This week sees the anticipated release of Terminator: Dark Fate. Following in the footsteps of last year’s Halloween sequel, Dark Fate is going the route of ignoring every sequel that has come our way since Terminator 2: Judgement Day, bringing Linda Hamilton and original creator James Cameron (operating as producer this time out) back to the franchise for the first time since that 1991 blockbuster classic. That means that the sequels we did receive, 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 2009’s Terminator Salvation and 2015’s Terminator Genisys are now all made redundant, put out to pasture, with Cameron himself making the statement that they just so happen to be taking place in alternate universes (time-travel, Hollywood’s ultimate scapegoat).
It would be fair to say that all three of the post-T2 movies have had a somewhat mixed reception from fans and general movie-going audiences. While all three made money (to varying degrees of success) each one struggles to match the heights of Cameron’s originals, as well as kinda fumble attempts to move the franchise forward, both as a result of complicated rights issues and lacklustre responses. But are they as redundant as both their reputations and new reboot approach to Dark Fate suggest? Let’s open them up and assess their CPU’s to see just what it is each of these installments has to offer, and just where it is they drop the ball. Spoilers will follow.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Dir: Johnathan Mostow, 2003)
Box-office: $433.4 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 69%
Plot: John Connor (Nick Stahl) helped prevent Judgement Day, but he still can’t help but live in the fear of a future that could still come to be. Those fears are realized when he becomes the target of the new T-X (Kristanna Loken), sent from a future where Judgement Day was merely postponed. Of course, the resistance of the future is able to send back a protector in the form of a reprogrammed T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
James Cameron: No Cameron. After a bidding war for the rights, and the success of a certain Titanic, Cameron felt no pull to come back to the franchise he started, despite Arnold asking numerous times.
Pros: Easily my favourite of the three films here, Rise of the Machines is a really solid chase movie, with some decent action beats, a game performance from Schwarznegger and a nice sense of dread that seeps in once the final act starts going into gear. It is in the final act that Rise of the Machines really comes into its own, as it opts to go down a route that is surprisingly bleak and sombre, handled with a patient and Earth-shattering effect as John Connor and Claire Danes’ Kate have to witness Judgement Day unfold, while they wait it out in a bunker and get ready for the future war to begin. Yes, it kind of undermines the ‘no fate but what we make’ philosophy of the first two movies, but the blow is delivered so well that you can’t help but be genuinely surprised by it. It also sets up a future for the franchise that did initially seem intriguing, but more on that in a bit.
Cons: T3 has the hard task of having to follow in the footsteps of T2, one of the most celebrated sequels of all time. That pressure seems to get to it as it goes about its chase movie beats, hitting them with proficiency, but in a manner which clearly is trying to hold a candle to T2 but just can’t. It also struggles to balance its thrills with humour, often resorting to levels of self-parody instead of anything all that witty. Stahl is also not the most engaging lead, with Danes putting in the more memorable performance of the two. The T-X itself also feels more like a thinly thought out design by individuals struggling to top T2. It’s all perfectly ok, it just ain’t T2.
Terminator Salvation (Dir: McG, 2009)
Box-office: $371.4 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 33%
Plot: The war against the machines rages on, and John Connor (Christian Bale) is fast becoming the figure he has been destined to become all his life. His fight in the resistance becomes all the more complicated when he discovers a half-human, half-cyborg in Marcus (Sam Worthingotn), a man with no memory of the war beginning and of his transformation. There’s also the matter of protecting his own future father Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) from being discovered by Skynet and putting an end to John’s life before it even begins.
James Cameron: No creative involvement from Cameron on this one either, although he did recommend his Avatar star Sam Worthington for the role of Marcus.
Pros: There’s no denying that seeing the future war play out over the course of a whole film is interesting to fans of the franchise, and some of the action beats do deliver. There’s a nice sense of grungy aesthetic to the proceedings, and some fine performances within, particularly from Worthington in a promising early role and the ever great late Anton Yelchin as young Reese.
Cons: Storywise, things unravel pretty quickly here, with the film’s dedication to adding to the mythology of the franchise weighing it down and becoming more and more convoluted as it goes along. It particularly falls apart when you begin to pick apart its very thin logic that drives many of the plot developments (just how can Skynet know Reese is John’s future father?). The loss of Arnie can also be felt, particularly in the rather desperate attempt to CGI the Austrian Oak into the proceedings. This is also a rare off performance from Bale. His John Connor is lacking in charisma, with a performance largely driven by shouty speeches and a gravelly stoic voice. Ultimately though, the film just becomes so tangled in its own threads that it ends up feeling like a dull chore to get through. The disappointing box-office, and again more rights confusion, led to the cancellation of a future war set trilogy, leading to a reboot to slowly take shape.
Terminator Genisys (Dir: Alan Taylor, 2015)
Box-office: $440.6 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 26%
Plot: The resistance has brought Skynet to its knees. In their desperation, Skynet has sent back a Terminator to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of resistance leader, John (Jason Clarke), before she even conceives him. John sends back his most trusted soldier, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect his mother. Although when Kyle arrives he’s met with a Sarah he didn’t expect, one that is expecting him has been raised by a Terminator and is battle-ready to fix the future.
James Cameron: Not involved, although he did put out a rather awkward publicity video expressing his support for the film. He has since come out and said he only did the video out of loyalty to his friend Arnold, so take the endorsement with a large pinch of salt.
Pros: The opening act of the film is actually a well-paced and intriguing remix of elements from the previous films to deliver something kinda cool. The manner in which it goes about recreating scenes from the original Terminator is impressively detailed. The initial way it starts to deliver a sequel that plays with the classic elements of the franchise, in a fashion not dissimilar to The Force Awakens, does offer a fun approach, before the story itself ends up tying itself in knots. Schwarzenegger also puts in a performance that’s truly quite charming, with his old Hollywood charisma shining through with a dry wit.
Cons: After a promising first act, the film kinda veers off a cliff as more and more time travel shenanigans occur, with the action eventually settling down by having our core characters travelling to 2017, only to meet a John Connor who has been turned into a new Terminator (a plot twist that could’ve had more effect if it wasn’t shown in every trailer). It all ends up just becoming a repeat of ‘tool up, chase, fight’ action beats, as it quickly demonstrates that it doesn’t have a lot of original ideas to play with beyond its remix reboot approach. Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney also feel quite miscast, failing to spark chemistry and drowning in all the CG driven nonsense. It becomes a pretty tough watch and becomes quite easy to see why this didn’t spark more direct follow-ups, despite a strong overseas box-office.
After so many stop-starts in the franchise, maybe it will be the return of both James Cameron and Linda Hamilton that’ll finally get it on a track that sticks. Or maybe it’ll just end up being a further demonstration that this is a franchise that said all it needed to say back in 1991. Time shall tell, but at least there’s a blueprint here from the franchises own past about what can work, and what simply doesn’t. Whatever we get, I’ll be back, everytime, perhaps rather foolishly.
Terminator: Dark Fate hits UK cinemas on October 23rd.