Now that hedge-fund Pacificor has spent $29.5 million for the Terminator movie rights, a new chapter in the war against Skynet seems assured. We're betting it'll be a reboot — and here's how it could be a decent movie.
Pacificor won the auction for the Terminator movie rights, but has given losing bidders Sony and Lionsgate "an exclusive window" to make the next film in the series. (I'm guessing "exclusive window" means the two studios have to make the film within a certain period of time, or they lose their chance.) And with so much money already invested in this property, it seems likely that a new movie will happen soon. But Terminator Salvation didn't do well enough to justify a second McG-helmed feature, or a film that explicitly follows up on that film. There's already been talk about restarting the Terminator saga from square one.
Let's be clear: The best thing that could happen to the Terminator series might be a long, healthy rest. There's really no reason to drag the endoskeletons out of mothballs for yet another formulaic string of chase scenes any time soon. At the very least, Terminator should take as long a rest as Star Trek took after Nemesis and Enterprise. But if we have to get a new Terminator film soon, then a reboot is the best way to go.
Sure, we're sick of the plague of reboots and "reimaginings" in Hollywood, but the Terminator saga might be the rare case where starting over from scratch makes sense. Terminator Salvation was a scorched-Earth campaign of storytelling — there's nothing in that film that we were left wanting to see more of. The little psychic mute girl? Teenaged Kyle Reese who has to be protected at all costs so he can father John Connor in the past/future? John Connor with the cyborg super-heart in his chest? The inept, gullible resistance leaders? No thanks. If you did a sequel, you'd have to ignore all those elements and just pretend the last movie didn't happen.
More than anything, Terminator Salvation made a powerful argument that the series was played out. There have been too many trips back in time, too many alternate timelines.
Most of all, there's the fact that Terminator 5 sounds like a direct-to-DVD movie starring the guy from the most recent Knight Rider TV series. Terminator 5 doesn't sound like a major theatrical release. (They wouldn't call it Terminator 5, of course. But that would be the perception.
What would be awesome, of course, is if the studios turned around and handed control of the Terminator series over to Joss Whedon, who bid $10,000 for it and probably has a terrific idea for a Terminator film. Or if they backed up a truck full of money to Josh Friedman's house and got him to write a movie loosely based on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, his brilliant show that was hobbled by the writers' strike. Neither of these things will happen, more's the pity.
So if Whedon or Friedman can't take over Terminator, a reboot is the next best option. It lets some new actor replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular killer cyborg from the future - I have no clue who that'd be - and gets rid of the tangle of confusion over whether the apocalypse was supposed to happen in 1997 or 2004 or whenever. And whether Skynet is part of Cyberdyne or is just the floating head of Helena Bonham-Carter.
So here are nine suggestions for how not to fuck up a Terminator reboot:
1) Stick to the basics. "Cyborg assassin from the future" is a classic premise. You can't go too wrong with an indestructible killing machine smashing up police stations. It's a chase movie with a twist.
2) Find ways to build up the Kyle Reese-Sarah Connor love story a bit more. In the original film, Sarah and Kyle don't really get much of a chance to get to know each other in between running from Arnie. They meet, bond in the face of certain death and make a baby - and then Kyle dies. Kyle has been obsessing about his friend's mom for ages, thanks to the photo he carries around, but Sarah Connor doesn't really know this guy except that he's protecting her from the robot guy. Maybe Kyle Reese could manage to arrive a bit earlier, a few days before the killer cyborg shows up, and contrive a way to meet Sarah Connor. Maybe he's the cute guy who starts working at the same diner as her, and they hit it off... then the cyborg shows up, and Kyle reveals he's from the future too.
3) Include some elements of Terminator 2. So many of the most memorable elements of the Terminator saga get introduced in Terminator 2, it's hard to imagine doing a Terminator film without them. In particular, the second film does a lot more to explore machine consciousness, as the T-800 starts to learn from John Connor, and we get a lot more understanding of Cyberdyne Systems and the genesis of Skynet. Without abandoning the elegant simplicity of the first film, a remake of the first film could find ways to introduce these elements more fully.
4) Resist the impulse to update the first movie's Cold War themes. The Terminator came out in 1984, when the threat of nuclear destruction was on people's minds. Rightly or wrongly, we don't obsess over nuclear armageddon quite as much these days - even though the nuclear warheads still exist. And I could see some studio exec thinking the atomic-age method by which Skynet wipes us out is terribly outdated, especially after the nuclear-war-obsessed Watchmen failed to excite people. But a radioactive holocaust is a perfectly dandy way to wipe out most of the human race, really. Nukes get the job done, and they're plenty dramatic. The worst thing would be to try and make a new film "topical" by having Skynet melt the icecaps or commit an act of terrorism or cheat on Elizabeth Edwards. Skynet nukes the world, okay?
5) Update Cyberdyne Systems. On the other hand, there's a golden opportunity to bring Cyberdyne Systems into the 21st century, because reality has almost caught up to the premise of the first film. As we reported a while back, when the Iraq war started, there were no robots in the U.S. military, and now robots carry out 33,000 missions per year. There's an actual company called Cyberdyne, making powered armor suits. The people who make your Roomba are also making military robots. Robots are defusing bombs, scouting out sniper positions, and leading attacks. The U.S. military is actually paying for the creation of proto-Terminators. Without getting preachy - please! - a new Terminator film could explore this fact a little bit, showing how easy it is for a post-nuclear Skynet to build its robot army using the parts that we humans have already created. Maybe we could meet a few Cyberdyne employees who discover there's a next-next-next-gen machine intelligence on the loose, or at least see some news reports about Cyberdyne's newest developments.
6) Resist the temptation to go all "I Robot" on us. In an era where directors like Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich and, yes, James Cameron, toss blinding computer-generated spectacles at us, it's easy to envision a Terminator film where a guy tosses cars around and walks through fakey CG fireballs for two hours. But CG should enhance the action, not create the action, in a film like this one. Too much random shit flying around the screen will totally diminish the impact of a guy who can't be stopped, moving forward relentlessly and leaving destruction in his wake.
7) Don't forget to make it fun. You know, there's a little bit of The Blues Brothers in The Terminator. He's on a mission from Skynet instead of a mission from God, but both movies have the same kind of sunglasses-wearing, public-property-trashing verve. Part of what makes the original film great is its mixture of menace and pure comic timing, especially in the famous "I'll Be Back" sequence. Plus all of his attempts to figure out the right thing to say to various punks who stepped up in his face.
8) Include some surprises. Seriously, killer robots don't have to be predictable just because they're programmed. That's what was so great about Arnie's original cyborg: his craftiness, his flair for improvisation, his unexpected cunning. One of the biggest problems with a lot of recent CG action blow-out pictures is the relentless dullness of the plodding action sequences.
9) Consider nodding to the Catherine Weaver/John Henry subplot from T:SCC. One of the most fascinating subplots in the lamented Sarah Connor Chronicles series was the idea that not all artificial intelligences were on Skynet's side. Besides Terminators that the rebels had captured and reprogrammed to become "friendly," there were A.I.s that didn't entirely agree with Skynet's slash-and-burn strategy. It might be hard to work this into a straight-up remake of the first movie, but a few hints that not all A.I.s are Skynet's bitches would be kind of awesome.