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08 August 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Terminator Franchise

By // Cinema

It’s one of the most successful and beloved franchises in Hollywood history. The Terminator franchise launched the careers of cinema royalty and its five-film saga features one of the benchmarks of the modern action movie. It spawned from nothing and, with a minimal budget, it grew into a titan. It’s one of the most beloved franchises by action movie buffs and yet, the majority of fans would say that three of the five movies released are disappointing, if not downright bad. How did one of the most original and interesting action movie franchises become what it is today: a box office gamble?

The Terminator

When Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged butt-naked from a smoky alley in 1984, it marked a big change in blockbuster movies. Film fans had been familiarized with the Austrian bodybuilder two years earlier in Conan The Barbarian but this was something different. In a leather jacket and sunglasses, Schwarzenegger thrilled and terrified audiences in equal measure as the titular character and villain. The film was, as film critic Roger Ebert remarked at the time: “A cross between Dirty Harry and the Road Warrior meet the Killer from Halloween.” Aside from the impressive critical praise the film received at the time, its box office performance was exceptional. From just a $6 million budget, The Terminator made over $78 million at the worldwide box office.

Sequel talk was almost immediate but due to any number of problems, fans had to wait to see Schwarzenegger reprise his role. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was released in 1991 to even more acclaim than the first. Director James Cameron made perfect use of a drastically increased budget and helped produce what is still seen as one of the best action movies ever made. Aside from that, Judgement Day is the go-to example for exactly how filmmakers and companies should go about producing sequels. It grossed $519 million worldwide but director James Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger both decided to walk away from the project, claiming that the story was told.

Rise of the Machines and the rise of the Machine

From a storytelling point of view, that should’ve been that. Audiences were given two iconic movies, an unforgettable character and a new great director but the studios weren’t done. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was released without any involvement from Cameron but starring Schwarzenegger owing, surely in part, to his reported fee of $30 million.

Reviews ranged from bad to terrible as fans refused to get on board with what was a very different movie. It was funny where it didn’t need to be, confusing when it tried not to be, and went against so many of things which people loved about the first two films. Despite that, it still grossed over $430 million and a fourth film was green lit for release in 2009.

Terminator Salvation featured an all-star cast in a movie which suffered the same critical and commercial response as its predecessor: lots of money from audiences but a lot of thumbs-down from the press. Christian Bale, Sam Worthington and Helena Bonham Carter all starred in the franchise for the first and last time in a franchise which wasn’t finished yet. Terminator Genisys was released in 2015 with a new cast and to a slightly more positive response from fans and critics. Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke all appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film which tried to undo some of the errors of the previous two. While it was successful in that regard, Genisys was still a bitter disappointment for many Terminator fans.

So what went wrong for the trilogy of sequels? It’s obvious to point to the exit of James Cameron as the turning point but it’s so much more than that. Other franchise chiefs like George Lucas have exited the scene only to see their projects flourish. No, one of the main problems of the Terminator franchise was its refusal to reinvent itself. Franchises become stale if consecutive movies are too similar as fans crave to see their favourite returning characters in new situations. It also may not have helped that the films were released so far apart from one another. There are six years between 4 and 5, and another twelve years between 2 and 3. That doesn’t happen in today’s leading franchises. Today, the most successful studios are eager to hand the reins over to new creative directors and writers to put their own stamp on things while still living off the hype of the previous movies. It seems that Terminator is recognizing this.

I’ll Be Back…

In January 2017, James Cameron announced that he would be returning to the Terminator franchise as a producer with Deadpool director Tim Miller on board. One of the major changes between Judgement Day and Rise of the Machines was the lowering of the audience certificate from a 15 to a 12 which had an adverse effect on the later trilogy but this could change in the future. Deadpool was the first movie from this new batch of superhero flicks to proudly brandish its adult warning label.

There’s no doubt that fans still crave a Terminator revival. Judgement Day is still one of the most beloved action movies of all time among neutrals while the Terminator logo still adorns as many products as ever- there are Terminator Pop Vinyls, a casino game on Betway, and even a Terminator-themed Yahtzee board game– the appetite is there, it’s just up to the studio to deliver.

Few franchises have had as many highs and lows as Terminator but maybe there’s hope for the future. It’s a franchise which has an intriguing idea at its core and can perhaps learn a few things from what’s currently popular. The Planet of the Apes franchise would be the best example to follow for the Terminator. There are similarities between the two: a beloved original, universe-creating story which has seen some shoddy sequels. There’s a tremendous appetite for more from both worlds but what War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves has done so well is to tell new stories about a world we know without tarnishing the legacy of the original films. Let’s hope any new Terminator movie will do just that.

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