June 9th, 2009


Terminator: First Draft

I was critiquing workshop manuscripts for Wiscon both before and after viewing Terminator: Salvation. That shouldn't excuse the egregious badness of this film or what I am about to say about it--if it had been a good movie my brain wouldn't have wandered off to play with string in the corner.

But I couldn't help it. I was in workshop teachery mode. And I felt like I was sitting down with a super enthusiastic kid and his super enthusiastic script, which is in fact a steaming pile of grittyfuturerobot dung, and dancing the age old dance...

Hey, Terminator! I'm so glad you decided to take my class! I really like some of your older work--I feel like you've made some missteps lately, but hey, third in a series is always tough. Let's look at this new piece! Looks awesome, I have to say. Innovative futuristic setting, compelling lead--and yet.

The problem is, Terminator, you broke the author/audience contract. I felt like you didn't answer either of the questions that your trailers, nay, your very attempt to set this story in 2018, after Judgement Day, promised to address.

What is John Connor going to do that was so amazingly terrifying?
Because all we've seen him do so far is clench. In a manly, gritty way. Your protagonist isn't protagging. He's just standing around. Clenching.

They way you've got this set up, he was part of the inexplicably still-extant regular military, and very far down the totem pole. Even as a spiritual leader he isn't doing much that someone else couldn't do the minute he winked out of existence. He has to be able to do something no other human can do to be this fucking important. And I think the presumed revelation of what his awesome would be is a big part of the reason people showed up for this film. And knocking up Opie's daughter and mouthing off to other officers doesn't count.

Skynet invented time travel more or less to specifically kill one guy. This guy had to be destined for something more than being dirty and inspiring--because the funny thing about inspiring leaders is that usually, they can be replaced. That whole inspiring trick usually get people pretty fired up. And even if he wasn't around, Kyle's looking pretty good for the Robin Hood gig, and many other people, too. John Connor, in the world you have created, is not special. The idea that John Connor is special is the bedrock of the franchise, and you're fucking it up with this stupid Top Gun military nonsense. Oh, he's a rebel who will never ever be any good. Well, that's fresh and original. To be frank, the idea that the big JC is a peon in the military when he has incontrivertible information about the future--you know, that violent, unpredictable, post-apocalyptic thing you live in--is pretty dumb.

I do not believe that simply rigging a radio to say "You are the Resistance" is worth inventing time travel. John needs to have something up his sleeve, something so crazy and fucked up and awe inspiring--something he has, in fact, already done, or else there would be no need for time travel to keep him from doing it, it simply would have been one among many fizzled plans, in order to get this level of grudge match on.

You could have shown us this, Terminator. This is a classic case of show don't tell--show us John is worth all this trouble, don't just tell us he is! Instead we get homo-erotic nonsense with a guy we know is a robot from scene one, to whom we have no emotional connection whatsoever, and neither does anyone else in the film. It's lame shoehorning of what I know you think is a shiny new character. Only Marcus is boring. Hot, but boring. We've seen OMG AM I HUMAN OR MACHINE?? in about every article of SF ever that even thinks about robots.

The second question is simple: What does Skynet want?

They've killed off most of humanity and yet their New World Order seems to be mainly based on killing off the stragglers and...making Arnold dolls. When you set a story in the AI-dominated future, the audience wants their dystopia/utopia porn. You at least have to give us an idea of what the world Skynet wants looks like--and it really shouldn't look like the San Bernadino Valley, with a lot more manly dirt. There is no earthly reason AI would have their headquarters in a giant castle with ill-guarded front doors--assuming they require a physical component to their programs at all, it should be underground or in orbit, where the nasty little humans can't get to it. And if I can think of that in five minutes in a bar, Skynet should probably have considered it at some point. They're not Sauron.

So, seriously, what is Skynet fighting for? Why do they need to kill John Connor? Do they have a plan? Pure survival? Using humans as batteries to power a giant simulation? Breeding to make a super race of Greek gods kind of? What? What is Skynet's win condition? What does their successful world look like? Because it's a waste of resources to be constantly sending out mecha to kill two starving orphans and their kindly caretaker. AI do not waste a lot of resources.

Not to mention, you've got some serious thematic issues, here, Terminator. You can say No Fate But What We Make all you want, but the fact is, from the first film, the actual theme of your work is: you cannot change the future. You can fudge some details, but really, nothing major. It's a decent theme, nice and fatalistic, made even better by everyone's gritty determination that they can--what fools these mortals be, right? But it does present a problem with narrative tension, Terminator. You can't ask the audience to get quite so worked up in the fourth movie about whether the future/past will be changed when it's been made very, very clear in all the other movies--even T2--that it will not. You need another story. Something else for us to worry about. (May I be so bold as to suggest that the tension should revolve around what Connor was going to do that would shoot radioactive unicorns and jellybeans into Skynet and make it explode in a rainbow of fruit flavors?) And this Marcus thing just isn't it. (And for that matter, what "noble, beautiful" thing did Helena Bonham Carter think she was making? Because infiltrator Bot doesn't really seem to fit with her cancer!angel persona. And what were they going to use all those people for in the factories? A shell of organic tissue that looks like Arnold is not to be had from mushing up old ladies. If humans are put in cattle cars in Act One...)

And as cool as it might be for Connor to end up with a robot heart--in fact, he doesn't. You got muddy on your own ironic theme here, Terminator. Maybe this is a typo? I can't believe you meant to set this up and then castrate your own story. You established that the heart was human. So Connor is still all human, whereas if he had a Terminator heart, you might have some real narrative meat there, so to speak. That's what we call dramatic irony, that the leader of the resistance relies on enemy tech to live. That he might be corrupted by said tech. This is the material of a continuing franchise. Not that random girl lurves the robot on account of five minutes of screentime together, and robot gives up his conveniently still organic heart to save Connor. Who, it bears repeating, has done nothing particularly of worth besides deliver an EMP weapon that anyone could have delivered if they retained two hands and a brain.

Also, robot, please. Stop acting as though courage et al specifically and literally dwell anatomically in the heart. AI do not deal in poetic metaphor.

Lastly, there is just a big hole in the logic here, and I'd be remiss if I didn't point it out. If Skynet is looking for Kyle Reese, then they know that he is Connor's father, thus they know that time travel is involved in Connor's conception. All they have to do to kill John Connor is sit down, chill out, have a nano-beer, and not invent time travel. And again, if this occurred to me in five minutes at a bar, it would likely occur to our AI overlords. Computers are kind of into efficiency.

Should I even mention that Connor's mostly-nameless wife has apparently stolen all the make-up remaining in the world, that the women are useless dolly characters who either act stupidly or stand around being pregnant and/or mute, and dirt is not character, or plot, or tension? And that if Michael Ironside is in a film, I think I may just skip it, from here on out on account of it being automatically so full of uber-masculine clenching I get a headache?

The truth is, Terminator, you had a good shot at reviving a great story here. And you blew it because of lazy storytelling. I know it's harder to create an interesting future than to just make everything sepia-colored, but sometimes you just have to put in that extra effort. On your second draft, let's try to make the relationships between the characters believeable, loyalty established over several scenes instead of one (especially if the loyal person in question is a robot) and answer the minimum number of audience questions to make anyone give a shit, ever.

Now go home and think about what you've done.