It’s been six years since “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” hit the nation’s multiplexes, but with a three-picture domestic gross of nearly $400 million, there was little doubt that “Terminator Salvation,” opening Thursday, was inevitable. What began in 1984 as a nice little indie sci-fi flick, with Ah-nold’s “I’ll be back” as an iconic tag line, has now morphed into a full-fledged blockbuster franchise.
“The concept itself — and the mythology — interests people, and it leaves room for expansion and new stories,” says “Terminator Salvation” producer Moritz Borman. “You can spin your imagination off into time travel, humans vs. machines; the fundamental idea and mythology was rich enough to build on, and that makes good franchise material.”
The new film, which stars Christian Bale as savior of humanity John Connor, is set in 2018, after the supercomputer Skynet attempts to destroy mankind in a nuclear holocaust. Connor is the man who rises from the rubble to lead the humans against the cybernetic monster and its army of metallic killing machines known as Terminators.
The continuation of the Terminator story is just the latest indication that Hollywood has always been in love with characters and situations they can approach from multiple directions. And, in fact, the franchise film, which Borman defines as “a multi-picture story some of the same characters,” has been with us for quite some time.
The ultimate example is Sherlock Holmes, played by everyone from Basil Rathbone to Michael Caine in more than 260 films and numerous TV productions, with the latest incarnation, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Baker Street detective, due out in December.
Franchises, whether they be about Bond or the crew of the starship Enterprise, are “a fairly safe bet,” says Borman. “You would like to have a familiarity, a built-in audience. With the amount of money being spent on franchise pictures, it makes sense to have a story that worked once, to see if you can extend it.”
But, says Irv Slifkin of moviesunlimited.com, when it comes to franchises, be careful what you wish for. “The creative team has to be particularly keen not to disappoint fans of the first films in the series,” he says. “Fans have come to expect the same level of the successful originals. It’s when a franchise gets to a third film that things get very tricky. Producers have to be careful to tweak things enough to make them fresh, but not go overboard.”
Which means that even though endless sequels might do business at the multiplex, that does not necessarily signify quality. In the long history of successful franchise films, here are some of the best and worst.
JAMES BOND: Sure, some of the 22 features aren’t terribly good, particularly during the Roger Moore/Pierce Brosnan era. But movies like “From Russia With Love” (1963), “Goldfinger” (1964), “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), “License to Kill” (1989) and the recent version of “Casino Royale” (2006) are solid action movies with excellent casts, nimble direction and fun plot lines. Looking for the best franchise of all time? This might be it.
JASON BOURNE: Who’d a thunk Matt Damon could kick butt as an action film hero? Well, he does in the three Bourne flicks (which debuted in 2002), all of which feature pedal-to-the-metal direction, exotic locations and top-rank supporting players such as Joan Allen, Chris Cooper and Franka Potente. A fourth Bourne is due out next year.
BATMAN: There have probably been as many hits (last year’s “The Dark Knight”) as misses (1997’s “Batman and Robin”) in this series, but when the Batman films connect, they have an artistry and depth no other comic-book-derived franchise can top. The dark nature of Bruce Wayne’s back story certainly helps, but directors like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan also have made a huge difference. And some of those villains, particularly Heath Ledger’s Joker, simply rock.
DIE HARD: Boosted by the 1988 original, easily one of the best action films ever, this series has managed to maintain a relatively high fun quality through three sequels, thanks mainly to Bruce Willis’ terrific work as wisecracking New York cop John McClane. And, if there’s a better action-flick villain than Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in the original, we dare you to name him.
ALIEN: The conventional wisdom is that the last two films in this series, “Alien 3” (1992) and “Alien: Resurrection” (1997), are worthless junk trying to keep alive an exhausted concept. (Fact is, No. 3 isn’t bad at all.) But that almost doesn’t matter, because “Alien” (1979) and “Aliens” (1986) are hands-down two of the finest and scariest sci-fi films ever made. Thanks to Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley, and the grade-A direction by Ridley Scott and James Cameron, those two films alone place this series in the top tier of franchise films.
SAW: Torture porn disguised as entertainment, about a psychopathic killer and his victims. Obviously someone likes these pictures, since the five features (beginning in 2004) have grossed more than $660 million worldwide, but if you’re looking for a sign of the apocalypse, the “Saw” flicks might be it.
STAR WARS: Let’s be honest — four of the six “Star Wars” films stink. Really. Only “Star Wars” (1977) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) — the first two released — have any real entertainment value, the latter being by far the best of the bunch. The rest are juvenile, repetitive, filled with bad direction and indifferent acting (Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is particularly amateurish). They also include laughably incomprehensible screenplays, idiotic characters (can you say Jar Jar Binks?) and poorly choreographed action scenes — enough light sabers already! — that seem to go on forever.
RUSH HOUR: The first pairing of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker (1998) as mismatched detectives from different cultures was a mildly entertaining hit that grossed more than $140 million in the United States. Then Tucker’s frantic shtick overwhelmed the two sequels, the coy racial interplay became tired and the series slid quickly into mediocre stupidity.
FRIDAY THE 13TH: Some psychopath in a hockey mask named Jason Voorhees decides to hack away at everyone in his path (first film — 1980), and before you can say “sick,” there are 11 films featuring the demented freak. There’s also a sort of superstars of psychosis throwdown (in 2003), featuring Jason vs. Freddy Krueger of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. That the Freddy Krueger films look like classic literature compared to Jason’s output says all you need to know about this pathetic franchise.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Beware of any film based on a theme-park ride. Hugely successful — more than $2.7 billion worldwide box-office gross — the best thing about these three comic adventure flicks (starting in 2003) is Johnny Depp’s fey performance as Capt. Jack Sparrow. Otherwise they are too long, too confusing, too CGI-oriented, overdirected and too full of themselves. Somewhere, Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood is weeping.
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