The Strange Time Loop of Sci-Fi Films
On March 8th, Variety reported that Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire and Blade Runner 2049) is in talks to star in a new Terminator film. The sixth film in the franchise, this installment will pick up where Terminator 2: Judgement Day left off. It will ignore the plots of the past three films and serve as a sort of reboot. It will also see the return of James Cameron as producer, and Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Davis’ co-stars. Deadpool director, Tim Miller, will take over behind the camera.
As much as I like Mackenzie Davis and hope she gets the role, my first reaction to the news was, “they’re making another Terminator film? Already?” After Terminator: Genisys (itself a reboot) disappointed audiences in 2015, I assumed there’d be a lull in Terminator films for a while. That’s naive to think, but the series had been on a downward spiral since Cameron walked away from it. I thought that Genisys‘ lackluster critical performance would be enough to make studio heads walk away from the Terminator name for a bit. They probably would have if Cameron wasn’t willing to return as producer and pitching his own story.
I get it; Terminators don’t stop, the Terminator films don’t stop. James Cameron touched on something we still fear in 2018–a day where the machines turn against us. That paranoia is a lasting one. Cameron knew how to take that concept and build a story around it. He knew how to take that story and build a film around it, giving us one of the most culturally relevant franchises we’ve ever had; despite it only having two films that stand out as great.
Why can’t other sci-fi films get it that right?
For sci-fi junkies, there are countless others that do it just as well or even better. For instance, Dune, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who are franchises that sci-fi enthusiasts swear by. Yet for mass audiences, there are only a handful of noteworthy sci-fi film properties: Alien, Terminator, Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars (although, to me, that’s more fantasy in space than sci-fi). All of those films got something right when it talked about technology. We still look back on them to figure out sci-fi in the modern age of film and TV. 30, 40, 50 years after those series first debuted, they’re still the gold standard for mainstream sci-fi. We keep going back to the past, rebooting or continuing those franchises to tell relevant stories about the present and the future.
Every one of the most common sci-fi stories has one franchise that serves as the gold standard others have to measure up to. Even when those gold standard franchises get it wrong, they get a pass. When others get it wrong, they fall by the wayside. For example:
“Better Living” Through Tech
Technology improves; life doesn’t. It’s all the same old song with better cellphones and nicer cars. If there’s a way to be unhappy, we’ll find it.
Gold Standard: Blade Runner (1982, 2017)
This one’s strange. Even though it’s only had two entries 35 years apart, the Blade Runner series codified cyberpunk in film and the idea of the gritty real-world future. It was a noir film that examined what exactly it means to be human when technology becomes “more human than human.”
Good films: 2//Bad films: 0//Total Gross: $290.7 million//Status: ???
Got it so damn wrong: Mute (2018)
Mute is all the visuals of Blade Runner without the substance. It looks cool, but the technology is incidental. It tries to be a neo-noir and has all the classic trappings of a hardboiled detective story, but it’s a film made through shortcuts. As rich and promising as the world seems like it could be, the overall themes ring hollow and it adds nothing to the conversation other than reminding audiences that Blade Runner exists.
Paranoia of the Machine Takeover
We keep trying to improve machines to achieve some kind of perfect world. What if the perfect world isn’t ruled by humans?
Gold Standard: Terminator (1984 – )
Obviously. From a simple nightmare to a generation defining film, James Cameron made the fear of self-aware machines timeless and widespread. It had been done before, but Terminator set the pace by imagining a world where we humans lose. It worked because it was a perfect blend of action and intrigue, as well as great imagery that was grounded in the present, but speculating on the future. Terminator 2 was arguably even better, but the later sequels never really built from there.
Good films: 2//Bad films: 3//Total Gross: $1.847 billion//Status: Ongoing (rebooted)
Got it Right and still so damn wrong: The Matrix (1999 – 2004)
The perfect “Turn of the Millennium” response to Terminator. Robots were still scary, but the internet was scarier. The Matrix played upon the paranoia that we become willing slaves to what we build. Its imagery and entire concept fit for the generation that grew up on dial-up Internet. What really made The Matrix work was that it incorporated a large amount of philosophy and existential theory into a story about deconstructing the real world through technology.
As good as The Matrix was, its sequels fell under the weight of their own ideas. The Wachowskis tried too hard to be philosophical, and forgot to make the world or the technological threat important. They ended up having a conversation with themselves and made the action scenes boring by making it so inhuman. Despite all the possibilities there could be for continuing or rebooting the story, I don’t think anyone wants to deal with the tangled mess of theories the Wachowskis left behind. The original is still a classic, but the franchise isn’t exactly without sin.
The World Beyond Us
We dream of the worlds beyond our stars. We like to think, if there is a grand universal plan, we play a large part in it.
Gold Standard: Star Trek (1966 – )
There’s not much I can say about Star Trek that hasn’t already been said. It was an allegory for real world social issues and human progress. The original series wasn’t long-lived, but it coincided with America’s fascination with space, gave us TV’s first well-known interracial kiss during the height of the civil rights movement, and it wasn’t afraid to get philosophical. It imagined a future that we still strive for, and challenged us to think on our present. I only know about five people who’ve ever watched the shows, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t know it in some way.
No. of series: 7// No. of films: 13//Film Gross: $2.266 billion//Status: Ongoing (film and TV)
Got it so damn wrong: John Carter (2012), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Both John Carter and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets were meant to be blockbuster tentpole films that brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. They were meant to give audiences modern sci-fi heroes by adapting old sci-fi source materials. They didn’t do either of those things. Instead, they regurgitated stories from their source materials without realizing sci-fi had evolved. They proved the spectacle of space didn’t mean anything without a story and someone to root for. Although, to be fair, they both did very well in the overseas market.
The New Apex Predator
Humans like to be on top of the food chain, but then something else comes out the shadows of space. It’s something we don’t understand, and it forces us to rethink our place.
Gold Standard: Alien (1979 – )
A human being hunted by something superior, and someone completely average outthinking and overcoming that threat. That’s what worked for Alien. It’s the fear of isolation and the fear of what’s out there. Its lonely space settings serve those primal fears. It had amazing designs, relatable characters, and deep themes that were carried on in the first sequel. After Aliens, however, the series took a dip in quality. All the subsequent sequels, prequels, and crossovers with the Predator
franchise got further and further away from the relatable fear that original capitalized on.
Good films: 2//Bad films: 6//Total Gross: $1.5 billion//Status: Ongoing
Got it so damn wrong: Battlefield Earth (2000)
I acknowledge that Battlefield Earth is a low-hanging fruit, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a terrible film. Meant to be the first part in an epic sci-fi that would rival Star Wars in popularity, Battlefield Earth was about a race of aliens enslaving humans, and the humans revolt against them. That sounds exciting, but it wasn’t. It looked bad, the acting was off-putting, and the entire plot hinged on characters being stupid. More than anything, it was boring.
And finally, the most classic story of all…
Playing God and Raising Hell
Of course, the reason behind science is to understand and control nature. The mad scientist bringing back the dead and making new life through science. Whatever we bring back, we bring back worse.
Gold Standard: Jurassic Park (1993 – )
The original Jurassic Park stood out because of its groundbreaking special effects. Jurassic Park tapped into our childhood love of dinosaurs, and then turned that love into fear. It had memorable scenes, characters were fun to watch, and it brought audiences along for the same ride as the characters; we were introduced to the dinosaurs with awe as we seen them for the first time as the characters did. Then, we’re thrust into a nightmare scenario and are forced to realize how poor of a decision bringing back dinosaurs is. That journey is what makes it work.
Good films: 2//Bad films: 0//Bland films: 2//Total Gross: $3.6 billion//Status: Ongoing
Got it so damn wrong: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), The Lazarus Effect (2015)
There are actually countless examples of this idea going badly. I just chose these two because they were the first ones I could think of. The Island of Dr. Moreau is about a madman creating human-animal hybrids, and The Lazarus Effect is about scientists who accidentally find out how to bring the dead back to life. Those are both fine premises, but like most of these kinds of films that fall short, they don’t offer anything besides their basic ideas. Selling this kind of story takes commitment.
There are, of course, other kinds of sci-fi stories besides these few (I didn’t even touch time travel). I just wanted to point out that sci-fi films, which are all about the future, have a hard time letting go of the past. As long as they make money, franchises won’t die. Even when they should, there will always be some madman bringing them back to life.