The originally planned ending of Terminator Salvation would have made it a much better movie, along with re-energizing the Terminator franchise. Following on the arrival of Judgment Day in 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 2009's fourth chapter in the Terminator saga would be the first in the series to take a deep dive into mankind's future battle against Skynet. It was a brave new world only fleetingly glimpsed in the prior three films, and one that the Terminator series was finally in a position to fully explore.
Salvation would also be the first installment of the series to be released with a PG-13 rating, though that would hardly be one of its major shortcomings. While the movie, which saw an at-best mixed reception, has been criticized on a number of levels, the consensus seemingly comes down to the fact that, despite taking the series into a setting that had only been teased in the previous films, Salvation added very little new material to the Terminator franchise (a sentiment echoed by series creator James Cameron.)
Or did it? While Terminator Salvation may end with John Connor preparing to lead the human resistance after mankind achieves its first real victory against Skynet, the movie was initially intended to end on a drastically different and much darker note. While the original ending would surely have been a major risk and doubtlessly would have left moviegoers in a state of unmitigated shock, it would also have set the series up for a bright future with endless new possibilities.
John Connor Was Originally Going To Die
While Terminator Salvation ends on a relatively victorious note, the movie was originally set to go down a much grimmer road that would have ended the film on a major cliffhanger with the death of John Connor, with his skin, including his face, being grafted onto Connor's ally, the human-Terminator hybrid Marcus Wright, played by Sam Worthington. The ending that was ultimately used for Terminator Salvation sees Connor in a one-man rescue operation on a Skynet stronghold to rescue a young Kyle Reese, a Resistance fighter who, through time-travel, will eventually become Connor's father, as seen in the original Terminator.
It is at this point that Marcus also learns the truth behind his own creation - that he was designed to lure Connor into the Skynet base in order for him to be killed before he can become the leader of mankind's war against the machines. Connor succeeds in rescuing Kyle, but is mortally wounded after battling a T-800 with the same design as the one he was protected by in Terminator 2 (with Arnold Schwarzenegger's face being digitally applied, given that he was still serving as Governor of California at the time.) In the end, Marcus sacrifices his life to save Connor by giving his heart to be transplanted into the future leader of the Resistance.While the ending with Connor's death would have been a jarring enough development on its own, especially for a character that the series had spent three movies establishing as the savior of humanity, that would have only been the half of it.
Following Marcus taking on the likeness of John Connor, his Terminator programming would have then activated, leading him to kill Connor's onlooking allies in the Resistance, including Kyle Reese and Connor's wife Katherine, played by Anton Yelchin and Bryce Dallas Howard. Needless to say, this ending would have pulled the rug right out from under the audience, and would have easily been the most downbeat finale the Terminator series had ever seen. Christian Bale himself has since expressed disappointment in the finished film, while praising the original screenplay as "wonderful". However, had Salvation kept the ending involving Connor's demise, it would have not only significantly elevated the movie, but also charted a radically new path for the Terminator series.
Why Connor's Death Would Have Been The Better Ending
The original ending of Terminator Salvation would have had far reaching implications for the franchise, first and foremost being that it would effectively establish that the timeline laid out in the preceding movies had been massively altered (with the Terminator timeline itself having always been a quite a tangled web for the series.) The ending of Terminator 2 left John and Sarah Connor to believe that the impending apocalypse had been averted, only for Terminator 3 to make clear that they had simply delayed the inevitable. With the ending of Salvation involving Connor's death, it would have become clear that the conclusion of Terminator 2 had taken the future way off-course, with John Connor no longer destined to lead the human uprising against the machines. Furthermore, while the victory of the Resistance had previously been assured enough for Skynet to send Terminators back through time to prevent Connor's birth, the alterations to the timeline seen in Terminator 2 now essentially meant that humanity could very well lose to Skynet in the new timeline.
Had Salvation gone with the original ending, it would have set the Terminator series up to go in virtually any new direction. With the franchise no longer tethered to the legacy of John Connor, it could have introduced one or more new characters to fill the void left by his death, while setting up Marcus as a recurring villain. Conversely, with Marcus having been a human prior to being co-opted by Skynet, subsequent movies could have even gone in the opposite direction and established him as the new protagonist of the series, battling to regain control of his mind and body after fully realizing the puppet Skynet has turned him into.
Whatever new path the Terminator franchise would choose to take at the point, the original ending of Salvation would have created practically unlimited avenues for it to explore. With Salvation ending as it does, even Arnold Schwarzenegger was unimpressed with the film, while Linda Hamilton has described the entire Terminator series after the second movie as "forgettable". With Salvation having failed to set up the next phase of Terminator movies set in man's future war with Skynet, the franchise would end up going back to the drawing board.
Where Terminator Salvation Left The Franchise
Following the lukewarm reception to Terminator Salvation, the bankruptcy of the film's production company, The Halcyon Company, led to a bidding war over the rights to the franchise, with hedge fund Pacificor winning. The series was subsequently rebooted with 2015's Terminator Genisys, with Paramount Pictures distributing. The movie took the Terminator franchise back to the 1984 setting of the original, with Sarah Connor, played by Emilia Clarke, teaming with Kyle Reese, played by Jai Courtney, to prevent the development of Skynet in the year 2017, with help from a reprogrammed Terminator nicknamed "Pops", played by a returning Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raised Sarah in the new timeline established by Genisys. Unfortunately, the film was another negatively received chapter in the Terminator series, while its financial underperformance led to the cancellation of its planned follow-up.
November's Terminator: Dark Fate will mark the latest effort to breathe new life into the Terminator movies, and if early reactions to the film are any indication, it may well finally be the one to pull it off. As far as continuity goes, Dark Fate will ignore every installment in the franchise from Terminator 3 on, serving as a direct sequel to Terminator 2, while also marking the return of James Cameron to the franchise, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. The real hook of Dark Fate is Linda Hamilton reprising her iconic role as Sarah Connor, a fact so heavily emphasized in the marketing that even Arnold Schwarzenegger's return has taken a noticeable back seat (to say nothing of the also returning Edward Furlong being totally unseen thus far.) Additionally, Dark Fate will be the first R-Rated Terminator movie since Rise of the Machines.
The early word-of-mouth on Terminator: Dark Fate may give reason to believe that it could finally be the film to take the franchise back to its glory days. While that's likely to be reassuring for moviegoers disappointed by the more recent Terminator movies, it's hard not to wonder what could have been had Salvation stuck with its initial ending. At a minimum, it would have thrown a very unexpected twist at audiences while opening the Terminator movies to taking the story of mankind's war against Skynet into truly uncharted territory. Ultimately, the effect that jettisoning the original ending of Terminator Salvation would have does illustrate that the very thesis of the Terminator series, "the future is not set", will always ring true.
- Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) release date: Nov 01, 2019