More than a decade before he was the King of the World™, James Cameron was marooned in Italy, a 20-something filmmaker faced with the very real possibility that his nascent career was already finished. He had just been fired from his first directing job, a hot little mess of a film called Piranha II: The Spawning, which had meddlesome Italian producers, a microscopic budget, and a plot about ravenous piranhas that had developed the ability to fly. His prospects were dim.
“I couldn’t get a call back from anybody. I was absolutely dead in the water,” Cameron would later recall. “I knew that if I was ever going to direct a movie again, I was going to have to create something myself.” And lo, he had a vision: a robot, emerging from a raging fire, with clumps of human flesh falling from its metallic frame. Cameron had the spark he needed.
He crafted a story about a killing machine that had been sent back from the future to hunt a young waitress through gritty pockets of Los Angeles, fusing together elements of science fiction, slasher flicks, and paranoid ’70s thrillers. But studios didn’t exactly line up to hand Cameron financing to bring his idea to life; even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor whom Cameron wanted to play the sinister cybernetic organism, was reluctant to sign on, because he worried that being cast as a villain would be career suicide. (He’d also been told that another big name had been lined up for the part: O.J. Simpson.)
Cameron eventually won over Schwarzenegger, and landed his funding, a meager $6 million from the now-defunct Hemdale Film Corporation. “They had to kind of scratch together another $500,000 because they ran out of money,” Schwarzenegger tells me. “It was really a nothing kind of movie in the beginning.” But in October 1984, audiences got their first look at The Terminator. The opening 60 seconds offered a chilling glimpse of Los Angeles, 2029: howling winds, a tank rolling over human skulls, the zewww-zewwww of laser cannons that were fired by drones at soldiers across a landscape of shadows and twisted debris. Humans had been knocked to the bottom of the food chain by sentient machines that could murder without remorse.
This was a dystopian future, even more bleak than the ones depicted in Blade Runner or Escape From New York—and people loved it. Terminator was an instant hit, hauling in $78 million; it proved that a violent action movie could tackle weighty questions about fate, free will, and the dangers of artificial intelligence. Everything about Schwarzenegger’s performance—the sunglasses, his deadpan delivery of “I’ll be back,” the scene where he pulled! Out! His! Eye!—was iconic, and he became the face of a franchise that spawned four sequels, a TV show, and amusement park attractions, presaging an era when superheroes would have multibillion-dollar cinematic universes.
Speaking of those superheroes: Marvel and DC have so thoroughly taken over Hollywood, with their deep benches of characters who possess fully realized mythologies and endless pre-existing narrative roadmaps, that the Terminator franchise has struggled in recent years to prove it is still relevant, a quandary shared by many of its action/sci-fi peers from the ’80s. Sequels, prequels, and reboots of those films keep arriving in theaters like clockwork, but more often than not, they offer half-baked scripts that can’t hold a candle to the originals that previous generations grew up rewatching on VHS. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm—appearing in 2021’s Jurassic World 3—Hollywood executives get so preoccupied with whether or not they can revive old franchises, they don’t stop to think whether they should.
Now Terminator: Dark Fate is attempting to navigate that rocky terrain, promising to bring a meaningful, even emotional, end to the tale that Cameron began 35 years ago. The film ignores the events of the past three sequels—Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys. It’s the narrative equivalent of saying you don’t want to talk about the terrible things you did when you were drunk on Saturday, a device that Danny McBride and David Gordon Green used to great success with 2018’s Halloween reboot. If Dark Fate is a success, it would be a rarity, an ’80s revival that sticks the landing. If it flops—according to no less an authority than Cameron—the movie could “look like a shameless cash grab.”
As it happens, the actor who might have the biggest hand in shaping the outcome is also the one who’s been missing from the big screen for 28 years, and needed the most convincing to return to the franchise: Linda Hamilton.
Schwarzenegger is the franchise’s avatar, but Hamilton’s Sarah Connor—the waitress who learned in the first film that she would give birth to John Connor, the future leader of humanity’s resistance—has always been Terminator’s tortured heart. “I think that it would have been better probably having Linda Hamilton every time in a movie,” Schwarzengger says, “because she’s such an important part of the story.”
In 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, she had the meatiest role, embodying Connor’s evolution from a frightened young woman on the run to a steely, PTSD-riddled survivor. She’d been institutionalized by men who laughed off her warnings about an impending catastrophe, and was estranged from the son she wanted to protect. Hamilton played Connor as a bundle of raw nerves, her pain turning to fury in a scene where she describes to a smarmy psychiatrist the nightmares she has about Skynet’s nuclear attack on humanity. “It’s going to feel pretty fucking real to you,” she hisses. And then she had to work with a Terminator, albeit a friendlier one who’d been tasked with protecting a teenaged John.
“She’s a woman in hell,” Hamilton says during a phone interview, on an October afternoon. “The fact that so many people wanted to be like Sarah Connor after the second film was shocking to me, because I know that that woman is carrying such a load, and fear for mankind, and fear for her son. It’s hardly heroic.”
Between Hamilton’s gutsy performance and the groundbreaking special effects that animated the T-1000—a shapeshifting, liquid-metal Terminator—Judgment Day was a blockbuster, grossing $520 million, more than any other film in 1991, including Beauty and the Beast and The Silence of the Lambs. If you were alive then, it likely won’t surprise you to learn that the Terminator was also the highest-selling Halloween costume that year, a measure of the story’s pop culture dominance. (According to my calculations, the film regrettably led to an 800 percent increase in people ending their conversations with, “Hasta la vista, baby,” for several years.)
But then the franchise vanished from the big screen, and the zeitgeist shifted. Nicolas Cage, in all of his bug-eyed glory, became the de facto action star of the ’90s for a while, and by the time Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines arrived in 2003, hobbits and adolescent wizards had taken over the box office.
The third film still earned $433 million, but without Cameron’s involvement, or Sarah Connor—who was given a dismissive off-screen death—the story, pitting Schwarzenegger against a female Terminator, lacked the visceral urgency of the first two films. “They had written a script for the third installment with Sarah Connor in it,” Hamilton says. “But it really wasn’t worth coming back. It didn’t really send us in any new terrain. And it just sort of felt kind of thankless.”
Terminator Salvation followed in 2009, and will likely be remembered only for Christian Bale’s “Ohhh, gooood for you” on-set meltdown, which entered the Valhalla of Memedom thanks to a leaked audio recording. That film failed to jump-start a new trilogy, as did 2015’s Terminator Genisys, which yammered on and on about “nexus points” and alternate timelines, and had Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke cosplaying as a young Sarah; it raked in $440 million, but just $89 million in the U.S., a sign of eroding domestic interest. “Even when we did [Genisys], Jim Cameron pitched them a story,” Schwarzenegger says, “and they were too stupid to go with that story.”
But Terminator wasn’t the only franchise that disappointed when it tried to elbow its way back into multiplexes. Two of Paul Verhoeven’s best films, RoboCop and Total Recall, were rebooted within the past decade; lacking his lurid visual effects and deeply weird humor, both fell flat. Ridley Scott’s plans for an Alien prequel trilogy ran aground after a second installment revealed the once-mysterious xenomorphs were just the product of a creepy android’s genetic experiments. A Shane Black–helmed Predator sequel was overshadowed by his controversial decision to give a role to a sex offender without telling the rest of the cast, and the film itself was too disjointed to be mentioned in the same breath as the Schwarzengger-starring original. “I’m really more of a reader than a film-goer,” Hamilton says. “So I don’t understand all of the reboots, really.”
More than a month before Dark Fate arrived, Sylvester Stallone delivered Rambo: Last Blood, which offered a fresh lesson in what happens when a franchise strays too far from its roots in a last-ditch bid for glory. David Morrell, the author whose 1972 novel, First Blood, introduced the character of John Rambo, told me that he and Stallone started kicking around ideas for a new movie, the fifth in the film series, several years ago. “[Stallone] wanted it to be soulful,” Morrell says. “The tone we wanted was one that might’ve been welcomed at Sundance. A film festival Rambo.” Perhaps Rambo, who started out as a Vietnam War veteran, haunted by trauma and forced into using his lethal skills as a last resort, could find a peaceful coda. Instead, Last Blood proved to be a film so mindless and savagely violent that Morrell tweeted that he was “embarrassed to have my name associated with it.” The film is the franchise’s lowest-grossing.
For most ’80s reboots, the chief goal is to simply avoid a very public face plant. “Usually the people who are really equipped to do that,” Schwarzenegger notes, “is someone like Jim Cameron.” In 2017, Cameron—whose sequel bona fides include writing Aliens and Rambo: First Blood Part II—returned to Terminator as a producer, and set about trying to untangle a story that had grown too complex for its own good. After riding motorcycles together one day, Cameron told Schwarzenegger he’d recently hit upon the idea for a new film, and wondered whether Schwarzenegger would return as the T-800 again. “Then he said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to bring Linda back,’” Schwarzenegger recalls. “So I said, ‘This is really great.’”
But Hamilton, in her early 60s and living a happily quiet life in New Orleans, was no shoo-in. When Cameron asked her to reprise the role she’d made famous, she demurred. “I sat with it for a very long time,” she says, and eventually became convinced she might have something interesting to add to the mix after being away for so long. “The only thing I wanted from this film was to not let Sarah Connor down,” she tells me. “I am so not results-oriented. I don’t care about the box office—I mean, I do, I guess. I want people to see it. But my obligation was to Sarah Connor.”
Hamilton’s first hours on set, though, filled her with dread. She learned that Cameron—who was filing chunks of the script remotely—had just rewritten the scene they were scheduled to film, creating continuity holes that took all day to sort out. The script was worked on throughout production, with the narrative sometimes changing on the fly. “To wrap my mind around it, and to trust that it was all going to work out, was just a whole new way of working,” she says. “And it just took years off my life. Because I care! And I know every moment. I know where I’ve been [as Sarah], and I know where I’m going, and I link them all together truthfully.”
For any franchise that attempts to close one nostalgia-laden chapter and begin another, the trick is getting audiences to invest in new characters. Dark Fate director Tim Miller doesn’t waste time on a meandering buildup; he opens with Sarah Connor in the aftermath of Judgment Day, receiving another gut punch from life, and then jumps the story ahead 20 years, to Mexico City.
It’s there that the new cast takes center stage: Natalia Reyes’s Dani Ramos, a young woman who is Very Important to humanity’s future; Mackenzie Davis’s Grace, an “enhanced” human sent back from war-torn 2042 to protect Dani; and Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9, a Terminator who can split himself in two. Grace and the Rev-9 face off soon after they appear on screen, first in a Mortal Kombat-esque battle in an auto factory, and then a bombastic, fiery highway chase.
On that same stretch of scorched blacktop, Hamilton gets to make her dramatic entrance, practically strutting out of a beat-up SUV to blast the Rev-9 offstage temporarily. The tight pacing smartly mirrors the original Terminator, which knew exactly what it was—a sleek, almost claustrophobic thriller, unconcerned with trying to set up future installments. “When we did the first one, no one thought it would ever come back, or that the movie ever would be remade, or that the sequel would be made, or anything like that,” Schwarzenegger says.
After their run-in with the Rev-9, the three women retreat to a skeevy motel, where Connor matter-of-factly sums up her backstory: “I hunt Terminators, and I drink till I black out.” Like Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in last year’s Halloween reboot, Connor isn’t trying to cover up her emotional scars; instead, she uses them as blunt tools to carve out a sense of purpose. “I mean Jim at one point was considering sort of a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit [for Sarah]. Drunk all the time,” Hamilton says, giving way to a smoky, mirthful laugh. “And that was intriguing for a few minutes. But really, the idea of weapons and alcohol was not the story we wanted to tell.”
Miller tries his hand at social commentary here and there. Dani has an uncle who works as a coyote and helps his niece, Sarah, and Grace, cross the Mexico-U.S. border. Crowded detention center cells serve as a backdrop for a few scenes, but this allusion to the real world’s immigration crisis doesn’t get dissected any further. Sarah, Grace, and Dani form a fearsome, all-female trio, flipping the franchise’s usual testosterone-heavy formula on its head.
Dark Fate doesn’t rush to reunite Hamilton and Schwarzenegger, but when they finally do link up, their repartee gets some of the film’s best laughs. He’s still a Terminator, but more Pinocchio than assassin—a creature named Carl who passes himself off as human, has a drapery business(!), and lives in a tidy cabin with a woman and her son. On paper, it seems very un-Terminatorlike, but Schwarzengger welcomed the change, and plays the new notes with the right amount of irony. “Jim was always very much interested in having an evolution in the Terminator character, not always showing him the same way,” he says. “I couldn’t have come up with that idea.”
That Hamilton carries so much of Dark Fate is probably its best attribute. She spent a year preparing for this updated version of Connor, “going to some deep and dark places” to recapture the character’s psyche. “I would walk my dog around my New Orleans neighborhood, and inside, my monologue was pretty much like, ‘Who wants to fight?’ I was so ready to bring it,” she says. Most of the action sequences are kinetic—an extended airborne battle, however, strains credulity several times over—but no one expects a Terminator film to beat Marvel at the CGI game.
The enduring gift that Cameron left all of his successors was a premise that has grown from fanciful science fiction to sobering reality: a world ruled by machines. From the home assistant on your dining room table to the artificially intelligent weapons systems that are being developed by the U.S. military, Terminator films have a subject matter that has real-world resonance, something that Predator or Star Wars can’t claim. The question is whether a studio can find a way to spin an interesting story around that raw material.
This time, the effort is largely worth it. Hamilton doesn’t let down Sarah Connor, or fans fond of the character, and Miller mostly delivers what you want out of a Terminator movie. When I ask Hamilton if this is her last appearance as Connor she blurts: “God, I hope so! I hope there’s closure.” But in all likelihood, if Dark Fate succeeds, there will be more Terminators rising from fiery carnage, like some unholy phoenixes, at a multiplex near you again. No one understands this better than Schwarzenegger. “If I’m asked to come back,” he says, “I’m back.”
David Gambacorta is a writer-at-large at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, Longreads, and Philadelphia Magazine.