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Why is it so hard to make a hit Terminator movie again?

Arnold Schwarzenegger aims a rocket launcher out of a car window.
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines Robert Zuckerman; Warner Bros.

He said he’d be back, didn’t he? On July 2, 2003, The Terminator finally made good on his promise. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the blockbuster sequel that turned 20 this month, brought James Cameron’s sci-fi action franchise into the 21st century, albeit without the involvement of Cameron himself, nor that of two of the stars of the previous installment in the series, Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong. What the movie had going for it was the hulking man in biker black: A dozen years after he last donned the leather and shades, Arnold Schwarzenegger reprised his signature role, the literal killing machine with the oddly Austrian accent, the bad robot gone good, the T-800.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991, had been an era-defining hit, propelling Hollywood into a new age of digitally achieved wonderment. Would T3 reshape the future too? Not so much. Rise of the Machines wasn’t a flop, exactly — it did healthy business in a summer packed with smashes. Yet the movie couldn’t match the box-office success of its predecessor, even with the advantage of inflation and ever-climbing ticket prices. Both domestically and globally, it fell short of what T2 made. And it set a trend of diminishing returns that would haunt the franchise going forward, as every attempt to recapture the success of T2 proved even less successful.

Diminishing returns

All the Terminator movies after the second have been commercial disappointments, to say nothing of their critical reception. Remarkably, each has made a little less than the one before, at least in the U.S. And yet every five years or so, some executive gets the bright, hopeful idea to try again, returning to the story of future messiah John Connor and his time-crossing resistance to the sentient, genocidal AI Skynet.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines - Trailer 1

T3 essentially banked on just doing T2 again, but louder, with a couple of nominal hooks: Beyond the opportunity to see the fabled Judgment Day unfold before us (a disappointedly anticlimactic affair), Rise of the Machines also offered a goofy spin on the token, unstoppable bad guy of the series. Here, she was an unstoppable bad girl, a slinking femme fatale. Somehow, that gender flop didn’t translate into record-breaking enthusiasm.

Next came 2009’s Terminator Salvation, which glommed onto the prequel craze by, paradoxically, racing into the future, with the star of another successful origin story, Christian Bale, now cast as a John Connor who hasn’t yet sent Kyle Reese (the late Anton Yelchin) into the past. Salvation was designed, in Schwarzenegger’s absence, to launch a new trilogy set during postapocalyptic wartime. But that plan was scrapped when then-current rights owner Warner Bros. saw the box-office numbers. (If the movie endures at all in the public imagination, it’s for Bale’s infamous on-set outburst.)

From there, the Terminator fell into the hands of Paramount, which would also try for a new trilogy, before pivoting to a different approach. Dropping Arnold back into the fold, but surrounding him with an otherwise new cast, 2015’s widely maligned Genisys offered fan service comparable to that of the same year’s Jurassic World and Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens — which is to say, a lot of winking references to past entries. It, too, failed to connect. And so, just four years later, along came Terminator: Dark Fate, a true legacy sequel in the Halloween (2018) mold that retconned the events of every other sequel since T2, reuniting Hamilton and Schwarzenegger, and getting Cameron back on board, though only in a “story by” capacity, not as writer or director.

Terminator Salvation Trailer 3

Perhaps this stubborn refusal to let the machine go permanently offline hinges on the perplexing open question of the franchise’s underperformance. Why, exactly, is it so hard to make a hit Terminator movie again? Shouldn’t that premise be more renewable, more exploitable?

The Cameron/Arnold factor

Cameron’s lack of involvement hasn’t helped. The average moviegoer might not clock his absence, let alone hold it against an upcoming sequel, but they’d still notice the difference he made, even in ads. Beyond his talents as a filmmaker, Cameron has succeeded in making every new movie of his look like a major event on the horizon. One glimpse of the T-1000 in action was all it took to know that T2 was going to be an unmissable special-effects spectacle, something truly new. None of the Terminator movies since have remotely hinted at the possibility that they’d be taking blockbuster cinema into uncharted territory.

If T2 was an event, the sequels since have been reruns. They all have their faint pleasures — the muscular (if impersonal) action of Rise and Salvation, the geeky time-travel hijinks of Genisys, the general poignancy of Hamilton’s performance in the otherwise unremarkable Dark Fate. But in ways big and small, each is plainly operating in the shadow of the second movie.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

With T2, Cameron performed maybe the most dramatic level up in blockbuster history, putting every element of his lean, mean, low-budget 1984 original on steroids. He also found an irresistible sequel hook that couldn’t be matched or replicated by the series afterwards: the way T2 flipped the allegiance of The Terminator, putting him on humanity’s side — a reverse heel turn spoiled (perhaps wisely) by the trailers, and made in sync with Schwarzenegger’s development into Hollywood’s then-reigning headliner.

Speaking of Arnold, he’s almost surely the most reliable draw of these movies (he even shows up in Salvation, sort of, as a digital phantom), but he’s also probably the element that most underscores their status as yesterday’s flavor. For Schwarzenegger, T3 was a last hurrah, his final star vehicle before he temporarily traded Hollywood for a career in politics (he’d win the race for California governor just a few months later). It certainly felt like a big deal in 2003: the one-time biggest action hero in the world returning to the series that helped earn him that title. But the film’s inability to top the previous movie also felt like a reality check on his stardom — an early sign that an actor who had climbed to fame on the strength of his, well, strength would not maintain his same ability to open a picture as time took its toll on his physique.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS | Official Trailer | Now on Digital HD, On Blu-ray Nov. 10 (HD)

The later sequels have openly acknowledged this reality; it’s arguably the most interesting, endearing thing about them. Obsolescence becomes text and subtext as a perfect manlike specimen, a robotic Hercules, grapples aloud with his deteriorating physicality. The later movies are even forced to turn the toll age has taken on Schwarzenegger into a plot point, explaining why a perfect cybernetic weapon would have the body of a man in his 50s, then 60s, and now 70s. Again, it’s a fascinating turn for The Terminator to take. But are audiences really stoked to see Hollywood’s ultimate icon of rippling masculinity age slowly out of his action-figure appeal?

The future has arrived

Perhaps Terminator has always just been a movie franchise of a certain age, not as easily thrown into another as its temporally displaced heroes and villains have been. The peak popularity of the series is inextricably tied to Schwarzenegger’s heyday, and maybe to the special-effects renaissance of the late 1980s and early ’90s. More than that, maybe the series captured a very specific moment in the history of technological anxiety — a time when it felt like we were dangling on the cusp of complete reliance on computers. Cameron, back then, could still issue warnings about the future.

But that future has arrived. The machines won — not with an apocalyptic hail of nukes, but with a total overthrow of our lives, a complete domination of how we communicate, function, even think. Recent developments in AI are proving the ultimate prescience of Cameron’s vision, while also rendering any continuation of it quaint and essentially pointless. That was the real arc of the franchise, steadily dipping in popularity as real-life Skynets solidified their hold over every aspect of modern existence. If we get another Terminator movie in a couple years, right on schedule, will it take Arnold’s journey from villain to hero even further, with a true flip in sympathies? Prepare to cheer for the machines in Terminator Reborn, written and directed by ChatGPT.

The Terminator movies are available to rent, purchase, or stream from various services. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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