We’re currently in the 31st year of the Terminator franchise, and within those three decades, we’ve not only gotten five movies, but also a short-lived and underrated television show, numerous video games, and a steady supply of comic books and paperback novels. Despite the varying degrees of quality that can be attributed to all of those properties, there’s no doubt that the Terminator has had a significant and lasting role within our pop culture. After Star Trek and Star Wars, The Terminator is likely the most recognizable science-fiction property to come out of the 20th century.
In spite of the fact that the best examples of Terminator media are firmly situated in the ’80s and ’90s, the series has remained a relevant talking point well into the 21st century, and not just for those who grew up with the film. Even in the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dwindling popularity and the decline of action figures, kids who’ve yet to even see a Terminator movie can quote his most famous lines from the films. And regardless of the fact that James Cameron’s The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day told a perfectly contained story that could have been a lasting reminder that not everything needs to be a trilogy, saga, or cinematic universe, entertainment moguls have still squeezed out new material for a waiting and willing audience. Yes, the time travel elements created a wonderful mythology, one that can be used to create any number of alternate realities, prequels, and sequels, and in theory this new material always seems wonderful, but in execution it’s always lacking and unnecessary.
In our heart of hearts, we Terminator fans know that the series will never surpass what Cameron did, and it never should have continued past his involvement. Yet when a new film, (or story in some other media form) is announced, we can’t help but get excited. We dare to be optimistic, and then have the gall to be disappointed when the end result varies between mostly mediocre (Terminator Salvation) and mostly awful (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). Of course, studios see the monetary opportunity that a name-brand and historically relevant franchise can provide (let’s not forget the bidding war that was incited when the rights were up for grabs in 2009), so the appeal on that front is neither mysterious nor interesting. What puzzles me is why audiences still want more Terminator titles. Even if those numbers have steadily decreased over the last decade, and even if Terminator Genisys is the final straw for many fans, there will still be a significant number clamoring for the next installment. So what’s the big deal?
The most obvious reason for the appeal of new Terminator stories, even with their lack of necessity, is that special effects driven movies are attractive. It’s hard to deny (even for us filmgoers who are invested in more than just blockbusters) that it’s incomparably pleasing to see millions of dollars in special effects splashed across the screen. Even if the story is weak, there’s still room to impress us. The Terminator will always be a franchise that caters to effects work, and the crowds who seek that very specific kind of entertainment. It’s one of the many reasons why the Genisys trailers gave away most of their money-shots, trying to echo similar effects and high-points from other films of the same sort (The Dark Knight’s truck flip, replaced with an ill-conceived mid-air bus flip, for example). The basic rule of attraction comes first and foremost in our desire to see new Terminator films.
The second reason is the appeal of nostalgia. Jurassic World proved that, when prodded properly, nostalgia can work wonders for a dormant franchise. Fans like to tap into the feeling they had when they were kids and experienced the property for the first time. I was in my senior year of high school before I saw the Terminator movies, so that level of nostalgia isn’t there for me, but I understand how it can reel people in. Genisys’ existence seems to be entirely predicated on the existence of fan nostalgia to the point where everything feels like a callback to the first two installments. Nostalgia, as it’s utilized in this installment, doesn’t seem to be working in the film’s favor. Terminator 3 similarly tried the nostalgia route in its efforts to be T2, but bigger, and it too had suffered poor results. And Terminator Salvation, while saddled by a patchwork script and a lack of studio confidence in the original pitch, at least had some interesting ideas and tried to do something different, but it was criticized far more harshly than I think it deserved. Nostalgia is a fickle thing. We want the familiar, but reject it if it comes too close to what we’ve seen before, and we reject it if it goes too far in the other direction. So we keep hoping we’ll end up with something that will satiate our nostalgia (a tireless, recursive cycle, with no end in sight, much like the Terminator franchise).
In terms of the headier reasons for our desire for more Terminator films, I’d point to our relationship with the familiar. The battle between man and technology has always been an interesting one, stretching back to the story of Icarus. The Terminator films, at their best, construct a modern mythology about our reliance on technology to do our work for us, about our fascination with violence (“We’re not gonna make it, are we,” John Connor intones in T2), and our ability to be masters of our own fate. We’re a culture that loves seeing the same story play out over and over again, because while we’re an inventive society, we’re also a deliberately forgetful one. We want new movies to tell us old stories. We want a cycle of reminders of the core concepts that drive us, frighten us, and remind us of our humanity.
James Cameron’s most recent film, Avatar, gets a lot of flak for its unoriginality and the two billion plus it made at the box office, but the film is really no different as an exercise than what he did with the Terminator films. Cameron refashioned elements of the mono-myth and the world’s history of colonialism with Avatar, just as he refashioned pulp time travel fiction and the long gestating fear of nuclear war and technology with the Terminator films. Even T2, aesthetically different and more special-effects driven, refashions the themes from the first film, which is one of the reasons why it’s so successful. And I say this not to discredit Cameron’s artistry (I still consider him a master of the genre), but my point is that we crave the familiar, and we crave to be retold stories we know by heart, like children eagerly awaiting their bedtime stories. When it comes right down to it, the appeal of the Terminator franchise is that when it works for us, it’s as a reminder of the concepts we already know. What we ultimately want is The Terminator and T2, refashioned as something that seems different, but still has the heart and intelligence of the originals. We’re still waiting for the T-800 to re-emerge from that molten pit, baptized by fire, and fitted with a slightly different exterior, ready to once again communicate to us, again, how he now knows why we cry (but with different phrasing this time around). There’s no fate but what we make, so if we make what’s familiar then the road ahead ultimately becomes a little less terrifying and a little more fixed in what we know. Ultimately, the appeal of the Terminator franchise is that it’s a reminder, and one that we’ll forget after a while, and ask for again because there’s no more effective way to stall Judgment Day.
With all that being said, I leave you with some words from Sarah Connor:
“The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”