In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a little-known special effects artist by the name of James Cameron had grand aspirations of becoming a bona fide filmmaker. After much trial and tribulation – and a poorly received directorial debut, Piranha II: The Spawning, which he rejects to this day – Cameron would eventually go on to release The Terminator in 1984, a science fiction action classic that launched the young filmmaker’s career, who would go on to break the record for the highest grossing film ever released (twice), as well as win a number of Oscars. Today Cameron is one of the highest grossing directors of all time, and he owes a great deal of his success to the Terminator franchise, which he returned to as a producer for the 2019 soft reboot, Terminator: Dark Fate, a soft reboot that was supposed to return the franchise to its glory days. Instead, it continues to have the franchise’s creative and commercial downward spiral seen in more recent releases, ironically putting its own fate into serious question.
The first post-Cameron sequel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is almost inarguably the best of all the sequels, and actually a very good movie in its own right. Its greatest sin was that it did not live up to the lofty heights set by its two predecessors, and as such felt like a step back in the franchise for some, especially given the twelve-year wait for this highly anticipated sequel.
Unfortunately, things go sharply downhill from here. The next sequel, 2009’s Terminator: Salvation, had enormous potential, or at least it did on paper. Instead of being set in our present, Salvation follows John Connor, played by Christian Bale, following the collapse of humanity at the hands of Skynet. By Cameron’s own admission this was the Terminator sequel to make, if there ever was one, as it would meaningfully move the story past the ongoing threat of global apocalypse and instead embrace it, with John Connor finally on course to becoming the leader of humanity. Sadly, the movie was directed by McG (his mononymous title alone should have spelled trouble), the writing was shaky, and the franchise had never lacked such urgency in its execution. It was a missed opportunity in almost every facet, while also being the first film that bent over backwards to shoehorn Arnold Schwarzenegger into its narrative (even if it was digitally done), feeling like a movie set in the future that was unable to let go of its past. It was sadly a sign of things to come, as these are recurring issues in the following installments, to the point that I would argue that despite its title, Salvation began the eventual undoing of a franchise that was once considered amongst the most revered in Hollywood.
If Terminator: Salvation is the franchise’s biggest “What if?”, then 2015’s Terminator Genisys is its undisputed “WTF” moment. It is truly an anomaly and the lowest point in a once-proud franchise. In their attempt to subvert the well-established base narrative of the Terminator, the writers delivered a muddled, sloppy mess that still somehow felt more bogged down by the past than rejuvenated by the future, and its poor box office performance reflected as much. There is honestly little good I can say of Genisys, even down to its dumb spelling, as it effectively killed the franchise to the point that James Cameron would go on reclaim the franchise rights and make his own last-ditch attempt to return Terminator to its past glories.
Which brings us to Dark Fate, yet another entry that grasps too tightly to the past instead of looking to the future. Helmed by Deadpool director Tim Miller, who was hand-picked by Cameron himself, this was to be a direct sequel to Terminator 2 while dismissing every other sequel as having occurred in an alternate timeline. Dark Fate wastes no time in establishing as much by killing off a crucial character from the series in its opening scene, but in hindsight this choice, which Cameron himself has taken credit for, flies in the face of everything that had happened in the original two films, and even still the overall narrative feels like a copy and paste job from these entries. They even did away with Skynet, only to replace it with another AI called Legion that does the exact same thing as its predecessor, just with a new paint job. While this is certainly the best made Terminator movie since Rise of the Machines and still an overall enjoyable action romp despite some questionable narrative choices, I can’t help but view it less positively now than when I initially reviewed it. More importantly, though, the film went on to lose $120 million and is now one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, even after taking in $261 million at the global box office. Any plans for sequels were dead in the water, with one of the film’s stars, Vancouver actress Mackenzie Davis, telling NME “to think that there’d be a demand for a seventh film is quite insane. You should just pay attention to what audiences want – and they want new things and I want new things.”
And this strikes at the very heart of the Terminator franchise’s woes since the turn of the century. Diminishing returns at the box office denote a drop in quality, as well as audiences’ clear exhaustion from filmmakers trying to do ‘the same thing, just different.’ There is little doubt that Cameron’s return to the franchise is over before it barely began, and it is impossible to say when we will see the next film in the franchise, as Dark Fate was the nail in the coffin for the Schwarzenegger era that began in 1984. Yet Hollywood is Hollywood and there will likely be another reboot years down the line, but if it is ever to be a critical and commercial success reminiscent of the earliest instalments, the movie must entirely do away with the past and create a future all of its own; one, dare I say, without Arnold Schwarzenegger or James Cameron.