They say Hollywood’s running out of ideas, but I’m not so sure about that. Tinseltown has had one great big creative idea in the past few years, and it’s milked that idea until it’s become less welcome than Harvey Weinstein at a comedy club.
The big idea is this: dust off a beloved film from the past, wipe out the countless sequels that followed and – if you’re following so far – remake the movie and pretend it’s a sequel.
Terminator: Dark Fate, released this week, is the best film in the franchise since 1991’s Terminator 2, which is a bit like saying I’m the most athletic person in the NME office: the parameters are small, the expectations are low and it’s not so much an accolade as it is a melancholy realisation.
The movie, set in 2020, introduces another killing machine – this time played by Gabriel Luna – that’s been programmed to hunt down a young woman (Dani Ramos), who is protected by time-traveller Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Arnold Schwarzenegger turns up again but he doesn’t have much to do besides talk about curtains (seriously).
The movie has been heralded as a return to form for the franchise, whose previous three instalments – 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 2009’s Terminator Salvation and 2015’s Terminator Genisys – were about as much fun as Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about curtains. What’s good about Terminator: Dark Fate, though, is that it’s just the best bits from Terminator and Terminator 2 with a sprinkling of self-referential joking and a contemporary setting: the scene in which a leather-jacketed Arnie stands before a mirror, reaching for his shades, says it all.
It’s the same plot as the first movie, and boasts the dustbowl chic and the widescreen ambition of the second. Which is fine, but let’s not pretend it’s a sequel. It’s a fan-service remake, giving the faithful what they want while impressing critics because it looks like a classic movie – specifically, the ones it’s copying. You know those viral videos where someone plays a Billie Eilish song in, like, the style of Def Leppard, or something? It’s basically that – but for movies.
Like Weinstein in that comedy club, this trend is hot right now (but much less clammy). We had two of the buggers back in 2015: Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Both expunged some of their respective franchise’s cannons, wiping the slate clean to pay reverential homage to the original movies that fans hold most dearly in their hearts.
Jurassic World was basically just the first movie, but with a bigger setting, a gnarlier alpha-dinosaur and the dude from Parks and Recreation pretending to be Sam Neill. The filmmakers behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens recreated the atmosphere and tone of the first three movies so faithfully that they even copied their plot holes. You can imagine the pitch:
“We’re gonna have the space cunts make the Death Star again, yeah, but they’re gonna make it bigger this time.”
“Like a Death… Planet? Like it! But… how’s it gonna be destroyed this time?”
“Dunno – improbably explosive centre very easily accessed and incredibly simple to blow up?”
“Worked last time!”
I find it very hard to believe that the bad guys in the first Star Wars movie, the Galactic Empire, were dumb enough to install such a design flaw in the first place. Why would the new bad guys introduced in The Force Awakens, the First Order, make the same mistake again? Because fans want a warm, comforting bowl of cinematic chicken soup and the popularity of streaming services has eroded box office sales, pushing studios into an age of conservatism.
As a horror fan who loves the Halloween movies, even the crap ones (sometimes especially the crap ones), I was excited about the latest film in the franchise, which came out last October. Again, it was heralded as a return to form for a franchise as synonymous with creative innovation as Michael Myers is known for giving great birthday presents. So imagine my surprise when it transpired to be an overly reverential rehash of the original movie that eradicated the presence of the sequels, many of which were actually pretty damn good.
“Oh look!,” I thought to myself. “There’s a shot of someone getting up from a seemingly fatal fall out of a window, just like in the first movie, which I have noticed. Oh! And there’s a song playing on the radio that sounds like the one Laurie sings in the 1978 movie. Stick a gold star on me and call me a superfan.”
This re-enforced my sense of identity and gave me a nice feeling, but it did not make for a good movie. Fan service remakes masquerading as sequels rarely do. They’re a retrograde step into cosy nostalgia – the opposite of the innovation and rush of ideas that cinema is supposed to give us. Rehashing an epochal film’s best bits is not the same thing as matching it in terms of quality, and this becomes clear when the initial warm glow of recognition wears off.
So here’s a bold new creative idea for Hollywood: how about come up with something new?