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Can the Terminator franchise be saved?

And do we actually want to save it at this point?

Illustration featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator” (1984), the metal terminator, and Arnold Schwarzenegger from “Terminator: Dark Fate.” Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Orion Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Lightstorm Entertainment

The Terminator absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. But the Terminator franchise looks like it’s about ready to grind to a sad, rusted halt. Terminator: Dark Fate, which finally brought star Linda Hamilton and producer James Cameron back to the franchise, was a major box-office disappointment. So was the previous effort to reboot the franchise, 2017’s overly complicated, poorly spelled Terminator: Genisys. It’s been close to 30 years since the last successful Terminator film, and studios have to be wondering whether it’s time to scrap the obsolete machinery and focus on more successful, up-to-the-minute cyborg properties like the Six Billion Dollar Man.

Yanking the Terminator’s power cell wouldn’t be a tragedy. The two original, near-perfect James Cameron movies are still available for streaming on the latest technology, for anyone who needs a remorseless-android fix. Still, in a pop culture world heavy with scrubbed-clean superheroes, noble Chosen One saviors, and happy endings, the Terminator franchise does at least potentially offer a grimy, uncompromising vision of apocalyptic hope. So far, it’s failed to compete with the big-budget tentpole extravaganzas, but it might be worth retooling the series to see whether a scrappier retro approach might not beat the slicker, smoother models.

The Terminator, as the franchise’s backstory dumps reveal, is an android built in the future to target and murder human beings. The original 1984 film explained that an intelligent AI called Skynet was destined to seize control of the world’s atomic armaments and incite a nuclear war, mostly destroying the human race. A brave resistance led by a man named John Connor eventually defeats Skynet amid the rubble of the future.

But the AI, in a last ditch attempt to win tomorrow, uses time-travel tech to send a robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to the past to kill Connor’s mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), before he’s born. The resistance in turn sends back a human to protect Sarah Connor. The later movies are mostly variations on the theme, with Skynet sending back more and more powerful robot models, and the resistance sending back good-guy robots, or (in Dark Fate) enhanced humans.

So what aspects of the Terminator series make it worth rebuilding? First and foremost, the original movies are compelling because they bolt slasher horror-movie dynamics to a new industrial chassis. The Terminator is Michael Myers with a metal skin and a science-fiction backstory. Rather than a mysterious, mystical killer, the Terminator is a rationalized fear. It keeps coming because it’s a metaphor for technology, devoid of human feeling or human weaknesses. The first two Terminator films have a hard-edged, bleak air of futility. Stabbed, shot, burned, frozen, blown up — the Terminator keeps coming, and its victims keep running.

And the audience’s knowledge that the apocalyptic future is coming gives the series a terrifying sense of despair — especially when most of the series’ bystanders refuse to believe in it or act on it. The most effective image in any of the films is probably Sarah Connor’s dream of a playground full of oblivious victims, obliterated in the coming nuclear holocaust. The high likelihood that the heroes will fail to prevent the apocalypse, even if they defeat their enemies, has also led the series to articulate an unusually fierce belief in free will. Sarah scrawls “No Fate” on a table, and spends Terminator 2 trying to ensure her son never has to be the hero he’s supposedly fated to become.

Later movies stalk around these issues like a broken machine, or a neurotic human. Is Skynet inevitable? Can you make choices that will shift a seemingly inevitable future? Can humanity be persuaded to act in its own interests, or will its short-sightedness naturally lead to self-destruction? In the Terminator franchise, victory is always provisional, and the nightmare is always reassembling itself. What other franchise ends most of its films by killing off its star, confident that a new Terminator will come along as a replacement?

Terminator’s inherent themes are resonant and still relevant, but the franchise has struggled to find compelling scripts to draw them out without repetition. It’s also had trouble casting compelling stars, as Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger have wandered in and out of the series. They’re both back for Dark Fate, which is also better written than its predecessors. But the public has apparently lost interest over the decades. There isn’t enough of a core Terminator audience to pay back a tentpole budget.

But the original Terminator wasn’t big-budget. It was made for only $6.4 million. If studios want to keep the franchise going, maybe it’s time for a lower-risk strategy. Rather than a complicated reboot with layers of added backstory, it’s time to just return to the beginning, perhaps with an added upgrade or two.

Blumhouse Pictures had great success with a new Halloween film. The studio’s low-fi approach could work for a remake of the original Terminator as well. A smaller effects budget might help recapture the 1984 movie’s clanking horror-movie roughness — Blumhouse’s excellent 2018 film Upgrade could be a good model. Smart casting could help generate buzz as well. Ruth Negga would make a great Sarah Connor. Dwayne Johnson would be an obvious choice for the Terminator, but it could also be fun to go against type with someone able to project more idiosyncratic creeping dread, like Billy Bob Thornton or Lena Waithe.

Remakes often feel pointless. But the Terminator franchise is about reshaping the past, and the first movie’s plot is ripe for reconsideration. The 1984 film is built on a time-loop mechanism; the Terminator helps bring about the future it’s trying to prevent. The future is a fixed mechanism; the efforts to transform it are already built into the system.

But later movies call that dynamic into question. If Sarah can prevent Skynet in T2, maybe someone else could stop it even if Sarah died before John was born. What if the Terminator, going through the phone book, gets the right Sarah Connor immediately, and the movie focuses on him chasing down the wrong one while she tries to change the future? In the first movie, a provisional happy ending today testifies to the certainty of a nightmare future tomorrow. A smart script writer could play with that balance, perhaps being more ruthless in the present and more hopeful about the future, or offering more uncertainty about both.

There’s no way to know whether a more imaginative approach that departed from the core canon would make the Terminator franchise a hit again. Perhaps its elimination is already preordained. But the series manages to solder together despair and hope in a way that’s rare and riveting, in its grungy kind of way. It seems worth going back to try to save it, at least one more time.

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