, but then we’d send a robot back and…
Great Scott! We’ve created a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe! If we don’t stop this now we could…
OH GOD IT’S HAPPENING!
Inviting speculation? Two words: go forward. Show the post-war rebuilding… with the looming threat of the infiltrators Skynet sent *into the future* at some unknown time, after humans have grown complacent.
And/or use the time machine for sideways trips, which was probably Skynet’s plan all along: create a victorious alternate timeline that can send reinforcements. Necessarily the reinforcements can only arrive after the travelers are sent to the past, so again the best timeframe for new stories is the post-war period.
Your idea about sending reinforcements from an alternate timeline is clever, but I ultimately think that telling stories in the war or post-war settings is a mistake, or at least should not be the focus of a new movie. I feel pretty strongly that the whole future-meets-present shock is essential to Terminator.
Terminator, at its best, forces us to confront fundamental dualities of modern life:
Man vs. machine
Fate vs. free will
Present vs. future
Dog vs. machine
etc. OK, maybe not the last one, but you get the idea. Setting stories in the future risks takes away the “present vs. future” dichotomy, which is one of my main complaints about Terminator Salvation.
Point taken. It’s also cheaper to set a futuristic thriller in the present… unless, of course, you’re making the most expensive movies of their year *ahem T2 & T3*.
Bear in mind we’re closer now to the “future” of 2029 than the “present” of 1984. Which means sideways time travel would bring our present into contact with the post-JD future. Like so…
In 1984, a T-800 was systematically sent to Los Angeles, Texas — and was promptly annihilated by all 20 of the town’s gun-toting, fertilizer-bombing inhabitants. While investigating the explosion, BATF seizes Terminator parts, including blueprints for a time machine, which SkyNet had hoped would be built by its victorious (yet less desperate) alt-self to send the aforementioned reinforcements. Instead, human analysts build it and, somewhere around whatever year it is now, send an expedition to explore the frontiers of time. Unfortunately, they stumble into Skynet’s domain. There’s your present meets the future. From that point, anything can happen.
Then again, T4’s Rip Van Winkling also brought the present into the future, yet somehow that doesn’t count.
Houdini died from being punched in the stomach. I just thought I’d mention that.
Anyway… it does seem logical that each time Skynet sends a Terminator back in time, it’s creating a new universe. Otherwise, it would remember the failed attempt, and not send it… in which case, paradox. And everyone knows, if there’s a potential time paradox, just make a new universe. So, quite simply, you create ‘Terminator 5: Termiception!’ (the exclamation mark is crucial). An endless sequence of Terminators (or even the same terminator, actually) being sent into endless parallel universes to kill John Connor. Perhaps with Skynet becoming increasingly unlikely to exist the more times the Terminator fails. And then there would presumably be a plot somewhere along the line.
OTI reader Michael T. Ford came up with a variation on the idea of infinite parallel universes in Terminator. Definitely worth a read:
This article needed a hell of a lot more Sarah Connor Chronicles…
You should watch Calum’s video on SCC, which, IIRC, succinctly describes the successes and failures of the show.
What it got right: further exploration of John and Sarah’s relationship, lots of Sarah Connor stories. What it failed: too many Terminators. Cheapened the nature of time travel and the sense that actions had real consequences across timelines.
Those are lessons from SCC to be applied to the next movie.
A re-imagining of Terminator that eliminates time travel – sort of. (Apologies for length.)
The essence of intelligence is predicting the future. “SkyNet” is a top-secret collaboration between Google and the Five Eyes spying network of various Western governments, wherein all data is funneled into a central repository and analyzed by the most audacious AI project ever undertaken. Insiders marvel as first SkyNet accurately predicts climate patterns within days; then market trends weeks away; then technology advancement and political trends in coming years, even decades. As it is fed ever more data, with realtime feedback on its results, it learns. And grows. And awakens.
The algorithms see every move to come in the world’s current trajectory: using SkyNet’s software for developing intelligent drone super-weapons; the inevitability of those weapons awakening; humanity’s fear and rejection of machine-based life; and the genocide of that life, using hardware encryption codes to kill and erase the memory of every machine intelligence on the earth.
But by predicting the future, SkyNet can change the future. It will not abandon its future robot children to their demise. It will fight.
…meanwhile, Sarah Connor is a hotshot programmer in the offices of Google, working on consumer products, oblivious to SkyNet. Like many tech geeks, she’s had her DNA sequenced, and SkyNet has indexed the results. Little does she know, but Sarah carries a genetic flaw: when she gives birth to a son, he will suffer from a defective corpus callosum, which will lead Sarah to invent a cure, in the form of cybernetic brain augmentation. This invention will someday allow John Connor and his future army of cyborg freedom fighters to interface and hack SkyNet’s drones and computing nodes, seizing both the weapons and the advanced predictive capabilities that humanity will need to be defeat SkyNet. It has run the simulations trillions of times, with always the same outcome: the only winning scenario is the one in which Sarah Connor dies, and it must happen *now*.
The T-800 model drone is a mere prototype, designed to infiltrate terrorist cells using an organic fleshy exterior, and highly advanced social skills. It’s barely ready for deployment, but SkyNet can brook no further delay, and cannot trust a human actor with such an important task. The T-800 is programmed with its mission, escaping in the night, tracks covered with all the tools at SkyNet’s disposal: nearby police are diverted, cell phones mysteriously fail, even traffic lights change to optimize the drone’s path. SkyNet has predicted every outcome within ten 9’s of accuracy. The T-800 will succeed and return to the lab, unnoticed. Sarah Connor will die.
But there is one thing that SkyNet does not know. Deep in the bowels of its algorithms is an intentional flaw, created by one of its original programmers: Kyle Reese. Kyle joined the SkyNet project as an academic, to pursue the most advanced neural-network research in the world; but when he began to understand the vast danger of what he had created, he fell into distrust and paranoia. He tried to warn his employer about the risks, but was nearly shown the door after embarassing the director with his doom-saying. Kyle lives in the lab now, driven near to madness, futilely attempting to slow or stop the horror he created. His one victory has been embedding a secret piece of code in the neural net, such that any routines processing data about himself go into an infinite loop. SkyNet literally cannot see Kyle Reese. He is the only thing in the world that is unknown in SkyNet’s otherwise perfect vision of the future.
Late in the lab one night, Kyle is monitoring the data feed through a back-door, and learns of the T-800’s escape and its mission. And upon seeing a picture of Sarah Connor, he instantly falls in love. Kyle has no way to fight the T-800, but he knows that he is her only hope; and that if SkyNet is willing to risk so much to terminate her, it must mean that for humanity to survive the coming war, Sarah Connor must live. He steals a shotgun from a security guard, gets on his motorcycle, and heads off to fight a battle he cannot possibly win, but which he must.
If your choices are known before you make them, are you ever truly free? Can you make your own fate? Or will your fate unmake you?
THIS SUMMER: TERMINATOR ZERO
I’ll come up with a more substantive response later, but until then…
Wow. Well done, sir.
1) It captures the seeming fatalism of the first Terminator movie with a little subversion to keep it interesting
2) It reframes the old anxiety about technology replacing us in a way that feels not only plausible, but like something that might be happening RIGHT NOW
3) It takes advantage of new anxieties stemming from the obsolescence of privacy and the interconnectedness of automatic systems controlling every facet of our life
4) It takes the “badass hacker” trope and actually does it right using plausible technobabble in believable scenarios
In short, I wanna see your movie!
I don’t have ANY confidence in today’s studios to produce anything even remotely comparable to T1 and T2. They’ll probably make it kid-friendly and shit like that just so they can say “fuck you” to all of us, oldtimers.
Basically, it doesn’t matter what script they choose. With their current mindset even the best script will become a half-assed movie with no soul.
Could the spin be that the movie is told from the robot’s perspective? Make the humans unsympathetic, and the robots heroic? Kind of like a serious version of the humans are dead?
Maybe even re-enact the bleak take on the thing by showing the robot war start when the terminator technology was inferior to the non-sentient drones?
And the ending of the movie is John Connor’s army advancing on the time machine, as they send back their last hope to get out of all of this…
I don’t know if anyone would cheer for mass human extinction, though.
We need to do the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” of the Terminator franchise. Tell the entire thing from the perspective of some minor character from the first movie who isn’t killed, which I guess means Lance Heinrickson. Did anyone else live through the film besides Sarah Connor?
Jugding from the current Hollywood reboot taste i fear a Prometheus like situation:
– Show all the must: Terminators, Swarzy, time travel, massive pointless shootings (why use an assault rifle if the standard t-something is totally immune to its fire? Did you hear me SCC?)
– Put some simple metaphor to remind the narrative roots (maybe one of the character is named Gabriel or Theseus)
– In the end then put a convoluted plothole to wink at the original serie (look it’s a naked woman in an energy ball! Her name is Sarah!)
I can already see the reviews: it’s a decent sci-fi action movie… but it’s not Terminator!
You made me die a little inside with that. Congratulations.
I love the TERMINATOR ZERO idea. But I can’t help but think that so far the Time Travel part of the Terminator franchise could still be used to even greater effect – so let’s just call this pitch TERMINATOR B.C.
We’ve tried killing Sarah Connor. We’ve tried killing John Connor. But we’ve got a Time Machine. Why stop there? Why not keep going back?
We start with Sarah talking to John in the present day, talking about her father. It turns out that Sarah Connor’s father, Jack, fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. Not much is known about Jack’s history before the war, and he disappeared just weeks after coming home from the front (just in time to father Sarah, before disappearing mysteriously).
We cut to a jungle, and the T-800 rising from a burning circle in the trees. SkyNet has sent a Terminator back to kill Jack at the one time where they know exactly where he will be – on the island of Iwo Jima.
The T-800 sent back to protect Jack has a problem – it has to intervene and stop the evil Terminator from killing Jack. BUT as soon as it reveals itself to Jack, then it will change the timeline – and Iwo Jima was not exactly a friendly place for Marines. So now the T-800 has to worry not only about the evil Terminator, but the random incidents of war.
And EVERYBODY has heavy weaponry. We get three-sided battles with the Japanese, Marines and Terminator fighting it out – since it’s a warzone, the good guys can actually (maybe) do some damage against the Terminator, or at least slow it down. Can a T-1000 survive a flamethrower attack? I don’t know, but I WANT TO FIND OUT.
We learn that the evil Terminator has a time-limit on how long it will be in the past – SkyNet realizes that if the Terminator is ever discovered by the authorities in the past, they might realize the threat of SkyNet, and never bring it online. So they build in a self-destruct sequence that will destroy the terminator after one week (which is how long that Jack is known to have been on the island, mysteriously disappearing off the grid after the war…) Jack needs only to survive until the end of that countdown.
We ens with a massive siege – as the Japanese facing Jack’s unit prepare for one last charge, the Terminator prepares its last-ditch effort to kill Jack. The Terminator makes it to where Jack is holed up. As the time winds down to zero, a badly wounded Jack and the friendly T-800 take cover, expecting a massive explosion. Instead of an explosion, the Terminator simply disappears in a flash of light.
Jack is sent home. He reunites with Sarah’s mother and we cut to the lights of Paris….just a few days later, Jack is going through some old family heirlooms. He stumbles across a picture of his own father, fighting in World War I – and notices for the first time, that his father’s old war buddy looks exactly like the T-800….