Why Terminator worked, what Salvation got wrong, how to fix it

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Jul 4, 2015, 3:59 PM EDT

The future is not what it used to be.

McG's theatrical sequel film Terminator Salvation is fading fast at the box office, and TV's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is officially dead, marking the end of the most recent effort to jump-start the inert endoskeleton of the once-popular time-jumping sci-fi franchise.

So want went wrong? And is there way to restart Terminator for a new generation? Let's take a look at five things that the Terminator movies and Sarah Connor Chronicles got right, what they got wrong and the possible ways to offer salvation to the Terminator franchise.

Before that, though, let's consider this roundup of critical assessments of McG's Salvation, which was hemorrhaging audience as of last weekend. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker asks: "... When, and on what possible ground, did someone decide that the Terminator franchise should be no fun to watch?"

David Edelstein in New York Magazine nails Terminator Salvation as an example of how "the Hollywood Machine ... sifts through books and old movies in search of the holy 'franchise,' and at strategic intervals generates nonessential sequels."

Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com napalms the movie with "... It appears that director McG—past perpetrator of such awfulnesses as We Are Marshall and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle—has less than a passing familiarity with the well-established universe he decided to play with. Has he seen another Terminator movie? Even just in snippets on an airplane or something?" (We actually think that's a bit unfair: McG's movie does contain many homages and winks to the Terminator franchise; it's just not that terrific.)

With these issues in mind, here's what we think went right, went wrong and how to fix it.

First thing the franchise got right: Villains!

One of the joys of the Terminator mythology has been unstoppable bad guys: Robotic killing machines that make great antagonists because they're blanks, while at the same time being human enough to be infiltrators and mechanized assassins. From Arnie in the original to Robert Patrick's sociopathic liquid-metal motorcycle cop in Terminator 2: Judgment Day to Kristanna Loken's sexy Terminatrix in T3: Rise of the Machines to the great Garret Dillahunt as the T-888 Cromartie in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Terminators have been just human enough to be scary and compelling.

How Terminator Salvation got it wrong

As Ty Burr points out in the Boston Globe, "The villains [in Terminator Salvation] are literally faceless." Giant Go-Bot human harvesters? That have robot Ducati motorbikes up their pants legs? Mecha that clicks together with flying hunter/killer units like some kind of dime-store Voltron? Aquatic robot pythons? That stuff is all kinda fun, but there's no villainy to them, no quasi-human aspect in them to turn inhuman.

How to fix it

Give us bad guys with faces! Skynet giving itself human faces on a monitor to mess with reluctant cyborg Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) isn't enough. T2 gave us a totally new kind of robot assassin. T3 gave us a Terminator designed to kill Terminators. Sarah Connor Chronicles gave us a Terminator that had to make itself a new fleshy outer layer. Re-invent our bad guys so they have something new to do, but keep them physical and humanoid.

Second thing the franchise got right: Human drama

Like we said, the Terminator mythology has inhuman bad guys, and they have always stood in stark contrast to the plight of the humans in the franchise. Little twentysomething Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), scared to death in the first movie and becoming a survivalist "mom to the whole future" in the second movie. Nick Stahl as John Connor living off the grid and being forced, ready or not, into the hero role in T3. An entire family living as fugitives, hiding not just from killer robots from the future but also from the law in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The Terminator franchise has been about humans fighting machines, and part of what makes characters human are the conflicts that mold them.

How Terminator Salvation got it wrong

What interaction did Christian Bale as John Connor have with Bryce Dallas Howard as his wife, Kate Brewster, that wasn't just dumb exposition? What true emotion drove Connor to save his future dad, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin)? We can infer those emotions, but we sure don't feel them. As Miss FlickChick Maitland McDonagh says, "There's a yawning void where [Terminator Salvation's] emotional center should be." Yeah, there's some interesting stuff with Worthington as Marcus Wright trying figure out just what he is, but wasn't that much more dramatic and effective on Battlestar Galactica?

How to fix it

With Salvation, the Terminator franchise, which started out as a simple chase action movie, morphed into a War Movie Franchise, and War Movies are great fodder for drama. Think Das Boot, All's Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon, Paths of Glory ... . It's hard not to come up with human drama when the stakes are so high. Morphing into a war franchise is probably a great way to take Terminator to the next level, but if you're going to do it, you have to commit and not just have a war for the heck of it. This is a place to take risks and shine, not just play off a setting mentioned in the other movies.

Third thing the franchise got right: Active heroes

In the Terminator franchise, the heroes do things. In the first two movies, Sarah learns how to kick metallic ass, initially under the tutelage of future resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). At first in T3, John Connor and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) are just chased by the badass chick T-X Terminator, but then they turn around and try to stop Judgment Day. In Sarah Connor Chronicles, Sarah (Lena Headey) and her son, John (Thomas Dekker), decide they've had enough of running from Skynet and try to defeat the future enemy of mankind today, in the present.

How Terminator Salvation got it wrong

What the hell did John Connor have to do in Terminator Salvation? He barked into a radio. He also saved his dad, which maybe had less to do with saving the world than it did with saving his own "future conception" in the past. Whatever his motives, John Connor going out into the field felt less like something heroic than it did a contrivance to get him, ... y'know, ... in the movie. Marcus Wright actually did some things with Kyle and Star (Jadagrace) and later Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), but as he was himself a character in search of a context, what he did felt reactive, not active.

How to fix it

This one is easy: Have John Connor, the savior of humanity, actually save humanity. Done.

Fourth thing the franchise got right: Destiny faced and/or realized via time travel

Facing your destiny makes for good drama, right? Worked for the Greeks (Oedipus, Pentheus), and it keeps on ticking through Macbeth and Moby-Dick and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The Terminator franchise upped the stakes with destiny by making it a force that can't be avoided even through time travel. Think Kyle Reese's becoming the father of John Connor in the first movie. Yeah, in the second movie, Sarah's motto was "The future's not set—there's no fate but what we make for ourselves." But there was still a sense that fate was a force that had to be defied or confronted through the application of that motto. In T3, Judgment Day happened because it was fated to happen, and in Sarah Connor Chronicles, John Connor as a teen has to confront the destiny that has burdened him with a future that doesn't allow him to really have a present.

How Terminator Salvation got it wrong

NO TIME TRAVEL! Time travel and fate are components of the franchise. Leaving them out is like leaving out the killer robots. And the addressing of destiny was cursory, at best.

How to fix it

ADD SOME TIME TRAVEL! And have John Connor face his destiny. And maybe have Kyle Reese face his as the unknowing "father of the future."

Fifth thing the franchise got right: Logic

Yeah, when you deal with time travel, logic gets loopy. But the Terminator franchise has always made a kind of sense in the way Yogi Berra aphorisms make sense. The Ouroboros plotting of John Connor's conception. The very likely holding of Sarah in a mental ward in the second movie. The mission of the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in T3. The objectives of Skynet operatives and Resistance fighters in the present in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. These plot points all at least make a little sense ... enough at least to carry you through the movie's or TV episode's running time.

How Terminator Salvation got it wrong

A 50-foot robot that sneaks up on people? Connor jumping into the sea and hoping to get picked up by a sub in the short window before he gets hypothermia? Connor chewed out by his superiors, who tell him he's a dangerous, unreliable loose cannon ... and who then promptly entrust him with their secret weapon, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the one cooked up by Hugh Marlowe in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers? A battle in a Terminator factory that only has one functioning Terminator? That same one functioning Terminator only slowed down by molten metal, when that same kind of molten metal reduced another Terminator to liquid in T2? A smart pilot acting like an idiot as the plot necessitates it? A heart transplant done in a post-nuke MASH unit? By a medic who's trained as a veterinarian?

How to fix it

Don't hire so many writers. A good script can't be written by committee, and according to some reports—in addition to credited screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris—Paul Haggis, Jonathan Nolan, Shawn Ryan and Anthony Zuiker all tried to polish the dreck that is Salvation. In a blog post dated Oct. 12, 2008, Terminator Salvation novelization writer Alan Dean Foster wrote that he felt compelled to completely rewrite the novelization: "Many things changed between the version of the screenplay I was given to novelize and the final shooting script," he wrote, adding: "As I read through the final shooting script, I encountered numerous other instances where the screenplay had been altered from the version I adapted."

Too many cooks, even cooks as good as Haggis and Nolan, can totally wreck a Salvation soup.

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