This ramble was inspired by the following Collider Video which is a Mailbag episode featuring Natasha Martinez, Dennis Tzeng, and Jon Schnepp. I’m going to link the entire video below, but I think it’s the first question they tackle that gets them talking about the Terminator franchise, so you don’t have to watch the whole thing to get the gist of this.
Essentially it was Schnepp’s idea that made my brain go all assplodey. I completely agree with him. The first Terminator film was deep down a horror movie first with some science fiction elements thrown in to make it interesting, but the scifi should have never overshadowed the horror. What made the first two Terminator films so awesome was the horror aspect of it. The more successful the franchise got, the more is lost sight of the magical formula which made it a joy to watch in the first place. A young man to whom your audience can relate, is suddenly being chased by a homicidal manhunting maniac of a robot. He makes friends and family members join in, but it’s mostly a simple battle of man versus machine, that involves an awful lot of running away, screaming, almost dying, with things exploding everywhere they go. It’s very simple. The backstory led the series down a very expensive path. This interested some people, but really the story should just be a horror film with science fiction overtones. It boils down to being on the run from something you don’t understand, and trying to learn about your enemy in order to combat and defeat it.
To reboot the Terminator franchise without completely erasing the significance of the past films, I would go with a lowfi version of “the Star Trek answer.” When JJ Abrams re-imagined Paramount’s Star Trek franchise for the silver screen, he paid homage to all the TV shows and previous films by casting Leonard Nimoy to once again play a now very ancient Mr. Spock. A grave tragedy and nefarious villain forced Spock’s hand and made him go back in time, but he was unable to stop a Romulan madman from drastically changing James Kirk’s childhood, which sent ripples through spacetime and effectively triggered an alternate reality. Presumably everything that had gone on before still exists in an alternate timeline but it’s forever lost to the aging Mr. Spock, who can’t go back home to his own time. So now the movies being made for a new audience revisit themes and characters from half a century ago, but in new modern ways that can go anywhere they want without completely dismissing the past. Those other stories still happened. Just not anymore.
I want to explore something similar to that in the following description. Now, keep in mind I purposefully didn’t want the last two Terminator films (cuz by Rise of the Machines I felt the series had lost its way), and only the first season of Sara Connor Chronicles (which I enjoyed very much until the crappy and unforgivable swimming pool fight scene at the end of the first season) so maybe this wouldn’t work depending on where Genesys ended. If that’s the case I would probably work into the story that those elements which wouldn’t make this work just didn’t happen, or they did happen before the inciting incident that changes time happens. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey. I’m just describing one possible low tech way to return to the roots of the first film while being able to keep the past of the franchise as something that did happen, but (again) not anymore.
Except for the above explanation, everything in all the previous Terminator movies happened. After it all happened, in the distant future where humanity is all but lost from war and despair, and the machines are also dying out due to remaining humans finding their achilles heel (software viruses. no code is unhackable) the surviving forces on both sides of the battle use time travel in a very messed up way. Even though time travel technology is improved, carbon based life cannot go back into the very distant past without death, but machines could. If they could change a significant event in human evolution, they could either give mankind a genetic advantage to overcome the machines in the distant future, or the machines could eradicate mankind completely. Both sides knew that by doing this they were irrevocably destroying their own timeline, but it was mutually assured destruction, with the hope that the new timeline would see either a world without machines or a world with only machines.
The new story starts in present day. If you want, it can be largely a retelling of the first film. Could probably even use Sarah Connor and her son. New actors of course. However, the backstory and the developing dogma surrounding the main story would offer clues to the following tableau. What I’d actually do is start the first five or ten minutes of the film with Sarah Connor and her family, and then kill them all outright by a new Terminator, who remembers all that happened in the previous films, almost like a fanboy would.
A single Terminator reemerges, with all memories of the past films intact and multiple personality cores. Perhaps even some human memories are mixed up in its matrix. It starts hunting down and killing specific human beings in different parts of the world. These attacks seem sporadic but one forensics expert who specializes in genetics (and perhaps the real protagonist of the first film) realizes that there’s a curious fifth building block dormant in the DNA of all the victims which utilizes silicon atoms where carbon atoms usually are. Turns out less than one percent of the modern human population currently has this fifth “S” building block. I should probably point out that one percent of seven billion people is still seventy million people. It’s less than that many, but not by much. Let’s say roughly fifty million people. Still a lot, but very small percentage. I’d also like to see worked into these films somewhere the fact it’s believed approximately sixteen million men alive today are descendants of Genghis Khan. That’s less than point five percent. Genghis Khan had a very active sex life and did not believe in birth control. Perhaps a descendant of Khan would go up against the Returnimators at some point. Ooh! Maybe our forensics expert just happens to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. Maybe discovering this in 2003 led to his interest in genetic mapping and research.
The forensics expert (who by the way does NOT have this Silicon building block, nor does anyone he’s ever met in his life. It’s very rare) is baffled no one has ever discovered this before. Any sciencey brainiac character in these new films makes a point to say this isn’t physically possible. Silicon doesn’t work the way carbon atoms work at room temperature. It should not ever show up in human DNA. To make silicon genetics work, you’d need more heat than carbon atoms can bare. Carbon atoms would burn away before the silicon atoms could valence. This really should not be possible, and yet even so, mutations begin to trigger in this one percent of the global human population once the reports of a rampaging robot attacking human beings sporadically reaches international news.
When the visceral threat to their genetic makeup is real, the mutations trigger. Very small at first. Parts of the body turn silicon. If we wanted to be realistic, skin and hair would go first followed by muscle tissue and skeleton structure would be last. That’s based loosely on how the normal human body replaces tissue. However that may not be as fun (or financially feasible) to express using practical effects, and I strongly recommend any reboot of the franchise focus on practical effects and not CGI.
Another way to show how Returnimator DNA expresses itself would be to say that a dense low energy magnetic field is what’s triggered first. In the VSAUCE video I note above, Michael explains how technically when you touch something, you’re not. If you were to put your hands together right now palms facing each other, there is actually a space between your hands that is so small you can’t tell. You think you’re touching yourself but you’re really not. The atoms in one hand are really pushing against the atoms in your other hand. I would suggest that in people who have this silicon building block in their DNA makeup, that push makes a recently awakened One Percenter (and possible future Returnimator) even more impervious to attack than the average person’s skin.
Barely noticeable most of the time, but in times of stress the magnetic bonds on a subatomic level make it appear the skin is near impervious to attack. It’s not the skin really. Just valence bonds. So simple hand to hand combat and most blades wouldn’t do damage, and a One Percenter could be thrown through a wall or sliced at by a regular blade and the knife would take more damage than the person, but give the guy a few weeks and say an explosion or a fire could burn away surface skin and reveal a metallic endoskeleton underneath, unbeknownst to the one percenter. He’d still feel completely normal at first. Heightened senses would perhaps kick in just before the full transformation. The nervous system would be the last to go. Some Returnimators would spend their lives being essentially a jellyfish inside a metal exoskeleton, but others would lose their humanity completely, the human nervous system being replaced by a silicon organic equivalent of the human brain.
Fear induced by anything which triggers the fight/flight instinct helps egg on the transformation. After the mutation kicks in, increases in temperature slowly turn some of these one percent into organic terminator like creatures. Once fifty percent or more of a one percenter turns silicon, they can dive into a volcano or molten lead or some other major heat source to complete their transformation. Some will fight for humanity, but most lose their humanity in the transformation.
The lone Terminator from the beginning of the new film that survived the battle in the distant past can sense this fifth building block in human beings and s/he/it is trying to destroy all of them before the dormant genetic markers begin to trigger. Whether this Terminator unit is trying to destroy humanity or preserve it isn’t fully explained in the first film. While the events in the past films did occur, the travel back in time to the distant past changed this timeline, so everything that happened before the here and now has been erased, but the Terminator menace still exists in this new form. The new future is still potentially bleak. Mankind’s own DNA may hold the key to its evolution or extinction.
The first film would only introduce these concepts without exploring them in detail. On the surface it could just be seen as a playful inexpensive romp through the Terminator films once again paying homage with a new Terminator that does a really bad Arnold impersonation on purpose and also occasionally acts like other characters from the franchise but later on it can be revealed that once any One Percenter with the Silicon DNA trigger is fully realized as a Returnimator, they too get all the memories from all the previous films. What each character chooses to do with that information is what would make the franchise so interesting.
Eventually one of these Returnimators would realize that the only way to stop this would be to go back to the inciting incident. Find the point in the distant past when the previous timeline erased itself by triggering this new timeline, and undoing what was done to give humanity a fresh start without the rise of the machines ever happening. While of course a nemesis would come up with the same idea to destroy humanity entirely. Wipe it out of existence. But that race against time wouldn’t be necessary for several films, if ever.
So. What do you think?