The Terminator franchise is dead.

It might not technically be official yet (studios rarely publicly admit as much, just in case) but after the sixth Terminator film crashed, burned and descended into a vat of lava this past weekend, thumb down, it’s looking like it’s finally time to say hasta la vista.

The unfortunately titled Terminator: Dark Fate was supposed to be a franchise-saver, a much-needed burst of life for a series that had been struggling to stay alive since Judgment Day in 1991. The solution was simple: forget the three films that came after (something most people had already done) and create a retcon reunion, following on directly from the still-adored second chapter. It’s a strategy that hauled Michael Myers back to life, and profit, last year with the shock success of the gory palette-cleanser Halloween, making $255m worldwide and becoming the biggest slasher film of all time.

Bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger was less of a get, given that he had stuck around for 2003’s Rise of the Machines and 2015’s Genisys, but reuniting him with Linda Hamilton was a more sellable sell and the film itself played out like a Force Awakens-style retread, regurgitating a similar formula with plenty of sly winks aimed at long-time fans. It also provided a major return for James Cameron, shapeshifting from director to producer, giving his stamp of approval, one that was bombastically bragged about in the film’s pricey marketing campaign.

Reviews were decent but early tracking suggested that audience interest was minimal and early pre-apocalyptic panic started to set in. The film’s budget has been reported as $185m, a staggering amount given the franchise’s spotty history, and while experts had forecast a weekend of between $30-40m, Dark Fate sputtered out at just $29m in the US. To put that into perspective alongside other action sequels this year, that’s less than the openings of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum ($56m), Godzilla: King of the Monsters ($47m), Dark Phoenix ($32m) and even Men in Black: International ($30m). Within the Terminator franchise, it’s far beneath the openings of Rise of the Machines ($44m) and Salvation ($42m) but slightly up on Genisys ($27m). But what does all this really mean?

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Christian Bale in a scene from Terminator: Salvation



Christian Bale in a scene from Terminator: Salvation Photograph: HO/REUTERS

Since Rise of the Machines performed adequately in 2003, making $433m globally from a $200m budget, there have now been three attempts to reframe the franchise. In 2009, McG’s post-apocalyptic sequel Salvation leaped forward in time, removed all familiar cast members, added Christian Bale and Sam Worthington and changed the R-rated franchise to a PG-13 one. Cameron, who wasn’t involved, later said that he “didn’t hate it as much” as he thought he would, which was ultimately one of the nicest things one could say about the film which was loathed by critics and despite the more audience-friendly rating, it was the first Terminator film not to open at number one in the US. International audiences were slightly more forgiving with the film reaching $371m worldwide and producers learning an important lesson about where the film’s future could lie.

Six years later and after rights were sold to Annapurna who then turned to Paramount for financial assistance, the franchise was being rebooted with the confusingly timelined, and titled, Genisys. Arnie was back as the T-800, as was Sarah Connor, this time played by Emilia Clarke, but the film imagined a different version of events, taking the pieces of the original, throwing them up in the air and restarting the story with a new bent. But somehow reviews were even worse than Salvation and while Cameron initially claimed to be a fan, he later said he’d voiced support purely out of loyalty to Arnie. Domestically, the film was a washout, making just $89m but internationally, it crept up to a solid $440m, helped massively by a $113m haul in China. Planned as the first film in a new trilogy, critical apathy and underwhelming returns led to another reshape. This time Cameron was re-enlisted along with Deadpool director Tim Miller, which brings us back to 2019, where we’re left to pick up the pieces of yet another terminated Terminator timeline.

The disappointing domestic opening for Dark Fate is worth couching. For one, it’s still $2m higher than that of Genisys and the stronger reviews would imply that word of mouth could propel it to a higher final tally. But Dark Fate’s budget is at least $30m more and, this is the killer, it’s also performing under expectations internationally with audiences in China, France and the UK proving to be particularly unengaged. So far, with some markets opening a week before the US, the film has only just crossed $123m and will reportedly need to make $480m just to break even. Industry experts are currently estimating losses of between $110-130m for the film’s backers Paramount, Skydance and Fox/Disney, who released it internationally.

Mackenzie Davis and Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate.



Mackenzie Davis and Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate. Photograph: Kerry Brown/AP

So what went wrong?

While reviews were better than any Terminator film since Judgment Day (faint praise at best), they were still littered with reservations. It was seen by many as a lazy retread, giving audiences more of the same rather than adding anything particularly fresh to the franchise. The script is a product of a rather torturous-sounding process involving six writers and the final film is a product of a battle for supremacy between Miller and Cameron. “The blood is still being scrubbed off the walls from those creative battles,” Cameron has said of the production. “This is a film that was forged in fire … Tim wanted to make it his movie. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I kind of know a little about this world.’” It’s inevitable that the end-product bears its share of bruises as a result and the struggle between the old and the new is felt throughout.

Some of the early negative buzz was focused on a fanboy-baiting twist that saw John Connor dispatched in the first scene (an idea that Cameron is taking ownership of) and the film’s shift towards the women that would be in charge of preventing a robot apocalypse instead. Many found this to be one of the film’s fresher angles, and performances from Hamilton and franchise newcomer Mackenzie Davis were rightfully praised, but some misogynist trolls took against the film from the outset, especially after the first image of three female characters together was released. Back in July, Miller claimed the film would “scare the fuck” out of sexist naysayers. “You can see online the responses to some of the early shit that’s out there … I don’t give a fuck,” he said. It’s foggy as to whether this backlash did end up impacting the box office but it’s yet another, admittedly depressingly dim-witted, problem that the film had to weather.

While a similar sequel-forgetting strategy worked last year for Halloween, the 2018 iteration was blessed with a lower budget, an easy-to-convey concept and, most notably, a series of mostly atrocious sequels that had come and gone without much awareness from the average cinemagoer. The last entry had been 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, forgotten by all who had had the misfortune of seeing it, while the failed Terminator restarts had been more recent and sold on a much larger scale. “The goodwill and brand equity created by the first two Terminator films was arguably undone by the subsequent pre-Dark Fate installments, which may have negatively impacted audience interest in this latest chapter in the series,” said Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian to the Hollywood Reporter. Die-hard franchise fans were probably both weary and wary of another while others were likely confused by where this new film stood and whether one would need to catch up on the films in-between before shelling out to go see it. It’s also yet another 80s action franchise that’s not managed to attract a new generation to the plate. Last year, saw The Predator crash land, this year saw Rambo: Last Blood killed and the disappointing performance of Alien: Covenant has left that franchise in a cryogenic sleep. Arnie’s much-hyped, post-Governor Hollywood comeback has also been commercially unimpressive, from The Last Stand to Sabotage, making his appeal, even when attached to his most famous role, highly questionable.

Mackenzie Davis,Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton



Mackenzie Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton. Photograph: Ahn Young-joon/AP

Again, this was envisioned as the first part of a new trilogy but according to sources, post-box office wreckage, there are no plans for a follow-up. I’d argue that there is a way of making another Terminator film that could work, both critically and commercially, but the strategy would need to be smaller in scale. When audiences grew tired of Wolverine’s standalone adventures, Fox made the nifty decision to narrow the focus, as well as the budget, and gave a green light to the R-rated Logan, a violent, character-led drama that was easily accessible to those who’d long given up on the films that came before it. Logan was a shock hit, grossing over $600m worldwide, the second highest-grossing X-Men movie to date, picking up superheroic reviews on the way. Its success was probably a leading factor in the development of the similarly back-to-basics Joker, a $900m hit that’s just become the biggest R-rated film of all time. There’s a version of this model that could be transplanted to the Terminator universe too, something that was tried on a broader, and more expensive, scale, in Dark Fate’s treatment of Arnie’s T-800, but one that could be extracted and expanded upon in a gritty, and cheaper, separate story.

It’s perhaps more merciful to let this one lie though, to rest the Terminators alongside the corpses of the Men in Black, the Blair Witch and the Predators, to accept that nostalgia in this instance is more potent when it’s left untarnished. If a figure from the future were to arrive in 2019 with a message, it would probably be a desperate plea to stop making any more of these damn movies.



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