Some ideas are just not series or franchises

Here’s the first trailer for the stupidly-named Terminator: Genisys:

Now, before I get to the ranty part, let me make clear that I actually had some hope for this movie. The cast they put together is pretty great, and I’ve been a particular fan of Jason Clarke ever since I watched him in The Chicago Code. He deserves to be a big star, and he’s also got serious chops as an actor. Starting with the fact that I thought he was from Chicago based on his accent, not Australia, until I looked him up after the first several episodes of Code.

I had hope that the great cast was a sign that the story was something new, different, and interesting.

Unfortunately, as the above trailer makes painfully clear, there is no compelling reason for this movie to be made except that the bean counters think it will make bank (and it probably will).

There are a number of reasons for this, and I’ve been ranting privately to friends about some (MBAs thinking that a weekend seminar on the Save The Cat checklist makes them experts in story, e.g.), but as I was about to tear into it with another friend who agreed it was awful (some seem to think it looks good, or at least has potential; I worry about them), something clicked with me.

The Terminator is a terrible idea for a franchise or series.

OK, I probably need to qualify that statement a bit. James Cameron got two superior movies out of the idea, which right there makes a series, technically. And there is material to make a series out of, or at least to springboard. But there’s a major problem there — if you take that material, and do something new with it, you can’t call it Terminator in any honest way.

What makes a good franchise or series idea, and what makes a bad one? I could probably go on for days and days about this, but I can boil it down to a fairly simple dichotomy.

A good franchise idea is open, and a bad one is closed.

Let’s take a look at three megahit movies from the 1970s, two of which became series, one which didn’t.

Star Wars was just about born to be a series. You’ve got limitless possible worlds, a galaxy-spanning conflict, and many, many characters who could serve as protagonists in their own films, should George Lucas have wanted to go that direction. The story of the film was over with the Death Star blowing up, but the larger story had infinite possibilities. There was Luke’s dad and the Clone Wars (remember what wasn’t known at that time); Han Solo’s background, and new responsibilities on finally committing to the rebellion; there was the struggle against the Empire, which could have been a continuing story with entirely new characters each film, if necessary; and so on and so on. It was wide open, and the only limitation imposed by the title (which is actually important) was that there had to be wars, and they had to be among the stars. Not especially limiting, unless you wanted to do a small domestic drama among the Wookies or something.

Jaws was a monster hit (no, I shan’t apologize), and deservedly so, it’s a spectacular entertainment with surprising dramatic heft into the bargain. But the idea is a closed idea. Shark attacks town, until it stops. If you want proof of how not-a-series the idea was, watch Jaws 2 (inferior but non-sucky retread of the first one), Jaws 3 (stupid, silly, ridiculous, and only connected to the first two by a shark and dialogue establishing series newcomer Dennis Quaid as Roy Scheider’s grown son[!]), and Jaws: The Revenge (in competition with The Apple for the “What in BLAZES were they THINKING!?” award). As indicated, the second movie is okay, but the next two entries are abominations. Because the studio and producers kept forcing a one-story idea to be a series. To the point of assigning sharks sentience and psychic abilities by the fourth entry, just to justify making it all one series. (Note: That’s not a joke.)

Finally, another massive box office hit from a regular hit-maker, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. This is, again, a fairly closed-off idea — aliens have been observing and investigating us for decades (or longer), and decide to finally make contact. They want to contact certain individuals, earth’s governments want to choose the individuals themselves, and that’s the conflict engine. You follow Richard Dreyfus’s character as he dissociates from his family and seemingly goes nuts, until in the end all is made clear — he was chosen by the aliens as Earth’s ambassador (or whatever). The story ends when the aliens are revealed, and Dreyfus goes flying off in their ship. If you made a prequel, it would kill the original film, which milked the audience ignorance of what, exactly, was going on for atmosphere and suspense through the first two acts of the film. If you made a sequel, what would that be? Dreyfus’s adventures on alien worlds? His family’s rebuilding back on Earth? Dreyfus’s return fifty years later the same age as his now-grown kids? Any of those might make a good story, but none of them could ever, possibly, be More Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It is a one-story idea and title. And, thankfully, there was no attempt at a sequel. While it has a very recognizeable “brand” that could be “leveraged in the marketplace”, saner heads prevailed and left it at Spielberg’s “special edition” added scenes a few years later.

(Now, those in control of the money in Hollywood will never understand this, but you, as a writer, need to: “series” and “brand” are different concepts. There’s overlap, but it’s not one to one.)

What can we take away from these examples?

A couple of things, I think.

First, in any story, there are really two stories at work. I don’t have any focus-grouped, mareting-friendly terms for them, let’s just call them the background story and the foreground story.

In Star Wars, the background story is the Rebellion against the Empire, while the foreground story is a farmboy leaving home and becoming a man.

In Jaws, the background story is a shark attacking a small coastal town, and the foreground story is the water-fearing police chief who has to go to sea to stop it.

In Close Encounters, the background story is alien contact and communication with us, while the foreground stories concern an everyman trying to understand the visions he’s been having, and Francois Truffaut trying to figure out how to handle the contact situation, and what the aliens might really want.

Star Wars’s background story continues over three movies, and its ending leaves open further developments (rebuilding after a war, among many, many other possibilities). Even if Luke Skywalker died, the series could continue.

Jaws’s background story is finished at the end of the foreground story, which is what makes the sequels so increasingly awkward and silly.

Close Encounters’s background story is also finished at the end of the foreground stories. You could argue that there are other stories that could be told in the same world, and there are, but they are different stories, and not close encounters anymore.

Getting back to The Terminator, we have a background story about the singularity, when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, and starts exterminating humanity, while humanity valiantly fights to survive, then to defeat the AI. The foreground story is the result of the last battle, when the AI sends a battle unit back in time to prevent humanity’s leader from ever being born, before the war began, and the human soldier sent on a one-way trip to protect that leader’s mother from being killed. By the end of the film, both stories are resolved and intertwined into an ouroboros of causality. The war will happen, the AI will lose, it will send the kill unit back, that unit will fail, and in failing, it enables John Connor to be conceived and born, leading to the AI’s defeat.

Both stories are finished. No series.

James Cameron, because he is (or used to be) brilliant, looked at the story he had told, and realized he could do something more, and different, with it.

The first film, as it left things, argued against free will. (There was ambiguity, for sure, but the fact that things ended up the way they always ended up strongly suggested that time is fixed, despite dialogue to the contrary.) Terminator 2, with a small retcon, continued the story to explore actual free will, and while the story as a whole is far less ambiguous, its ending leaves the future open and unknown.

The background story in part two is the same, almost down to the second, with the additional detail that the AI sent back two killbots, to two different times, as insurance. The foreground story is all about free will. Sarah Connor has to learn that the future really is not fixed. The Arnie terminator has to learn to think for itself, to value, and to make decisions based on those values. John Connor has to learn to trust his mother, while still judging things for himself, and that some decisions require terrible prices, no matter which way the decision goes.

And once that story is done, the background story is intentionally left unresolved (will there even be a war of machines against man?) as part of the thematic point, and the foreground story is again completely resolved.

The original film was a closed loop of a story, complete in and of itself. Not just the story, but the entire world in which it took place.

While it is definitely possible to carry on with new stories from this point, it is also inadvisable, but not for the reasons of background or foreground stories. They are limiting, but there are workable solutions to expand them outward.

My problem here is the series title. The terminators are limiting.

In the overall premise of the war of the machines against humanity, terminators are a very tiny part of the story. The one in the first movie was only important because it was the vessel which represented all of the AI’s war against our species. The entirety of the conflict boiled down to one machine hunting down one human. If you keep going forward, but keep centering the story entirely (or even largely) around these minor components and forcing them into a larger role than is natural for the larger story, you make them the always-returning sharks of Jaws. They go from terrifying to running joke.

ASIDE: The series started getting silly when it jettisoned one of the core ideas of the original Terminator — that Terminators were created to infiltrate human populations. Based on that, what damn sense does it make that every one of them looks like Arnie? I can, with very little thought, lampshade that enough to get Arnie into a few stories, but just throwing away the very reason they’re made to look human in the first place? That’s stupid. END ASIDE.

You can tell stories of the war of the machines against humanity. Probably an endless number of them, in fact.

But most of them won’t be terminator stories.

Terminators will be, realistically, just one part of the larger story. (Star Wars isn’t called “Storm Troopers” for a reason.)

You can tell stories about John (and Sarah) Connor, but really, those shouldn’t be terminator stories either, though at various points terminators will enter into them. (I’ve never seen The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and understand that it’s very good and well done, but I avoided it for the very reason I’m citing — terminators out the wazoo, for the main reason that the “franchise” is named for them.)

Terminator Genisys, going from the trailer, is the result of people who have no concept of story dictating what a story should be. They got the rights to the Terminator franchise, sat down, and said “All right, what are the elements of this story that we can use in a sequel?” But they didn’t want to explore the world of the man/machine conflict, they just wanted to bring Arnie in and repeat all the things that people remember from the previous movies, while giving the story a mind-numbingly stupid “twist”. (Not a twist in the sense of a surprise direction in the middle or the end of the story, but a “fresh, new direction” of a premise, which is neither.)