The future is what we make it, but what about the unmade Terminator sequels that would have followed Salvation, Genisys, and Dark Fate? Mark finds out.
This feature contains spoilers for all of the Terminator films, including Dark Fate.
The original Terminator trilogy comprised three movies released in three different decades. For all the flaws with Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3, a well-made sequel that nevertheless comes up short next to James Cameron’s films, it’s probably the best of the post-T2 sequels.
The franchise now numbers six entries, with the addition of three different trilogy-starters, distributed by three different studios, with three different creative leads, all in little more than 10 years. Salvation, Genisys, and Dark Fate were all intended to kick off sequel trilogies, but whether it was down to rights issues or audience apathy, none of their respective follow-ups came to pass.
In the workings of a franchise machine that absolutely will not stop ever, until we are dead, we can be thankful that simply remaking the 1984 original remains an unthinkable option for now. Heck, the series has tied itself in knots just to keep Arnold Schwarzenegger involved beyond the reasonable playing age for a mass-produced cyborg.
But where would these new creative directions have taken the series if they had come to fruition? Here’s our look back at the Terminator trilogies that never were…
Setup: 15 years after Judgment Day, in the far-off future of 2018, upstart resistance captain John Connor (Christian Bale) encounters an experimental human-Terminator hybrid named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is protecting John’s teenage father Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) from Skynet.
What went wrong? Despite being the worst-reviewed movie in the franchise up to this point, Salvation was a decent-sized hit at the worldwide box office in summer 2009. However, when Terminator rights holders The Halcyon Company went bankrupt later that year, the rights changed hands and Salvation‘s most lasting impression on pop culture was the ubiquitous leaked audio of Christian Bale ranting at cinematographer Shane Hurlbut.
What would have happened next? Unlike the films that followed, Terminator Salvation is about as linear a sequel as you could expect from such a circular narrative. It picks up roughly after Rise Of The Machines left off but feels like more of a reboot than it ought to because of casting changes.
As well as being the only entry in the franchise that doesn’t feature Schwarzenegger, (outside of a cameo from a CG double anyway) it’s unique in its lack of time travel shenanigans. So, what did director McG have in mind for the untitled Terminator 5 and 6?
“One of the problems is that in a post-apocalyptic world, everybody’s a little bummed out,” he told IGN in 2009. “Everything went haywire. So, the idea is to play with one of the tried and true rules of the franchise – time travel – and introduce it in this picture.”
In further statements around the same time, McG suggested a fifth instalment would play around with the timeline that was largely respected in Salvation. This time-travel adventure was going to send Bale’s Connor back to a pre-Skynet 2011, the same year as the sequel was intended to be released. Even though Salvation acknowledges that Judgment Day took place in 2003, the idea was to revisit the contemporary chase-movie style of previous instalments.
This needn’t have broken the franchise, but the minds behind Terminator 5 also intended to show Skynet figuring out how to send non-infiltrator Terminators back through time, meaning that the war machinery seen in countless flashforwards would invade our present. In case you don’t see what a bad idea that would be, ask yourself why they wouldn’t have just sent a Hunter-Killer back to get Sarah Connor in 1984, if that ever became possible?
Speaking of Sarah, McG intended to retcon her death, which occurred off-screen before Rise Of The Machines, and have Linda Hamilton return for the fifth film. It also would have featured Robert Patrick as a 60-year-old scientist who is researching cell replication, as if a shapeshifter like the T-1000 would need design inspiration to begin with.
As it stood, McG had two potential projects lined up between completing Salvation and Terminator 5 – one was a James Cameron-produced remake of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the other was a screen version of the rock musical Spring Awakening. Neither of those films materialised, but due to those pesky rights issues, (which we’ve covered more extensively elsewhere) neither did his take on Terminator 5.
After it became apparent that new rights holders Annapurna Pictures would be pursuing a new take, with Schwarzenegger once again front and centre, Dark Horse Comics released a 12-issue sequel series titled Terminator Salvation: The Final Battle. Written by J. Michael Straczynski, the story picks up threads involving Connor, Wright, and Helena Bonham Carter’s Dr Serena Kogan, and ultimately ties all loose ends back into the circular narrative of the rest of the series.
Setup: Time is in flux during the dying days of the war against the machines, as an alternate-universe version of Skynet (Matt Smith) sends a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor as a child. Tumbling into an alternate 1984, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) discovers that Sarah (Emilia Clarke) was raised by a reprogrammed T-800, (Schwarzenegger) while back in his own time, John Connor (Jason Clarke) has also been assimilated.
What went wrong? All editorialising about the film’s quality aside, Genisys got an even colder reception from critics and audiences than its predecessor. While Alan Taylor’s film took a leaf out of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek in a bid to kickstart a rebooted trilogy, the back-to-back sequels that had been dated for 19th May 2017 and 29th June 2018 were quietly removed from Paramount’s slate after the film underperformed at the international box office.
What would have happened next? “For us, this is Terminator 1, this is not Terminator 5“, said Annapurna executive David Ellison, describing the filmmakers’ approach to the intended trilogy. Despite bringing Schwarzenegger back into the fold, Genisys was very much hyped as the start of a new series based on Cameron’s original two films. If nothing else, it’s a curious move to acknowledge that the film is overwriting the two cast-iron classics that kicked off the franchise during the film – it didn’t prove to be a popular choice.
Writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier were charged with coming up with the new trilogy and while doing press rounds for Genisys, they were emphatic in saying that they had a three-film arc for this new alternate timeline. Indeed, they claimed that they knew the last line of the third movie but were understandably unwilling to reveal what it was at that point.
As mentioned, Genisys sets up some of the questions that would percolate throughout the next two films, like where the alternate version of Skynet had come from (or rather, why he didn’t bring a fez and a mop to tidy up this timey-wimey nonsense). Smith’s role in the finished film amounted to an extended cameo, but the mid-credits scene was devoted to showing that Skynet’s new Genisys form had survived in 2017, and the sequels were supposed to explain where it had come from.
Notably, the film sees our heroes trying to avert yet another Judgment Day in 2017, which is when the first sequel was supposed to turn up. Unlike the causal loop established across previous instalments, the many-worlds version allows for further alterations to the mythos, so Kalogridis and Lussier would pretty much have had free rein on the sequels.
It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Part 2 would have seen Judgment Day come to pass again, with the alternate-universe Skynet avoiding the mistakes of previous versions, so that Part 3 could deal with the immediate aftermath, perhaps having other characters hop between timelines too. Although the sequels were dated and a complementary TV spin-off series was announced, the film’s box office put paid to any plans to answer the film’s dangling plot threads.
And so, what little else we know about the planned Genisys sequels has largely come from the actors involved. For instance, we know that Dayo Okeniyi’s Cyberdyne whiz Daniel Dyson was set to play a larger part and that JK Simmons filmed pick-up scenes in Genisys to make it clearer that his character survived, ahead of a more important role in the sequels. But the biggest clue we’ve had so far comes from Jason Clarke, who lamented that he didn’t get to explore the T-5000 version of John Connor any further.
He told Collider in 2018: “What I remember was that second one was going to be about John’s journey after he was taken by Skynet…like going down to what he became; half-machine, half-man. That’s where the second one was going to start, and that’s about all I knew. It’s such a bummer we didn’t get to do that.”
By contrast, his namesake and screen mother Emilia Clarke was much more contentto be free of the Terminator franchise machine, claiming in a 2018 interview that she was relieved that the film didn’t do well. Elsewhere, Ellison brought James Cameron back on board as a producer to have another run at the franchise that made his name…
Setup: Utilising the same many-worlds approach to liberally ignore everything since T2, Dark Fate opens with a shattering postscript to Cameron’s last film and then picks up 22 years later, as Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) encounters a new saviour of humanity, Dani Ramos, (Natalia Reyes) and her cyborg-hybrid protector, Grace, (Mackenzie Davis) on the run from a Terminator sent by a different, non-Skynet AI called Legion.
What went wrong? Pivoting from Trek to Star Wars in its “legacyquel” tack, the film drew much warmer reviews all around, but had the lowest box-office opening of any Terminator film since the first one in 1984. Many box office prognosticators blamed franchise fatigue with the third would-be trilogy-starter on the bounce, but all told, Paramount and Skydance Media declared a loss of $130 million on the film.
What would have happened next? As you’d expect from Cameron, he was a hands-on producer, proving instrumental in co-writing the story that Deadpool director Tim Miller went on to make. Indeed, before Dark Fate, the producer reportedly sat down, just as he has with his as-yet-unreleased Avatar sequels, to hammer out a three-film arc with writers Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, David Goyer, and Justin Rhodes.
Cameron’s main reason for returning to the Terminator franchise was to address the ever more topical relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. But by his own admission, Dark Fate doesn’t get around to that, instead tacitly acknowledging the stray timelines of Salvation and Genisys by suggesting that some version of this conflict has happened before and will happen again, until something fundamentally changes in that relationship.
He further explained: “We know where our storyline is going in broad strokes. The “innate conflict” that the future Terminator films will have to resolve, will be the ultimate – and inescapable – showdown between humanity and A.I.”
The first sequel was pencilled in for “early 2022” by producers’ estimates, but that was before the film turned out to be a financial write-off. By the end of Dark Fate, Sarah and Dani drive off towards an uncertain future, (again) but behind the scenes at least, it seems as if Cameron and his co-writers had made preparations to ensure that the film worked as a standalone story, but also that they didn’t paint themselves into any corners If the series continued.
The only area in which things seemed more ambivalent about the sequels was Schwarzenegger’s return – in its second half, the film introduces a T-800 model that feels like the logical extension of “Uncle Bob” from T2 and goes to some lengths to start that this time, he “won’t be back”. And yet when asked, Cameron cheerfully said that he could find some way to bring Arnie back, they gladly would.
However, Dark Fate belatedly brings the franchise back to the realisation that Sarah Connor, not the Terminator, was the protagonist of the original film, so we’ll leave the last word to Hamilton. In January 2020, she stated that she’s more or less finished with the franchise after the latest film’s underperformance.
She told The Hollywood Reporter “I would really appreciate maybe a smaller version where so many millions are not at stake. Today’s audience is just so unpredictable. I can’t tell you how many laymen just go, ‘Well, people don’t go to the movies anymore.’ That’s not Hollywood analysis; that just comes out of almost everybody’s mouth.
“It should definitely not be such a high-risk financial venture, but I would be quite happy to never return. So, no, I am not hopeful because I would really love to be done.”
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