An irregular series in which I play with ideas I'll never get to implement.
Twenty years ago, when it would have been a smash hit, Rambo Versus Terminator would also have been a big, dumb, spectacular piece of trash: an unsatisfactory halfway house to T2, in which Sarah Connor (with baby John in tow) meets a hangdog-featured black ops commando who becomes her new survival tutor just in time to get involved in an epic donnybrook with Evil Futurebot Redux. A bit of interest could be introduced by making this Skynet's first attempt to wipe out the human resistance's future leader, its failure then prompting the events of the previous episode; but otherwise we're talking money for old rope rather than meaningful drama. Not that there's anything wrong with that, if big dumb spectacle is all you want...
...but Schwarzenegger and Stallone are no longer young men, and the window of opportunity for such an approach is closed.
Which is interesting.
Both series are, in their own ways, Frankenstein fables about the mechanisation of warfare. The army took John Rambo and turned him into a monster, a cold-blooded killer unsuited to civilian life; and the Terminator of course is a literal killing machine, albeit one designed to infiltrate and mimic the human enemy. The two characters are natural opponents. But pitting them against each other in the early years of the twenty-first century creates an opportunity to look at them both in new ways.
I haven't seen the most recent Rambo revival, but publicity at the time of its release seemed to present a more nuanced vision of the character than the wrapped-in-the-flag 80s sequels could tolerate – a grizzled, haunted loner without a country, still capable of extreme bloody ultraviolence when pushed (some things remain constant, this is Hollywood after all) but trying his best to fade away and be left alone. Watching the clips, seeing Stallone force his sexagenarian muscles through those stunts gives Rambo an aura of doomed defiance that chimes with his earliest appearance in First Blood but ramps it up to eddaic extremes: he's not just fighting authority or terrorism any more – his every movement now is a warrior's rage against Death and Time and Fate, against his own inevitable decay. More than ever, he's a man out of his era, a relic of an age of giants in a world that has no room for him.
He's just the sort of man we need in the War Against The Machines.
We now live in a world of automated global systems. Cybernetic warfare is a fact. True Artificial Intelligence is still a way off, but not for want of people working on it. The Terminator remains fiction, but the Rise of the Machines becomes less like science fiction with every year that passes. Imagine a film that starts off like a Tom Clancy technothriller, all GPS missile targeting, Predator drones and game-based AI warfighting algorithms – and then something goes wrong, and we cut to five years later...
It's still early in the War, before John Connor and his crew begin to turn the tide – so Arnold Schwarzenegger need not appear, unless he wants to cameo as whoever provides the genetic template for the T-101's cloneflesh. Any random bodybuilder could play the early rubber-skinned infiltration units, but even they don't need to be a big part of the story. In this phase of the conflict, the more inhuman and robotic the threat the better.
This could be the unwinnable final battle that a mythic figure like Rambo needs. Called out of retirement not by patriotism or injustice, but by sheer brute will to survive, facing an enemy that stands as a metonym for the very thing that made him what he is. The system, the meatgrinder, the war machine: it chewed John Rambo up and spat him back out; now, forty years later, it's happening again and this time he won't survive – but he will die fighting with and for his fellow humans. He will die a man, not a monster.