“I’ll be back” isn’t just Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic line from The Terminator, it has become the franchise’s not-so-unofficial motto. No matter what, it just keeps coming back. But, after Terminator: Dark Fate bombed at the box office over the weekend, is this finally the end of the endless cycle of reboots and sequels?
James Cameron revolutionized the action film with 1984’s Terminator and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, delivering two classics that have stood the test of time. And in Hollywood if something has shown itself to be a proven property, then you know it will eventually be used up for all its worth. So even with Cameron setting sail for Titanic and then heading to Pandora for Avatar, Terminator lived on without him. The first post-Cameron attempt came in 2003 with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which is maybe most notable for being Schwarzenegger’s final film before becoming the governor of California. Rise of the Machines was more unremarkable than bad but further solidified Linda Hamilton, who opted not to return, and Sarah Connor, who was subsequently killed offscreen, as the heart of Terminator.
The next attempt for a reboot in came in 2009. With Schwarzenegger still in office, Terminator Salvation looked to birth a new trilogy (as will every other subsequent film). Other than Schwarzenegger appearing via CGI, Salvation featured an entirely new cast, with Christian Bale and Anton Yelchin as familiar characters John Connor and Kyle Reese, while going where no Terminator had yet gone: the future. But audiences and critics alike rejected Salvation, proving that the actual war we and Sarah had been warned about was never the most interesting part of this world. It’s also a bad sign when a film is best remembered for a viral outburst by its star during filming.
A big problem that Terminator has faced since Cameron moved on was the lack of creative cohesion. Through the years, the franchise has bounced around from studio to studio, with no consistent hand on the wheel. Following Salvation‘s failure, Skydance Productions, which has found success with Mission: Impossible, and Paramount Pictures took control, and decided to go the good ol’ alternate timeline route with their first Terminator production. And they felt like with Terminator Genisys — again hoping to kickstart a new trilogy — they were giving the people back what they wanted: Sarah Connor. The problem was that it wasn’t Linda Hamilton. Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke stepped in to play Connor, with Genisys finding the character in a very different place in 1984 Los Angeles. In this new timeline, Connor was back and so was Schwarzenegger, but audiences weren’t, with Genisys debuting to the franchise’s worst opening — and reviews.
Dark Fate was supposed to be the one that changed the downward trend. This would not be another reboot, it would be a reunion. Cameron was coerced to come back, serving as a producer and helping break the story. And credit to Cameron and director Tim Miller for knowing there was only one way they could try and justify another Terminator swing. After almost three decades away, Hamilton finally agreed to once again play Connor. And with Cameron and Hamilton returning to fold — obviously joined by Schwarzenegger who seems determined to go down with the ship — the decision was made to ignore all the subsequent films and have Dark Fate serve as a direct sequel to T1 and T2. The even smarter decision was making this Sarah Connor’s movie. Yes, there was a new terminator and a new young woman to save from a terminator, but Connor is always front and center, with Schwarzenegger wisely taking a backseat. And it looked like it might work. While EW gave the film a C, Dark Fate sits at a solid 70 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with many critics hailing it as the best Terminator since T2, which admittedly feels like damning it with faint praise. But then Dark Fate opened to a disappointing $29 million, and in an era where films can be saved by their international performance, Dark Fate failed to connect abroad as well, and now faces a reported $120 million in losses.
“What happens when you do everything right and the audience doesn’t show up to the degree that you hoped?” Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian tells EW, also citing Joker‘s unexpected staying power as having an effect on all new films. “Paramount did everything exactly right. Interest was just eroded by those other films. I don’t know if Paramount can look back and say, ‘We should have done this or that differently.’ This felt a lot like T2, which is what I thought everyone wanted. It may be baked into the cake right now that if a sequel doesn’t feel totally fresh and original then audiences have a lot of other options for fresh and original.”
Paramount has yet to respond to EW’s request for comment on what comes next for Terminator.
So where does Terminator likely go from here? Dark Fate ends with Sarah and Dani (Natalia Reyes) heading off to prepare for the battle to come, but Hamilton suggested to EW that one return might be enough for her, and that doesn’t even factor in what looks like a lack of demand for a follow-up. And if this film couldn’t get any fans excited then it seems like attempting another reboot would be the equivalent of knowingly burning money. Maybe the best future would be on television, where Terminator has found its greatest creative success in the 21st century with Fox’s short-lived Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which became a cult favorite. “The Terminator mythology and characters are so good that it would be a shame to see them throw in the towel,” adds Dergarabedian. “There are certain franchises that can benefit from having the brand and concept going small screen. It will be back…somehow.”
In this franchise-dominated world where the umpteenth version of a Batman villain is dominating the box office, that seems like a safe bet.