Can James Cameron turn back time on The Terminator franchise? That question adds major intrigue to this morning’s teaser release for Terminator: Dark Fate (Nov. 1), from Skydance Media and Paramount Pictures, which reunites Cameron with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton and resets the franchise that minted the filmmaker’s blockbuster reputation in Hollywood.
Cameron is back with the R-rated sci-fi series for the first time since 1991 and while he’s not directing (that job belongs to Tim Miller of Deadpool success) he did write the story treatment and took a hands-on producer role. That has stirred the hearts and hopes of disillusioned Terminator fans – and it’s a good bet both their pulse rate and their faith will soar while watching Miller’s evocative teaser.
The teaser shows Hamilton back in action as bad-ass Sarah Connor but she’s not the only powerful female figure in the film. She’s joined by Grace (Mackenzie Davis) as a glowering protagonist from the future who holds her own against a shape-shifting Terminator model in a high-speed highway showdown. Hamilton shows up to lend a high-caliber assist but it’s clear that she doesn’t know what to make of Grace. “Never seen one that looks like you,” Conner mutters after the smoke clears. “Almost human.” The newcomer, who doesn’t recognize the mother of John Connor, rejects the appraisal: “I am human.”
The nature of Grace’s humanity and the origins of her more-than-human capabilities are mysterious (maybe she’s Alita!) but she’s not the only walking riddle presented in the teaser. Schwarzenegger himself appears in the closing moments of the preview montage but he’s silent and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard that makes for a scruffy departure from his android’s traditionally sleek visage. Unless the actor plays more than one role in the film, his appearance raises a philosophical question: When androids sleep do they grow electric whiskers?
The teaser shows Miller’s gift for intense action scenes with both narrative clarity and screen velocity, attributes that often don’t coexist. Cameron wrote the story treatment that guided a writers room that teamed Josh Friedman (creator of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) with David S. Goyer (co-writer of the Dark Knight trilogy), Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray. (The story is credited to James Cameron & Charles Eglee & Josh Friedman and David Goyer & Justin Rhodes. David Goyer & Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray share the screen play credit. Cameron and David Ellison are producers. The film also stars Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta, and Natalia Reyes.
The teaser suggests that, like Mad Max, Alien and Blade Runner, another venerable R-rated sci-fi brand name is getting new life with a 21st century revisitation that directly involves the franchise’s original auteur.
This December marks the 35th anniversary of The Terminator, which established writer-director Cameron as an elite sci-fi storyteller and a spectacle specialist of lofty cinematic ambition.
The Orion Pictures film opened in 1984 in a holiday season flooded with sci-fi releases (among them Dune, Starman, 2010, Supergirl, and Runaway) that all boasted bigger names or brand-name source material. It was The Terminator, however, that stood the test of time – that’s the appraisal, at least, of the Library of Congress, which in 2008 added The Terminator to the National Film Registry.
The 1984 movie’s title character was an implacable T-800 android assassin sent back through time with dark purpose – a role that catapulted Austrian-born bodybuilder Schwarzenegger to a new level of stardom (following two Conan movies) despite less than 20 lines and fewer than 100 words of dialogue. Hamilton also found a signature career role in the film: Sarah Connor, the unsuspecting Reagan Era target of the time-jumping T-800 (who hails from 2029, a year that sounded fairly far-flung back in 1984)..
The first film grossed $78.3 million in worldwide box office and then became a fan-favorite title in the booming home video marketplace, which set the stage for the sequel, T2: Judgment Day, and its massive next-level success as the top-grossing release of 1991. To that point, the sequel’s $32 million opening weekend was the second-largest in history (it trailed only Tim Burton’s Batman). The worldwide box office of T2 went on to surpass $520 million thanks in large part to Cameron’s exacting quest for truly game-changing digital effects. That same quest would later propel Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) to the very top reaches of Hollywood’s all-time box office chart.
Cameron moved on after T2 but the franchise continued its march without its resident visionary. Three sequels of debatable merit and diminishing returns followed: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003, Terminator Salvation in 2009 and Terminator Genisys in 2015. Now, in the producer role, Cameron has returned with Terminator: Dark Fate, which resets the franchise by picking up the narrative after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Time travel is all the rage these days but that wasn’t the case in 1984 when The Terminator was ahead of its time, so to speak. The 1984 movie didn’t introduce time travel (it had been around for decades as a plot device) but Cameron’s success gave Hollywood a newfound comfort with the sci-fi trope as a mainstream play. Universal’s Back to the Future opened nine months later.
This year’s biggest film and television happenings, Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones, have each incorporated time travel in prominent fashion and with poignant effect during the course of their respective sagas. Paramount’s Star Trek and Fox’s X-Men have used time travel to hit the reset button on their screen mythology, effectively wiping the slate clean on franchise canon.
The presumption is that Terminator: Dark Fate will nullify the post-Cameron mythology in much the same way. If the movie clicks, a plan is ready to widen the story out into a full trilogy, which would carry the brand toward its 40th anniversary with new energy…and time to spare.
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