If only we had a time machine like the one used by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s menacing T-800 in 1984’s thrillingly bleak and minimalistic Terminator, the first and arguably best instalment in James Cameron’s sci-fi saga. We could travel forward to 2030 and find out whether Cameron’s plan to revive the ailing man v machines franchise ends up having any (hyper alloy endoskeleton) legs, or is doomed to be lowered further into searing molten steel.
Cameron announced last year that the only Sarah Connor who ever mattered (at least on the big screen), Linda Hamilton, will reprise the role for his return to the franchise, with the sixth Terminator film. And yes, Arnie will also be back, though that is now less likely to get fans’ robot eyes glowing red with pleasure than before the release of the disappointing Terminator Genisys in 2015.
The new film is also being pitched as the first in a new trilogy of Terminator movies, all of which will thankfully ignore everything that happened since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. That is the last episode with which Cameron had any involvement, beyond his ill-judged hype-man role for Genisys. If you were a massive fan of Kristanna Loken’s feminatrix, or Christian Bale’s super-shouty take on John Connor, you are bang out of luck.
Watch James Cameron talk about Terminator Genisys
Perhaps aware that he hasn’t made good on his promise to bring us a new Avatar film, eight years after announcing the expansion of the 2009 3D space fantasy into a triptych, the Canadian film-maker has recruited Deadpool’s Tim Miller to stand in for him as director while he plans multiple new adventures for the denizens of Pandora and their swishy, USB-compatible tails. News on the first of the new Terminator episodes has been thin on the ground over the past year, but some interesting snippets have now leaked out. The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Mackenzie Davis, of Blade Runner 2049 and the head-spinning San Junipero episode of Black Mirror, will play a soldier-assassin type on a mission in the new episode. T6 will be set partly in Mexico City, and producers are said to be looking for a Latino actor for a big role.
Relocating the saga from its California base sounds promising, not least because it might signal an end to the constant obsession with Judgment Day that has arguably ruined each episode since T2. Every screenwriter since 1991 has seemed to think that a set date for the machine apocalypse is an essential part of the Terminator mythos, leaving us with a conveyor belt of cyborgs and mad dashes to avert the end of days. (Unless one counts the post-apocalyptic Terminator Salvation, which managed to be even more hideous by showing us what happens after the machines destroy civilisation.)
Surely they would have warned about the dangers of putting nuclear weapons in the hands of artificial intelligence?
Yet the last time we saw them, in 1991, John and Sarah Connor appeared to have destroyed Cyberdyne’s big laboratory and therefore averted the likelihood of Skynet achieving self-awareness. Surely their next step would have been to warn the world about the dangers of putting nuclear weapons in the hands of artificial intelligence, thereby averting Judgment Day for ever?
The three failed Terminator movies since T2 have taught us that the truly fascinating period to be explored is the one just before the machines take over. It is no coincidence that shows such as Westworld and Humans, as well as movies such as Ex Machina, all take place in a future that still looks remarkably like the present. By removing Judgment Day from the equation, and replacing it with a slow-burning march towards the machine apocalypse, Terminator can remain within this fascinating purple patch for as long as possible, rather than smacking us round the chops with an irreversible big bang that requires a narrative reset with each new movie.
Where this would leave Schwarzenegger, without the need for him to turn up as yet another friendly version of the T-800, is open to question. But if Cameron really is insisting on trotting out his old pal one last time, it would be thrilling to see him restored to the role of merciless robot menace that made the original Terminator such a frozen-hearted, steely joy.
Imagine emerging naked from our time machine a few years hence to discover that the film-maker and his team had produced a trilogy of grim and minimalistic entries, packed with fresh ideas and as terrifyingly stark and grounded as the saga once was. One wonders, in an era in which cerebral sci-fi such as Alex Garland’s excellent Annihilation cannot even get a theatrical release outside the US, whether such an outcome is possible.
The odds are probably against it, but they were also against Sarah Connor back in 1984. And she still managed to crush that evil Arnie-shaped metal abomination in a hydraulic press.
Arnold Schwarzenegger finds a hot spot in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991. Photograph: Allstar/Tristar