James Cameron is back! The Oscar-winning filmmaker has agreed to return to serve as “godfather” to The Terminator, the seminal science fiction action franchise he created. This is surely good news to Terminator fans, most of whom were left scratching their heads in confusion after witnessing the most recent entry into the franchise, 2015’s Terminator: Genisys. Though Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to reprise the role that made him a box office superstar, few would claim they were left satisfied by the time-twisting direction Genisys took the Terminator franchise in. A year ago, an announcement was even made that Genisys‘ poor box office receipts had terminated the plans for more sequels.
The tale of how and why James Cameron left the Terminator franchise is as gnarled as the Terminator timelines, but the Terminator rights will return to Cameron in 2019. Meanwhile, Terminator: Genisys‘ producer David Ellison is reportedly “bankrolling an exploratory effort that includes engaging some top-flight science fiction authors to find the movie creatively.” In addition, Deadpool director Tim Miller is being courted to direct a reboot/conclusion to the saga. The visual style Miller utilized on Deadpool would seem to be a great fit for Terminator, but the exciting part of the news is Cameron returning to the saga he bid “Hasta la vista, baby!” to in the 1990’s (though he briefly returned to heap generous praise on Genisys.)
Simply put, Terminator needs James Cameron. Though the various sequels have featured time traveling cyborgs, versions of Sarah Connor, John Connor, and Kyle Reese being continually recast, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Genisys starred Arnold Schwarzenegger himself (Arnold also cameos via CGI in Terminator: Salvation), the missing element has been Cameron’s talent, his taste, his vision. Without Cameron’s participation, every Terminator project since Cameron’s blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (including TV’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) has felt like expensive fan fiction – each serving to muddy the waters of the Terminator saga. With James Cameron to oversee the franchise’s creative direction (and, possibly, its conclusion), some of the key issues that have plagued Terminator can finally be properly addressed and hopefully corrected.
The Future Must Be Set
“The future is a black highway at night,” is how the closing moments of Terminator 2 described the unknown days ahead. If only the future and timelines of the Terminator franchise were so straightforward. By the time Terminator: Genisys was done blowing stuff up, it had laid waste to what we knew of the story from the original movie, and had seemingly wiped Terminator 2 and the rest of the sequels from existence. Genisys created a new uncertain future but, frustratingly, left audiences even more confused about what has “happened,” what events (if any) “count,” and what could come next. It doesn’t help that the box office returns for Genisys were underwhelming, which could necessitate yet another reboot.
One of the first things Cameron must address creatively is course-correcting the Terminator timeline. The aspects of the Terminator saga that seem to be irrevocably canon are that Skynet must be built somehow, Judgment Day has to happen at some point (is the date August 29, 1997 now lost to a history that never was?), and that there will be a future war with the machines which involves sending Terminators back through time. What Cameron and his braintrust need to lock down are definitive whens and hows, and then stick to them. It is hard to see how this wouldn’t be cause for further retcons and deleting existing sequels, but perhaps there is a J.J. Abrams Star Trek Kelvin-timeline-like solution to this quandary. Whichever creative direction Cameron takes, it might be a wise beginning to simply apply Occam’s razor to set the Terminator timeline right.
John Connor Needs A Savior
What’s to be done with John Connor, the leader of the future Resistance and the Savior of the human race? Every filmmaker who has taken on the Terminator franchise after James Cameron has struggled with this question. Terminator 3 made John, played by Nick Stahl, a junkie loner. Terminator: Salvation opted to diminish him, making Marcus Wright, the Terminator played by Sam Worthington, the central character of its story. Meanwhile, John Connor as portrayed by Christian Bale was revealed to be just “a leader” of the Resistance, who takes orders from a general in a nuclear submarine played by Michael Ironside. Salvation went so far as to introduce “a prophecy” about Connor as the Messiah.
Terminator: Genisys took an even more controversial route with John Connor, turning humanity’s savior into that film’s villain by transforming Connor, portrayed by Jason Clarke, into a Terminator. Genisys‘ John Connor was the time-traveling, shape-shifting avatar of Skynet itself. The lack of chemistry between John’s parents in Genisys, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), also seemed to indicate that they wouldn’t eventually procreate, therefore John Connor would never be born. Rather than a Messiah, the filmmakers who have helmed Terminator after James Cameron have treated John Connor as a pariah.
It seems the only Terminator filmmaker who ever truly understood the John Connor character is his creator (who granted John Connor his initials when naming him). When writing Terminator 2, Cameron decided to focus the story on a 12 year-old John (Edward Furlong) trying to emotionally connect with his hardened, distant warrior mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and finding an unlikely father figure in the Terminator sent back in time to protect him. Terminator 2 was hands down the best, most emotionally resonant story told about John Connor. Terminator: Genisys seemed to wipe Terminator 2 from the timeline, thereby erasing the Edward Furlong version of John. Perhaps James Cameron will seek to restore John Connor’s central, heroic role in the Terminator franchise his successors have tried to eradicate.
A New Female Hero?
James Cameron has been gifting moviegoers with kick-ass, female heroes since the 1980’s. Though he created Sarah Connor as a helpless 19 year-old waitress who needed to be protected from a time-traveling killer cyborg in the original Terminator, it was Sarah who terminated Arnold’s original T-800. Cameron redesigned Sarah as a ripped, revolutionary soldier in T2. In between Terminator movies, Cameron directed Aliens, presenting Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley as a xenomorph-killing warrior who goes toe-to-toe with the Alien Queen. Cameron also turned Jamie Lee Curtis into a gun-toting secret agent in True Lies and gave a young Jessica Alba her first starring role as a genetically engineered super-soldier in Dark Angel. And let’s not forget that it was Kate Winslet’s Rose, not Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack, who survived the Titanic.
It’s possible, rather than continuing the story of Sarah Connor in Genisys, Cameron may just attempt to create a brand new female action hero. After all, Emilia Clarke has stated that she will not return to portray Sarah in future Terminator movies. This would require recasting Sarah Connor yet again (although one would think working with James Cameron would have enough allure to cause Clarke to reconsider). However, the Terminator franchise could likely benefit from some fresh blood beyond the Connor family saga, similar how to positively fans responded to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story taking place outside the storytelling confines of the Skywalker family. If anyone can successfully introduce a new hero to the war against the machines, it would be James Cameron, and if he does, it would certainly be no surprise if that new hero is female.
It’s James Cameron!
Let’s face it, there are superstar directors… and then there’s James Cameron. Cameron inhabits a lofty echelon of filmmaking success that not even Steven Spielberg can quite match. Though he has directed exactly two feature films in the last 20 years, those two films happen to be Titanic and Avatar, firmly perched atop the list as the two highest grossing films worldwide of all-time. Cameron is also at the forefront of technology in filmmaking and moviegoing. With Avatar, he spearheaded the revolution of 3D, and has grand plans to push 3D technology even further with his planned Avatar sequels.
Most importantly, from a creative standpoint, Terminator is James Cameron’s brainchild. Everything about this universe of time-traveling killer cyborgs sprang from his imagination and his talent as a filmmaker. Everyone who ever tried to make a Terminator movie (or TV series) stood on James Cameron’s shoulders… and eventually tumbled. Perhaps only Cameron himself has the clarity of vision of what the Terminator story should be, and how it could potentially continue (or end) in a satisfying manner that doesn’t continue to cause confusion in an already convoluted timeline. He’s certainly had 25 years to think about it, and Cameron has at least another couple of years to ponder and rally whatever creative team he assembles before the Terminator rights revert to him.
With or without Arnold Schwarzenegger continuing to portray the Terminator, and even if he isn’t sitting in the director’s chair, James Cameron overseeing Terminator offers the best possible future for the franchise. As Sarah Connor herself said in 1984, “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope.”