CS Soapbox: Should Terminator go back to low budget roots?
The day finally came and passed for Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest attempt at revitalizing the long-running sci-fi action franchise. While critics and audiences did respond more favorably to it than the previous two reboot attempts, it did still wildly underwhelm in its debut weekend, only grossing $29 million domestically. While that might sound like a reasonable number for some movies, the problem is the films’ budgets have ballooned further and further to the point it would take an absolute miracle to draw in enough audience to make the franchise a box office hit once again. What is the solution? Let the Terminator franchise go permanently dark… or go cheaper?
When the Terminator franchise first started in 1984, it only had a budget of $6.4 million, which even for the time was pretty small, but thanks to series creator and original director James Cameron’s quick-thinking and speedy process, he was able to adjust the script to be mostly set at night and work on a tight schedule in order to get the film finished in time. He even filmed the final scene of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor driving down the highway without a permit, having to convince a CHP officer that they were filming a UCLA student film in order to avoid a ticket.
The smaller scale The Terminator received rave reviews from critics and audiences for its non-stop thrilling pace, its more chilling nature and the performances from star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the titular role and Hamilton as Connor. The film also grossed over $78 million at the box office, helping to launch the careers of Cameron and Schwarzenegger and spawn what would become a decades-spanning franchise.
Though the minor budget of the first film helped create some genuine chills, the second Terminator 2: Judgment Day‘s mammoth budget of nearly $102 million (a record at the time) helped create a more fast-paced and larger scale, developing the effects for Robert Patrick’s T-1000 and the more explosive daytime sequences. The film was able to recoup nearly all of its budget prior to release thanks to selling its worldwide rights, TV and video rights for $82 million, and thanks to Cameron’s efficient filmmaking he was able to put the film in theaters in time for the Fourth of July weekend. It set the record at the time for a $52 million Independence Day weekend and would go on to gross over $517 million at the global box office. It received rave reviews from critics and audiences for blending its big-budget thrills with a deep human story.
After this, however, the franchise began to take a downturn as it sought to outdo the ultimate favorite Judgment Day and the first result was the modestly-received Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003, which did what its predecessor did and set the record for being the most expensive movie ever made at $187.3 million. Though it was generally well-received by critics and audiences alike for its exhilarating action, it was lacking the one element that made the first two more than a schlocky set pieces: humanity.
The Beginning of the End
Rise was so full of campy moments and a confused tone that it didn’t try in the slightest to progress the characters in an interesting manner, as the majority of the film felt like one big chase sequence that didn’t attempt to slow down and flesh out its humans, namely Kate Brewster, who is destined to be John Connor’s wife in the future. It was a poor plot element that did nothing to expand upon the legend that is the future savior of humanity.
With seemingly nowhere further to go after the nuclear ending of Rise, the fourth film plotted a course into the post-apocalypse following John Connor’s rise to legend in the fight against the machines with another big-budget venture, Terminator Salvation. With over $200 million dropped on the film, the effects were plenty impressive and critics were sure to point that out as one of the film’s only saving graces, as the story proved to be too predictable – not even accounting the film’s spoiler-filled marketing – and lacked a sense of humanity the first three had.
Though grossing over $370 million at the box office, the film’s lackluster reactions killed the trilogy planned around it and a reboot was once again put into development. Six years later, audiences gave the franchise another chance in the form of Terminator: Genisys. Rewriting all the rules as Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese (portrayed by Michael Biehn in the original) travelled back to the time of the first film, only for Sarah is already caught up and ahead of him on the impending Judgment Day and having to travel to the present to try and save the world.
Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions looked towards the box office receipts on the previous two films and chose to cut down the budget, but only slightly to just under $160 million. With all of its time-traveling nature and mythology-breaking rewrites on display, the plot became too convoluted for fans and critics alike, and the marketing once again gave away the film’s biggest twists, resulting in the worst-received installment yet, despite outgrossing Salvation.
After killing yet another planned trilogy, Skydance’s David Ellison sought out Cameron to help bring the franchise back to life by developing a direct sequel to Judgment Day, and after helping develop the story alongside Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman, David Goyer and Justin Rhodes, we got the now-in-theaters Dark Fate. Though it has seen a lot of headlines lately praising the fact that it’s put the story element back on track compared to the previous three installments, it’s now making headlines for its lackluster opening, which is already set to lose Paramount and Skydance between $100-130 million.
So now the question becomes:
How does the franchise continue from here?
The problem with the past few sequels is that in trying to one-up Judgment Day, the focus has been so much on trying to find a way to make the world bigger and more exciting that its lost its darker, more grounded roots as an intense thriller. It needs to rediscover that feeling of smaller stakes while still delivering a story of large proportions. The original Terminator might not have carried the same “save the world” mentality its follow-up did, but audiences still did get the sense that if Sarah and Kyle didn’t put a stop to the machine, the future did not bode well for humanity.
The first best step in trying to revive the franchise would be to drop the budget significantly. While some projects, namely sci-fi actioners, can benefit from having $100+ million budgets, many end up using the extra money to give more focus to green-screened CGI set pieces, taking away focus on developing its human characters. Tim Miller, who helmed the first Deadpool movie on a narrow budget, made that film work thanks to the creative teaming of Ryan Reynolds and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, but with Dark Fate he lost the key character development that was seen in the Marvel adaptation. Instead, he used the larger canvas to make a more explosive outing that is a mere recreation of the first two movies versus doing something original with the property.
After shrinking the budget, the studio needs to look at bringing in a hungry filmmaker who is used to working with little dough while still delivering both emotionally-involving and exhilarating projects. The list of potential directors should be:
The Terminator franchise should probably take its latest failure as a reason to go on ice for a while and re-evaluate not what they think audiences want from the movies, but what is the best creative direction for the series, even if it means taking things back to basics and delivering a smaller, more character-driven narrative rather than a bland rehash of previous installments.