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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: The Latest 'Terminator' Installment Suffers a Dark Fate Despite a Narrative Win

November 4, 2019
2 min read time

The weekend box office results offer up a sharp storytelling lesson for those engaged in the uniquely Hollywood pursuit that is intellectual property management. 

When a big budget blockbuster that needs to open in the $50 million dollar range just to seem viable, Terminator: Dark Fate is hugely disappointing with its $29 million take on 4086 screens. Not a positive turn for a film that was positioned to get the once great franchise’s wayward narrative back on track.

The tack: bring back series creator James Cameron (who was a story credit) and original star Linda Hamilton (returning as the legendary Sarah Connor), neither of whom have been involved in a Terminator movie since 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Producers were hoping to wipe away the memories of the last few films in the series, which have mostly served to anger long-term fans.

The new film has been hailed by many as a return to form, but the box office results suggest that the stink of the previous movies has affected the audience's willingness to give the Terminator franchise another shot. This speaks to the overall peril of trying to steer the narrative of a property with huge fan investment in 2019.

As seen with the grand success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, factoring fan desires into your storytelling can go extremely well when navigated correctly, and judiciously, as Kevin Feige did with the Marvel properties. But it's only in the last ten years that this approach has become the prevailing method. And even then, nobody—not even Feige—can be said to have perfected the art form.

When Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was released in 2003, studios weren’t openly interested in giving the fans a voice in the direction of a big Hollywood franchise. But the Terminator’s big screen woes were just beginning.

2009's Terminator: Salvation, the first film without (a flesh and blood) Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to re-start a new phase of the franchise set after the apocalypse. The narrative was drastically re-tooled just before production again, and the filmed suffered for it. A new era therefore did not begin. 

Thus, 2015's Terminator: Genisys brought Arnold back in a gesture toward fan-service, but made even worse decisions with the established characters than Salvation, and brought the franchise to a new low.

Which may be why fans are so unwilling to give the new film a shot. Although it makes far superior narrative choices than those seen in Genisys, there is a familiarity to the claims Dark Fate is making about returning the Terminator franchise to previous glory. You can only start again so many times before the macro audience becomes suspicious of such proclamations.

Dark Fate director Tim Miller assembled two writers’ rooms to plot the future of the Terminator franchise. The first one, mainly involving sci-fi novelists, focused on blue sky ideas. The second room, comprised of screenwriters, nailed down the specifics.

That course of action speaks to an admirable desire to place an emphasis on getting the narrative just right for Dark Fate. The irony is they succeeded—the film is amazing—but the prior storytelling crimes are such that audiences may not be willing to give the franchise a chance to show how much storytelling ground it has made up with the new film.

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