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The most fondly remembered line from the original Terminator — a movie that, let’s be honest, few people think of as having particularly memorable dialogue, a couple of future catchphrases aside — is “I’ll be back.” Even reading it now, chances are it provokes a smile because you’re thinking of the flat delivery, and the fact that it’s a setup to an especially fun, destructive punchline.
Nevertheless, it’s a phrase that has come to personify the Terminator franchise. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable robot — or a variation that just so happens to look like a younger, cheaper actor — has been back on a number of occasions, to increasingly diminishing returns, since that first 1984 movie. Sure, 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the highpoint of the series — both critically and in terms of box office — but since then, things have been on a downward spiral. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) appeared to bring the series to a close, but it didn’t stick; the franchise has been rebooted no less than twice in the past 14 years with little success, and now apparently has its third reboot en route. Can this fourth go-round work where the others have failed?
It’s true that the newest attempt to revive the franchise has forces going for it that the others haven’t; the newly revealed involvement of Linda Hamilton, in addition to James Cameron — who is acting as, essentially, a showrunner for a projected new trilogy of features, working with a writers room and producing the series — offers both a heavy dose of happy nostalgia to long-term fans as well as the potential for a return to the indefinable qualities that made the earlier movies “work” in a way the latter installments apparently didn’t.
Despite whatever goodwill might come with the involvement of the series principals of old, any new series of Terminator movies will have to contend with the simple fact that, according to the series’ own mythology, The Terminator is a story that has essentially ended by now. Judgment Day — the tipping point where machines achieved sentience and took over the world — happened in 1997, according to 1991’s T2, with that date postponed until 2004 in 2003’s T3.
Telling a story about preventing an apocalypse is one thing when it’s a future event; even taking into account the high concept of changing the past that the series is hooked around, the story dynamics are different when your audience has to consider the fateful moment as something more than a decade earlier.
And speaking of having to undo past events: T3 stated that Sarah Connor was already dead, leaving it an open question just who Hamilton will be playing in the new movie; of course, time is malleable in this series, so anything and everything is up for grabs. And that, in many ways, is the problem.
If Cameron and crew choose to follow the route of The Force Awakens — and with the movie reportedly focusing on a new cast with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger as anchors, that seems to be the case — then it should be borne in mind that the Star Wars reboot made a point of paying respect to everything that came before, an approach that was applauded by fandom at large. Terminator will have problems doing that, though; even beyond the “Sarah should be dead” aspect, it’s a series that’s actually predicated on the idea of rewriting the past and actively disrespecting continuity.
(With two separate reboots to deal with, there’s also the question of, which continuity would the new movie respect, anyway?)
With this kind of baggage to contend with, any new Terminator project feels as doomed to failure as standing up against robotic overlords in a machine-led dystopia. But even if the new trilogy fails, history has taught us one thing: Someone else will ensure that the franchise will return, sooner or later. No matter what, the Terminator will always, always be back.
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