James Cameron’s Terminator franchise has been running for 35 years. Starting in 1984 with the groundbreaking The Terminator, it was followed up seven years later by Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a film that capitalised on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star power. Originally Schwarzenegger was reluctant to play a villain, especially taking on machinelike qualities. The sequel enabled him to revert to hero status, adding further complexity to the role and cementing the actor as a Hollywood icon. Schwarzenegger’s built his career on diligence and passion for everything he did from bodybuilding to acting, something James Cameron appreciated with the stars re-teaming for True Lies.
Passion is something that the Terminator series has lacked since T2 burst onto the scene. A masterpiece within the sci-fi fantasy adventure realm, Cameron’s vision was realised with the film and visual effects still holding up by today’s standards. It was clearly ahead of its time for 1991, with a number of progressive aspects relating to character and narrative.
While the series has seen many attempts at a reboot, the most effective of which probably was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it just hasn’t been the same without Cameron at the helm. While signing on as a producer and being a background player, he has only really got behind Terminator: Dark Fate, forging the Terminator universe and ignoring a host of sequels in the process. What Cameron brought to the project was sheer passion, which unfortunately hasn’t been able to be matched. Hiring directors and writers, who may appreciate the Terminator world, every effort has paled in comparison to the first sequel.
It’s difficult to see another film managing to rival what was achieved in terms of the magic of T2, which has recently been re-examined in terms of its screenplay as it relates to the final product by Screenplayed. Hollywood is ultimately a place of business, which is why the bottom line is critical when it comes to box office returns. The world of Terminator luckily can be reinvented with infinite possibilities, using the time travel dynamic to adjust objectives, advancing technology and even rewrite history. The commonality has always been Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, which is why he appears once again as a supporting act in Terminator: Dark Fate.
A veritable mascot, it does seem that he too has lost the spark of passion and twinkle (or was it red) in his eye that he once had earlier on in the series. Unfortunately, while a high profile production, something has been lost in translation. Hiring people to create a vision that wasn’t originally theirs just makes the job seem a whole lot more professional. Without that creative freedom, having to adhere to certain trademarks and stylistic choices, the restraints probably numbed the joy of putting together the sequel. While laden with impressive visual effects, with a welcome return for Linda Hamilton, and an adept director in Tim Miller coming off the hugely successful Deadpool, it seems a bit forced.
There really is no substitute for pure passion, which is something one has to acknowledge in the writing process. Having the creative freedom to dream and build your own vision makes it much easier for you to fall in love with the characters, world and story you’re creating. Unfortunately, this luxury isn’t reserved for everyone with some writers having to make a living bringing other people’s visions to life. Being commissioned to take the story from one point to another obviously has its rewards, but it must be difficult to breathe new life into a host of characters who already have a fixed history.
Bowing to audience expectations and the wishes of film financiers, it’s a tricky balancing act. You want your screenplay to sizzle, but it can easily become a case of having too many writers in the writing room. Nitpicking, reworking and bringing it all together can become something of a burden when so many voices are trying to have their say. This is obviously something that one needs to learn to live with when working in a team, but it can be quite ineffectual. There are benefits of working with the team where one is able to test ideas and action improve the material. However, depending on the type of direction things can easily change during the shooting process and one can’t be too precious about their work.
With so many people coming together to realise a vision and to suspend an illusion for the enjoyment it brings to film-goers, there’s a fine balance in keeping your entire team motivated. You could have cast members who aren’t bringing their best for whatever reason, you could have an indifferent director doing a half-hearted job because of creative differences and when it comes to contractual obligation, there can definitely be a working-to-rule element at play. This is what it feels like in Terminator: Dark Fate, which while proficient and entertaining even in spite of its flaws has a half-hearted feel.
Resurrecting characters from the original, trying to spawn new stars, appeasing fans of the franchise as well as winning new recruits, the pressure to deliver something mind-blowing must have been immense. While there are hints of things it could have been, it does feel quite watered down with an over-reliance on CGI and an insubstantial air. Thinking of the reboot that was Logan under James Mangold, it almost seems as though going for the standard Terminator story with a few bells and whistles was never going to be enough. The central problem does seem to be a lack of passion for the source material, origins, characters and intended meaning. Whether through dilution from too many stakeholders, executive redesign or salvaged work, Terminator: Dark Fate just doesn’t have enough depth or meaning to truly resonate.
Having as many hits as misses when it comes to writing choices, it comes across as safe and perfunctory, relying on the relentless pursuit in order to carry the story rather than delving deeper into characterisation. While they attempt to maintain the same wry sense of humour with one-liners and inside references, they don’t land with the vigour or charm you would expect. It’s a bit difficult to figure out exactly what went wrong, but the net result is underwhelming and this isn’t the reboot that James Cameron probably intended. Perhaps it’ll take the writer-director and producer to actually add his signature beyond the point of simply being a stakeholder for it to emerge with everything just right.