Third installments of a franchise the audience is in love with are very difficult to pull off. Nobody says Alien3 or Return of the Jedi or the third Scream are their favorites of the series, right? Even Godfather III, as good as it might be, is overshadowed by the first two. Granted, by the third installment, the success of the original and its sequel have given this latest incarnation a serious budget to work with, and all the marketing is in place, and some of the principal actors are probably even still signed on, butâ€”for this sequel to the sequel to capture instead of divide the audience, it has to walk such a tightrope of formula and originality; it has to do what the original did and find a way of doing it which isnâ€™t tired. This is why the two follow-ups to The Matrix, while pretty brilliant in their own right, at all levelsâ€”story continuity, effects, series escalationâ€”still paled in comparison to the original. What The Matrix did, which just blew the audience away, was show how this reality weâ€™d bought into was a construct. The next two installments could no longer surprise us with that, but instead had to assume it, and try to pull the carpet out in some other, more subtle way. In fact, the only â€˜thirdâ€™ that might have done for the audience what the original did was Friday the 13thâ€™s, the one where Jason got his mask. Which Terminator 3, following the unapologetic slashers Terminator and Terminator 2 were, might should have paid a little attention to*. But yeah, I know: without James Cameronâ€™s story sense, that is, with him saying the story was already told, what else could have happened, right? I mean, Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines, what it is essentially is an extension of everything Cameron laid down in the first two installments. So how could it have gone wrong?
But thatâ€™s kind of the problem right there.
Where Terminator surprised us early on, with Reese being a good guy and the T1 being a cyborg juggernaut, Terminator 2 turned everything around: now the unmuscular guy was the slasher and the bulked up robot was the protector. I mean, that moment in the hall in T2 where Arnold delivers the â€œCome with me if you want to liveâ€?-line to Sarah Connor, thatâ€™s the exact moment weâ€™re sold on this sequel. But thereâ€™s no moment like that in T3. And of course thereâ€™s no Sarah Connor either, and no recognizable John Connor, and, really, the only two people left from the original cast now are Schwarzenegger and Earl Boen (Dr. Silberman). Granted, Lance Henrikson was originally slated for a cameoâ€”he was a Detective from the firstâ€”but got cut. Issues of cast aside, though, we can at least all agree that, instead of narrative reversal in the third, what we get is a kind of nostalgia, or, to be more direct, cannibalism: the franchise imitating itself. Offering nothing as new as the first two.
At which point, of course, the question becomes what else could it have done, right? I mean, itâ€™s gone muscular, itâ€™s gone lean and fluid, and now itâ€™s goingâ€”surpriseâ€”female and fluid.
To understand what it might should have done, though, we need first to understand why the T-1000 was such a success, why he was so accepted: where the T-1 had been all bulgy and obviously bad news, the T-1000 looked just like everybody else. As far as people were concerned, he could pass. Which made him just so much more dangerous, nevermind the technological improvements he contained. The real source of the terror he inspired was the contrast of how he looked and what he did. Itâ€™s a betrayal that, from a distance anyway, kind of thrills us. And thatâ€™s of course what itâ€™s all about.
So, how to escalate this, right?
Make the next terminator female, that is, turn predatory that which weâ€™re coded by society to understand as maternal?
I mean, the T-X, she was bad-ass, and in a straight-up fight could have handed the T-1 and the T-2 their teeth, but itâ€™s finally not about strength or power. Itâ€™s about the thrill of (their) betrayal.
And, to find what that betrayal should have been, all you have to do is follow the evolution of the T-1 to the T-2. What it is is a gradual shift towards familiarity. Why? Because these evil, evil machines, what they need to do to finally eradicate these bothersome meatbags from their otherwise nice planet is to somehow fake their way into the tunnels, and thus take the gunplay underground, to what the soldiers on the surface are fighting to protect.
Their problem, however, is the dogs. The dogs always know, and the humans know the dogs know, so keep them at all the entrances.
What this means is that the next technological advance, the next evolution towards the familiar, it would have to be something which can finally get the machines past the dogs.
At which point it becomes easy to see what form the T-X should have taken: nanotech of some sortâ€”a silicate virus or something which a human host, a soldier, could unwittingly carry into the tunnels in his own bloodstream.
Over the course of a few days, then, he would â€˜becomeâ€™ an organic, not cybernetic, terminator unit. And of course the end-product of his nanite retrofit would be to heighten all his fighting abilitiesâ€”muscles, reflexes, everythingâ€”so that heâ€™s hardly even recognizable anymore as human. Think the Nemesis from Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Or something even worse looking.
Thatâ€™s the escalation T3 needed.
However, yeah, thatâ€™s just in the future. The real dramatic line has to be in that futureâ€™s past: John Connorâ€™s adolescence. One of these â€˜sickâ€™ soldiers obviously needs to be sent back for him. Which, yes, sets things up nicely for that reversal we expect, but which still needs to surprise us: in the original, Reese, who looked for all the world like the bad guy here, turned out to be the good. Now, in my T3, you have some Reese-looking soldier, and just when we think heâ€™s a good guyâ€”just when even he thinks heâ€™s a good guyâ€”he starts bubbling up into an organic terminator, just as unstoppable as all the rest, nevermind his different skill set.
At which point let the madness ensure, of course: the Terminator franchise lives and breathes in the first few minutes of each installment. The rest is just a series of running battles. Granted, you could up the stakes some here by, say, rigging it to where this organic terminator, heâ€™s the only prototype, and the moldâ€™s been smashed in the future, meaning if he doesnâ€™t die now, but is able to hole up in a cave or something, be found fifty years later, then thatâ€™s when all these humans in their tunnels will die. So it becomes an effort to save John Connor, yes, but also, this organic terminator has to die here, in the past. Meaning thereâ€™s even more than usual at stakeâ€”thereâ€™s now two ways to lose.
But of course, this soldier with a cough, whoâ€™s sent back, who should he be? Just some nobody?
Again, take a cue from T2.
Just as John Connorâ€™s resistance was able to reprogram a T-1, send it back, letâ€™s say that what theyâ€™ve done this time is foil another of the machinesâ€™ plans. What the machines were planning was to clone Reese (nevermind that heâ€™s not there anymore; they have his genetic profile on a chip somewhere), age him the appropriate number of years, then send him back to kill his â€˜son.â€™ Because who else would Sarah ever let get close to John, right?
But of course the machines were only pretending to get foiled: really, theyâ€™d seeded this clone with their nano-virus, setting us up for the ultimate betrayal: Reese (Biehn again, please, but then I so want Furlong back too) brings the Terminator, and doesnâ€™t even know it. Like all Philip K. Dickâ€™s replicants, he probably doesnâ€™t even know heâ€™s not a â€˜realâ€™ person.
It could work.
As to who would play the good guy this time, câ€™mon, itâ€™s obvious, yes?
I mean thereâ€™s escalation and thereâ€™s escalation, but nothing would make our skin crawl, I donâ€™t think, like John Connor sacrificing himself to come back, protect his mother and younger self. A suicide mission, but, maybe, thatâ€™s what itâ€™s all about, yes? He was always meant to do this; if they can only kill this organic terminator somehow, then the war will be over. The resistance doesnâ€™t need him anymore.
And will Sarah Connor (Hamilton, back again) have to die in my T3?
Yes. Of course. Sheâ€™s been too damaged by all this to live, and anyway, her purpose is to fight this future. What better way to do that than in some headlong, woman-warrior rush at the organic terminator, a final battle we know neither of them can live through? Which is of course where young John Connor learns to do what heâ€™s doing now: come back in time, sacrifice himself. Itâ€™s what he was always meant to do.
And then, in a Jeep of course, a Reese who’s been somehow cured by John Conner’s sacrifice, his son-from-the-future, heads off south, now-John by his side, safe at last, and this time itâ€™s not into some gathering storm, but into a gentle, flat horizon. And the last shot of the trilogy? Youâ€™ve already seen it. Itâ€™s that picture of Sarah Connorâ€”I wonder what she was thinking then?â€”young John handing it up to his dad, Reese taking it for a moment, nodding, then handing it back, because if that picture doesnâ€™t make it into the future, then none of this matters.
Â©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006
* But yeah, as we head into Terminator 4 territory, maybe the franchise has paid attention to Jason. Soon maybe Arnold’ll be taking Manhattan, and Hell, and the future…