Why fans will never get to see another Terminator movie

It's hard to believe it's been more than 30 years since James Cameron made The Terminator, but several movies down the line, the franchise has started to lose its steam. The reasons for this are complex, ranging from questions about creative approach to the performance (or lack thereof) when it comes to the sequels. Cameron told an amazing story across Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day, but not all franchises are meant to run for five (and counting) different movies.

Let's dig in to how Terminator got off track, and what Hollywood might be able to do to get it back on.

The last few sequels were pretty much terrible

Let's start with the obvious reason we may never see another Terminator movie: The past few sequels were pretty much total train wrecks. Things started to go downhill with 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the first sequel to make it to the big screen without original director James Cameron at the helm. The movie wasn't terrible, but looking at the story, it was wholly unnecessary. It was basically about trying to delay Judgement Day, then realizing it was inevitable. Nothing changed.

Splashy action director McG was hired to helm 2009's Terminator: Salvation, which somehow managed to make the most compelling piece of Terminator lore (the action-packed, future-set battle with Skynet) utterly boring. A full-on pre-boot was attempted with Terminator Genisys, which served as a muddled throwback to some visual elements from the first film that only seemed to remind fans of what they were missing. Sequel after mediocre sequel has taken a toll on the fanbase, to the point that proposed Genisys sequels were actually dropped from active development after the critical bashing the film took after hitting the big screen in 2015.

James Cameron was pretty much done after Judgement Day

If you track the downfall of the Terminator franchise, it's pretty easy to see where things went wrong: Cameron's exit after Terminator II: Judgment Day. It's worth noting Judgment Day is arguably a better movie than the first Terminator, and it probably should've all ended there. Cameron made Terminator with the idea of it essentially being a one-off story, but revisited the world with Judgment Day several years later, after finally landing on a story he felt was compelling enough to tell. Despite the fact that we've had three more movies since then, obviously the man who created this universe didn't feel they were quite worth coming back to tackle. Isn't that telling? When asked about the various sequels that have followed, he said he's not a "big fan" of those movies, and doesn't feel they "lived up to that potential." Most fans would seem to agree with him.

The fundamental concept doesn't work as a film franchise

The first Terminator film was about a guy sent back in time to protect a woman from a killer robot. Yes, there were world-ending stakes, but it was a fairly small story with just a handful of characters. With Terminator II: Judgment Day, Cameron hit the zenith of this concept, turning the core conceit on its head by making the unstoppable killing machine a good guy this time around, and finding the humanity in this robot. Cameron knew he needed to focus on the characters, not the time-traveling shenanigans, to tell a compelling story; once everybody can travel through time to change things before the other group changes things, it all falls in on itself. Cameron's Terminator films weren't really about time travel. They were about destiny, and humanity. That's a point pretty much every subsequent sequel has failed to grasp.

It ran out of big ideas to tackle

Cameron's first two Terminator films actually dealt with human themes. All these sequels after that? Well, they either focused on whiz-bang action, or made a shallow attempt at revisiting the first films' vision. There aren't a limitless amount of big ideas to tackle out of the core concept of Terminator, and at some point you have to realize Cameron has already hit the big ones—and did about the best job anyone could, considering. There's a reasons fans flocked to Cameron's Terminator films: They were big, fun sci-fi movies, but they were also smart. That last part is what most of the new sequels have forgotten.

It's getting tougher for Schwarzenegger to play an unstoppable robot

Hey, you have to give Arnold Schwarzenegger credit: he's pushing 70 years old, and still suited up to play the Terminator in Terminator: Genisys. For a senior citizen, he still makes a fairly compelling killer robot. But you have to realize the guy was in his 30s when he first played the Terminator. People change a lot over several decades, and that's even more relevant when you're supposed to be playing a machine. Yes, they tried to explain that away in Genisys by saying the skin around the Terminator's metal skeleton would age just like anything else. Sure, okay. That makes some sense. But, even in the best of shape, it's going to be hard for Schwarzenegger to keep pulling off the action scenes required for this franchise. Schwarzenegger is a key component of what makes these movies so successful, and it's getting harder to reasonably fit him into the narrative.

They made the franchise too PG-13

The first two Terminator films wore their R ratings like a badge of honor, catering to adults with dark stories not afraid to feature some violence and language. So fans were not happy when the past few Terminator films earned a PG-13 rating from the MPAA, and for good reason. It's obviously tempting to go the PG-13 route—an R-rated film is limited to an audience of 17 or older, while PG-13 releases can attract viewers from a much broader demographic. But to reach that threshold, they had to dumb down the rough edges that made Terminator what it is. It's a delicate balance to strike, and it's happened to more than a few franchises (see Die Hard as another glaring example) over the years. After two mediocre PG-13 stories, the Terminator franchise doesn't mean what it did a few decades ago.

It really works best as a TV series

Ironically enough, Terminator was arguably at its best when it wasn't on the big screen at all. Fox adapted the franchise into a television series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, in 2008. For all intents and purposes, it really shouldn't have worked as well as it did, but The Sarah Connor Chronicles tapped into all the elements that made the first two films great, focusing on characters instead of time-travel gimmicks. We got the family dynamic of Judgment Day via Sarah and John, plus the story of a robot seeking humanity thanks to Summer Glau's Cameron. Where the movies kept going bigger and wider, The Sarah Connor Chronicles told small, character-focused stories like the first two films. Despite critical acclaim, Fox pulled the plug due to flagging ratings after two seasons. Even worse? It ended on one heck of a cliffhanger.

The law of diminishing box office returns

It turns out if you keep churning out bad movies, the public will eventually stop turning out to see them. Who knew? The past few Terminator films have failed to generate much box office buzz, despite ballooning budgets and massive marketing campaigns. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines pulled in $150 million in the U.S., and it only went downhill from there. Terminator: Salvation made $125 million in the U.S., and the latest sequel, Terminator: Genisys, scored a mere $89 million. Ouch. Hollywood leans on known franchises because they're more bankable brands than unknown commodities, but sometimes even the name brands run out of steam. In the wake of Genisys' failure, the smart money is sadly no longer on Terminator.

The franchise is more than 30 years old

The first Terminator film opened in 1984, and a lot has changed in the more than 30 years since. The 20-somethings who watched the first Terminator at their local cineplexes are now in their 50s. Heck, a fair number are grandparents now. This franchise has been around for a long time, and a whole new generation of fans have grown up watching Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys—and you'd have to imagine there's not nearly as much of a reverence for this franchise if you didn't head out to your local theater to see Terminator II: Judgment Day in 1991.

The movies got too big in scope

Looking to the past two sequels, narrative scope has really become one of the biggest problems with the Terminator franchise. The first two films told relatively small stories where the big bad was one robot out to kill a family. Sure, the entire future hung in the balance, but the story was small. All that changed with the past two sequels. Terminator: Salvation was set in the future and saw John Connor and his soldiers literally taking the fight to Skynet in an effort to retake the planet. Terminator: Genisys took a similar route, albeit a more confusing one. What started out as a twisty story about a few people quickly turned into a huge conspiracy with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, complete with even more time-traveling assassins. Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day worked because one robot was scary enough. By upping the stakes by 1,000 percent, they ruined the claustrophobic scope that made the first few films work so well.

Special effects are no longer so special

it's getting harder and harder to make a movie stand out, and the past two Terminator movies certainly suffered from CGI fatigue. They followed the beats of pretty much every other CGI-bloated, PG-13 action movie, with ever-expanding action set pieces that coalesce in a whole lot of explosions and noise. Which makes sense, in a way, since those films were largely designed to check the same boxes as films like the Transformers sequels. But the past few Terminator films didn't really feel like Terminator films—they felt like pretty much everything else. Stripping away the character that drew fans to this franchise in the first place left it as little more than a bland imitation of what came before.

But there's hope

Though the situation looks dire now, there's still hope for fans wanting a return to form for the Terminator franchise. The reason? The rights to The Terminator revert back to Cameron in 2019, since it'll be 35 years since the release of the first film. There's obviously no guarantee Cameron would want to tackle another Terminator, but given the freedom to do whatever he wants with the franchise, you'd think it could be tempting. No telling how he'd fit it in among the four pending Avatar sequels that have him locked in through the early 2020s, but it's good to know the option exists. At the very least, Cameron could exert a good bit of creative control and pass on the directorial duties to someone of his choosing. Whatever Cameron might choose to do, it can't be much worse than the past few sequels, right?