Will Terminator: Dark Fate End Up Hurting James Cameron's Avatar Sequels?


James Cameron is still a brand name filmmaker, but there are some chinks in his armor after Terminator: Dark Fate. He did not direct the movie, but he was heavily involved before Tim Miller's filming and during editing -- and he has taken credit for one twist that upset several fans. I've even seen some fans say Cameron's deep role in Dark Fate made them less excited for his Avatar sequels.

I wasn't expecting that. I'm not at all rooting for James Cameron or his Avatar sequels to fail -- and there are certainly Terminator: Dark Fate defenders -- but now I'm wondering if the current box office disappointment may actually hurt the long-term Avatar plan.

I still think Avatar 2 will clean up at the box office -- even just for the curiosity alone of how James Cameron will follow-up his former highest-grossing movie of all time. But I'm now slightly less sure James Cameron will still please enough fans to continue for as many Avatar sequels as he'd like. He already filmed Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 and put dates on the board through 2027 for Avatar 4 and Avatar 5. But he also acknowledged that making Avatar 4 and Avatar 5 will depend on box office returns of the first two sequels.

After all, James Cameron envisioned Terminator: Dark Fate to start a new trilogy and it doesn't look like that will happen now. And there were -- maybe still are? -- plans for Alita: Battle Angel to continue, but the box office numbers haven't been where any producer would want them to be. Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 will need to be BIG to justify continuing from there, considering the Avatar sequels are estimated to cost at least $1 billion to make.

James Cameron will always be a legend, but he could use a new win. His reputation for churning out blockbusters is potentially in doubt, since it was a full 10 years ago when Avatar took over from his other film Titanic as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Plus, he did take responsibility for at least one of the controversial choices of Terminator: Dark Fate...

Spoilers ahead for Terminator: Dark Fate.

James Cameron told the L.A. Times it was his idea to kill off John Connor at the start of Terminator: Dark Fate:

I said, ‘Let’s take him out in the first 30 seconds. They’re sitting in a pizzeria, a Terminator walks in and blows him away. You’re one minute into the movie.’ Everybody went, ‘Really? You want to do this?’ I said, yes! You pull the rug out from underneath the entire construct that’s been going on for the last three decades.

It was a bold choice to abruptly kill off John Connor, and it worked for some Terminator: Dark Fate viewers ... but not for everyone.

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Breaking hearts is nothing new for James Cameron -- and, yes, there was room for Jack on that door, dang it -- and making confident, bold choices is part of why Cameron has been this successful. But this particular movie broke some hearts while not quite breaking the bank. What do we make of that, and what if anything could it mean for the next big titles on JC's filmography -- his Avatar sequels?

Two years ago, James Cameron explained his ambitious plan for filming his many Avatar sequels:

Avatar 2 and 3 will be captured together and then [go through postproduction] sequentially. Then we go back and capture 4 and 5. They're all written and they're all designed, so we literally hit the ground running the day after Avatar 3 comes out, starting capture on 4 and 5 and then post on those and release those. That's the plan. So, it's kind of a two-and-two structure.

The first two movies have finished principal photography and now they are in post-production for Avatar 2's release in 2021 and Avatar 3's release in 2023. Those two are pretty much set in stone. The next two, though? Here's what James Cameron told Vanity Fair in 2017 about the practical application of this plan:

Most of the actors, the key principals, have all read all four scripts, so they know exactly what their character arcs are, they know where they’re going, they know how to modulate their arc now across the first two films. We all know where we’re supposed to be dramatically in the saga, and that’s great. Let’s face it, if Avatar 2 and 3 don’t make enough money, there’s not going to be a 4 and 5. They’re fully encapsulated stories in and of themselves. It builds across the five films to a greater kind of meta narrative, but they’re fully formed films in their own right....

Yes, Avatar producer Jon Landau also talked about each Avatar title working as a standalone movie. So that's a safety net if the first two don't make quite enough to justify making the next two.

Everything can still go exactly the way the Avatar team wants it. Some of the stars of Avatar 2 sound pretty confident, anyway, even giving a little light trash talk to Avengers: Endgame for taking the new title -- for now -- as highest-grossing movie of all time.

James Cameron was gracious about that loss, too, rightly seeing it as a win for the kind of big movies he's trying to make in the Avatar sequels. It shows there's still a big movie audience out there. But they didn't turn out for Terminator: Dark Fate, and as popular as Alita has become to its supporters, there wasn't a huge box office for that movie either. JC didn't direct either film, but his creative thumbprints are on them and his name was a big part of the promotion for the movies.

Weirdly enough, James Cameron may be positioning himself as an underdog before Avatar 2 opens in December 2021. It's hard to imagine JC ever needing to have a "comeback" but he could get one with the first two Avatar sequels -- if Avatar 2 doesn't just make a lot of money, but also has strong enough box office and word-of-mouth to give another similar win to Avatar 3. He needs both to do well. It'll be a while before we see if that happens. This wait has been ... well, not as long as the wait between T2 and Terminator: Dark Fate, but long.

What do you think? How are you feeling today in November 2019 about the many Avatar sequels? More or less excited than you were before, no change to however you were feeling? Do you think we will see Avatar 5 in theaters someday, in December 2027 or whenever?

Gina Carbone

Gina grew up in Massachusetts and California in her own version of The Parent Trap. She went to three different middle schools, four high schools, and three universities -- including half a year in Perth, Western Australia. She currently lives in a small town in Maine, the kind Stephen King regularly sets terrible things in, so this may be the last you hear from her.