News broke yesterday that Annapurna Pictures hired Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Pathfinder) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry, Dracula 2000) to write a screenplay for the fifth film in the Terminator series. Both have put in their time in the B movie trenches, and are unexpected choices to guide the series to its next installment. The question these guys have been hired to answer is whether or not there’s any more story left to tell within the series. Most would argue no, but TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles offered some hope, even while the last two sequels left most fans cold.
I happen to like the third film quite a bit. The first two are undisputed classics, but screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris found a solid reason for the third one to exist. “There’s no past but what we make for ourselves. I don’t believe that,” announces Nick Stahl as John Connor in the first line of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, staking the film’s claim as a grim Calvinist answer to James Cameron’s more open-ended vision of the future. The film posits that if the first two happened, then nuclear destruction at the hands of Skynet was an inevitability. Director Jonathan Mostow does a fantastic job with the action; certainly strong enough to make me overlook the film’s wimpy attempts at humor (“Talk to the hand” is no “I’ll be back;” it’s not even “Hasta la vista, baby”).
There are very specific problems with the franchise’s last outing, Terminator: Salvation, which was supposed to show the rise of John Connor and the war against the machines. The movie gets Connor wrong almost from the start by not having him in the leadership role already, opting instead to save that moment for something that happens at the end of the film (and then the worst crime - doing it offscreen). Connor’s tapes, in which his mother gives a secondhand account of the events in the future that he lives in, provide Connor with a blueprint that he can use to get a leg up on Skynet. The assumption is that these tapes would make Connor seem like a master tactician, and thus be able to rally a large group of human survivors around him. He’d almost be a prophet. But, the information on the tapes only goes up to a point (when John Connor sends Kyle Reese to the past), so Connor would eventually be faced with losing that advantage. The tapes could’ve become Dumbo’s magic feather in a sense, something Connor thinks he needs to lead but really doesn’t, and the film could’ve and should’ve explored him rising to the occasion as his own man, as a natural leader, despite the advantages afforded him by Sarah Connor and Reese.
Also, most of Salvation is told from Marcus’ viewpoint, and while the screenwriters of the fourth film may have intended for Marcus’ identity as a Terminator to remain a secret (the film is structured as such), Warner Bros. thought otherwise, using the movie’s big reveal in all of the marketing. Marcus’s character, as played by Sam Worthington, doesn’t really fit in with the franchise, and I’ve always guessed that the specific reason for this is that the role was written for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Think about it - the film opens in our time period, with Marcus as a prisoner selected by Helena Bonham-Carter’s character for a secret program related to Cyberdyne. It’s an origin story for who, exactly? A random guy who finds out later that he’s a machine? It seems intended to be the story of the man selected to become the face of the T-800; a story built for Schwarzenegger, not Sam Worthington. Consider this -- when Connor crosses paths with Marcus, he immediately comes to the conclusion that Marcus is a Terminator, and strings him up, and considers what to do with him next. He doesn’t know how to treat Marcus, and this only makes narrative sense if Marcus physically looks like the T-800 that Connor has grown to both respect and fear.
Sadly, none of Salvation’s problems can be fixed. The movie exists, and has to be taken on its own unsatisfying terms. The hope is that the fifth film can find its own reason to exist, while still giving us what we expect from the series -- namely strong characters, hard-hitting action, and unstoppable killer robots.
Sarah Connor > T-800
There’s talk of bringing Schwarzenegger back to the role he made famous, but this is really unnecessary. Let’s face it -- Arnie is 66 years old and no one wants a nod in the film as to why the T-800 looks smaller and more wrinkly. There are a lot of roles he can take, but there’s no good reason for him to take this one other than a sense of ownership and a paycheck.
The TV series proved what we suspected from the first two films all along: that Sarah Connor was the heart of the series. She’s the character we’ve followed from happy-go-lucky waitress to militant paranoid warrior woman. She’s complex and, more importantly, very human. The hard-assed Connor is the logical progression of what might really happen if someone’s life was disrupted by time traveling killers.
I’m not advocating the return of Linda Hamilton to the series, but a keen focus should be placed on creating a human character with a real personality, whose life is irrevocably changed by the events in T5. That could be Sarah Connor, but it could be an entirely new character, someone we’ve never seen in the series before, that allows us to put ourselves in that position and get more emotionally immersed in the stakes. You really can’t do that if the robot is the star.
There may be few places left for the series to go, but we still haven’t seen the Terminator chase people through time (or the heroes chase a Terminator through time). I’m talking about structuring a film where there are multiple jumps into affected timestreams that change the stakes and character relationships along the way (think Back to the Future Part II, where the action could overlap key scenes from the previous films, or Looper with killer cyborgs). It’s one way to make Terminator 5 a completely different film than what’s come before, while still using one of the series’ established tropes.
No More “I’ll Be Back.”
It doesn’t have to be said in every Terminator film, and this is the fifth one, so we get it. You will be back, in some form or another, with or without James Cameron, and we’ll be there with our popcorn in one hand and our Airheads Xtremes in the other, hoping that what you’ve got to offer is maybe as good as two of the best action films ever made. Easy. Kalogridis and Lussier have their work cut out for them.