Terminator: Dark Fate may offer some course correction for the Terminator series, but this is a franchise that keeps coming up against one fundamental problem.

This article is not a spoiler-y one for Terminator: Dark Fate. 

Playing in UK cinemas now, ahead of its release in the US next month, is the sixth film in the Terminator franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate. It’s the third consecutive movie in the franchise that arrives with the ambition of starting a new trilogy, and crucially, it’s the one that returns its father to a creative seat.

That’s because James Cameron, the writer and director of the first two films, is back on board as producer, and overseeing the story too. And thus the decision’s been made to wipe out the narrative of Terminator 3, Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys. That ironically, Dark Fate is now a film that both sort-of-completes a trilogy and starts a new one, by picking things up following Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

We’ve seen this approach hinted at in the past, and certainly the likes of comic books are expert in it. Neil Blomkamp at one stage was to direct a new Alien sequel, for instance, that would follow directly on from James Cameron’s Aliens, thus rendering Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and those Alien Vs Predator movies narratively redundant in the broader context of the franchise.

Fox in that instance opted to make Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant instead and abandoned the plan (more on that in our podcast episode here). Elsewhere in the Fox catalogue, the X-Men films have skated around rewriting things when they need to, albeit without ever calling in a full-on reboot.

But the Terminator saga has been different. That it’s passed from different corporate owner to different corporate owner has led to different attempts to reinvent it, and dig into its mythology more. Granted, in each case a story has been devised because, fiscally, one needed to be told to justify the expense of picking up the rights. Yet conversely, all blockbuster cinema exists for reasons of commerce somewhere along the line.

However, when it comes to the story of a Terminator movie, there’s fundamentally one core mechanic underpinning it: that the Terminators will not stop. They will keep on coming. They can never really be beaten, either, as they’ll just keep sending another one from the future whenever someone in Hollywood wants to fire off another possible trilogy.

Back in the day, James Cameron knew that his original story idea was pure and singular. Thus, he took the logical story extension for his iconic sequel, Judgment Day. Here, he posited, the Terminators could act as protectors as well as assassins, and told that story. Two Terminators instead of one, up against each other, one far more technically advanced than the other. Cameron’s trick too was that old idea of weaving in three dimensional characters you cared about.

He wasn’t involved in the next three films, of course. The much-maligned Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines I maintain is pretty decent, and had a hugely ambitious ending that I’m not going to spoil. The next two – Salvation and Genisys – threw a lot of plot at trying to pump up that same idea of unstoppable Terminators looking to kill someone. No matter how it’s dressed up, that remains the focus of each movie’s main action, and ultimately, it’s what got people hooked into the saga in the first place. Stray from it? Well, you’re in trouble. Tellingly, the TV show The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the most successful at doing that, but that was ultimately cancelled after two seasons for poor ratings.

Podcast: the behind the scenes story of Terminator 3
Podcast: the behind the scenes story of Terminator: Genisys

Terminator isn’t alone in trying to make much hay from a core idea. Jurassic Park is fighting the same battle. The most successful Jurassic Park films are where there’s a theme park full of dinosaurs, and it all goes wrong. That the one central idea was the key selling point that got us all so into it in the first place, and attempts to stray too far from that haven’t been as successful (although I would say the last film, Fallen Kingdom, definitely took some risks).

And underpinning Terminator: Dark Fate – with no spoilers – is ultimately a feeling that the stakes don’t really matter. The film is clearly an upgrade on the last one, but it’s no spoiler to say that more Terminators come from the future, and the fight is on to defeat them.

But what if they’re defeated? Does it matter anymore? As Duncan Bowles argued in his agree of the film for us, “if the Terminators keep coming, if any victories or alterations to prevent an apocalyptic future are constantly being undone, then what’s the point?”

And he’s right. Because we know that a script conference in Hollywood can undo anything as soon as the balance sheet suggests another movie is viable. Furthermore, given that few franchises have continued being able to pump out hit cinema movies in spite of falling audience response and critical backlash, the formula clearly works (the Alien saga could be bracketed in here too). Kill an advanced model Terminator? No worries, just plop on some extra features, give it a higher model number, and we’ll start again in the next film.

The stakes are damaged here, and Dark Fate continually has to wrestle with that.

Perhaps the way forward, and I’m no screenwriter, is to have a Terminator film that finds a way to take time travel out of the equation.

Perhaps the future resistance can send one of these machines back to the inventor of time travel, and dissuade them from their work. Then, whatever Terminators are in the present when that happens is all we’re going to get. That at least adds some finality to it. If Harry Potter can get umpteen films out of hunting multiple Horcruxes, then there’s a few movies left of Sarah Connor in whatever guise trying to outwit Terminators residing somewhere on the planet.

That won’t ultimately resolve the problem of course, as were that to work, then it’s one script conference away from ‘oh, hang on, this other character invented time travel too!’. But we’re six films into the Terminator film franchise now, and narratively, there’s still little more compelling about it than an absolutely (stoppable) unstoppable machine coming from the future with one mission in mind. No central core idea – not even inventing some batshit operating system – has come close to dislodging that.

Thus, we’re left with a franchise that’s operating on the idea of just building yet another Death Star. And once that Death Star is built, to go through similar motions with usually different people. Yet with each film, appreciating Dark Fate is a real improvement, I think that’s getting exposed more and more. And if Dark Fate succeeds with its ambition to be the starting point of a new trilogy, that need for new ideas is getting really quite critical.

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