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Can Terminator find salvation as a reboot?

The new prequel is the latest attempt to revive a money-spinning film franchise

He said he'd be back, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator has returned again and again since it first took a near-indestructible grip on the box office in 1984. This week he's back again – albeit in a brief, computer-generated cameo – when the fourth film in the 25-year-old franchise is released in the UK. It has a new leading actor, a new director and a twist in the story's timeline.

In keeping with a growing trend to reinvigorate money-spinning film franchises, The Terminator has joined the reboots. Last month's Star Trek rebooted back to the beginning of the saga of Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Starship Enterprise, capturing a new, young audience and taking $287m (£178m) so far.

April saw the first of a slew of X-Men prequels with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, explaining how the hirsute mutant played by Hugh Jackman came to have a set of razor-sharp blades embedded in his arms.

The three Star Wars prequels may have disappointed fans of one of the most successful sci-fi sagas of all time, but they still took almost $2.5bn at the global box office.

Batman Begins successfully rebooted the Batman series in 2005 when director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale threw off the slightly camp approach of previous films and gave the caped crusader a darker edge. It not only raked in $372m but injected new life into the franchise, a trick they sustained with last year's Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger.

The three Terminator films have so far pulled in more than $1bn at the box office. If Terminator Salvation is as successful as last month's Star Trek, that figure could rise substantially.

Like Star Trek, the action of Terminator Salvation ends where the first episode begins – so fleshing out a back story already familiar to ticket-buying fans. Set in 2018, its hero, John Connor, is fighting an army of relentless robot assassins intent on destroying mankind.

Professor Scott Lucas, who lectures in film at the University of Birmingham, pointed out that such prequels are not necessarily a guarantee of success. "The prequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid failed miserably," he said. "When a prequel is done well, however, it is normally through character development. The original Star Trek characters were almost caricatures. The new film works on nostalgia, because we know the characters. And because it's science fiction, you have hundredsd of years to play with. These films also resonate with American audiences because they deal with apocalyptic themes. The first Terminator movie was made during the Cold War, when we were all worried we might get knocked off."

The veteran film critic Barry Norman said the reboots are valid because audiences want them. "Hollywood likes to give the public what they think the public wants," he said. "Also, the original protagonist [of Terminator] is now Governor of California and not able to play the part, so it makes more sense to go back to the beginning and find someone new."

Other prequels

Star Trek

It's Star Trek, but not as we know it. Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Starship Enterprise, are (whisper it) cool.

Batman Begins

Holy cash cow – Batman has become a dark, brooding character oozing 21st-century appeal.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

He's got hair and razor claws, and can apparently live forever. Not necessarily a good thing.

Terminator Salvation

Just when you think the relentless machine is finally dead, it rises again from the flames for one final attack.

Star Wars

The Force wasn't with George Lucas when he made the three prequels to a landmark of popular cinema.