James Cameron Sounds the Alarm on Artificial Intelligence and Unveils a 'Terminator' for the 21st Century
Frank W. Ockenfels 3

James Cameron Sounds the Alarm on Artificial Intelligence and Unveils a 'Terminator' for the 21st Century

Cameron and Deadpool director Tim Miller sit down with THR to talk for the first time about how they will reboot a storied but troubled franchise for the new era of Amazon drones and AI anxiety: "People ask me, 'Will the machines ever win against humanity?' I say, 'Look at people on their phones. The machines have already won.'"

By all objective measures, The Terminator represents the most feared cautionary tale of modern Hollywood: a broken franchise. Thirty-three years after Arnold Schwarzenegger became an international star playing a killer robot sent from the future to kill the mother of the leader of a postapocalyptic rebellion, there have been four sequels (and one TV series), and the three films without the involvement of creator James Cameron have turned off fans and led the property to bounce from studio to studio and reboot to reboot. Terminator: Genisys, a 2015 installment made by financier David Ellison's Skydance Media (Ellison bought rights from his sister, Megan Ellison, who acquired them in a 2011 auction for $20 million), seemingly, uh, terminated the prospect of future films.

But this is Hollywood 2017, and no major franchise is truly dead. Ellison, along with distributor Paramount (Fox has international rights), has persuaded Cameron, who on Sept. 25 began filming four Avatar sequels, to shepherd a new Terminator for the era of Amazon drones, Facebook news bots and artificial intelligence-fueled anxiety. Calling it "a return to form that I believe fans of the franchise have been wanting since Terminator 2: Judgment Day," Ellison, 34, has for the past year worked secretly with Cameron and Deadpool's Tim Miller, who will direct the untitled sequel for a July 26, 2019, release. They assembled a writers room with scribes David Goyer, Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman and Justin Rhodes as well as Ellison, a lifelong Terminator fan (Cameron himself shows up once a week), and have crafted what they want to be a trilogy with Schwarzenegger, 70, and original star Linda Hamilton, 61, passing the torch to a young female lead. 

The team hopes it's launching the equivalent of the new Star Wars trilogy — but with the most successful filmmaker of all time pulling the strings. To unveil their plans and explain why the Terminator franchise is still relevant amid 21st century fears, Cameron, 63, and Miller, 47, joined The Hollywood Reporter's editorial director Matthew Belloni for a discussion Sept. 19 on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. An edited transcript follows, and a separate Q&A with Cameron on Avatar, Trump and his recent Wonder Woman critiques is here.

Jim, why do you want to do this? You can do anything. These are movies you made a long time ago.

TIM MILLER I've got some pictures on him that he doesn't want published. (Laughs.)

JAMES CAMERON There's a pride of authorship in anything that you do, and when David and I started talking about this, it made sense for me to see if there was a way to bring it into this century and to relevance. I look at what's happening now with the emergence of artificial general intelligence equal to or greater than humans', and you've got Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking and others saying that this could be really bad for the survival of the human race. What was science fiction in the '80s is now imminent. It's coming over the horizon at us. And there's been a resurgence of fear and concern about nuclear weapons and so on. So all of these apocalyptic elements are out there. The first two Terminator films that I did dealt with the angst around that and how we reconcile it for ourselves in a fantasy context. So I got excited about the idea of finding a story that made sense for now.

So what does a James Cameron-produced Terminator movie look like in 2017?

CAMERON This is a continuation of the story from Terminator 1 and Terminator 2. And we're pretending the other films were a bad dream. Or an alternate timeline, which is permissible in our multi-verse. This was really driven more by [Tim] than anybody, surprisingly, because I came in pretty agnostic about where we took it. The only thing I insisted on was that we somehow revamp it and reinvent it for the 21st century.

MILLER The [first] films are more relevant today than they were when he made them. A lot of it seems like prognostication because it's coming to be — the world we live in right now.

The conflict between technology and humanity is a theme in a lot of Jim's movies. Does technology scare you?

CAMERON Technology has always scared me, and it's always seduced me. People ask me: "Will the machines ever win against humanity?" I say: "Look around in any airport or restaurant and see how many people are on their phones. The machines have already won." It's just [that] they've won in a different way. We are co-evolving with our technology. We're merging. The technology is becoming a mirror to us as we start to build humanoid robots and as we start to seriously build AGI — general intelligence — that's our equal. Some of the top scientists in artificial intelligence say that's 10 to 30 years from now. We need to get the damn movies done before that actually happens! And when you talk to these guys, they remind me a lot of that excited optimism that nuclear scientists had in the '30s and '40s when they were thinking about how they could power the world. And taking zero responsibility for the idea that it would instantly be weaponized. The first manifestation of nuclear power on our planet was the destruction of two cities and hundreds of thousands of people. So the idea that it can't happen now is not the case. It can happen, and it may even happen.

MILLER Jim is a more positive guy [than I am] in the present and more cynical about the future. I know Hawking and Musk think we can put some roadblocks in there. I'm not so sure we can. I can't imagine what a truly artificial intelligence will make of us. Jim's brought some experts in to talk to us, and it's really interesting to hear their perspective. Generally, they're scared as shit, which makes me scared.

CAMERON One of the scientists we just met with recently, she said: "I used to be really, really optimistic, but now I'm just scared." Her position on it is probably that we can't control this. It has more to do with human nature. Putin recently said that the nation that perfects AI will dominate or conquer the world. So that pretty much sets the stage for "We wouldn't have done it, but now those guys are doing it, so now we have to do it and beat them to the punch." So now everybody's got the justification to essentially weaponize AI. I think you can draw your own conclusions from that.

MILLER When it happens, I don't think AI's agenda will be to kill us. That seems like a goal that's beneath whatever enlightened being that they're going to become because they can evolve in a day what we've done in millions of years. And I don't think that they have the built-in deficits that we have, because we're still dealing with the same kind of urges that made us climb down from the trees and kill everybody else. I choose to believe that they'll be better than us.

CAMERON At the very least, they will reflect our best and worst nature because we make them and we program them. But it's going to take a lot of money. So who's got the money to do it and the will to do it? It could be business, so the Googles and the other big tech companies. And if you're doing it for business, you're doing it to improve your market share or whatever your business goals are. So you're essentially taking a machine smarter than a human and teaching it greed. Or it's for defense, in which case you're taking a machine smarter than a human and teaching it to kill. Neither one of those has a good outcome in my mind.

Will there be a day, as in Terminator, where people will look back and say, "This is the day that machines became aware"?

CAMERON It probably won't be that dramatic and will probably happen off-camera to us, and we'll suddenly be living in a world where that has happened.

MILLER I'm a little more worried about programs gone wrong. For instance, if you invented a program where the goal was to search out and destroy cancer — if you're not careful, humans are a source of cancer, so [programs could] wipe humanity out. That's not an AI gone wrong. That's a program gone wrong.

Jim, has your opinion on this subject changed since you had the original idea for the Terminator story 35 years ago?

CAMERON I'll be honest. At the time, I was just trying to get a plot mechanism where somebody could be an enemy from the future so that I could shoot in the streets of L.A.

Arnold and Linda Hamilton are coming back. What was your conversation like with them?

CAMERON Well, Arnold just expected to come back. So that was easy. I approached Linda to see if she'd even be interested. And …

MILLER Jim was fucking terrified.

CAMERON I was. It took me a week just to get up the nerve. No, that's not true. Linda and I have a great relationship. We've stayed friends through the thick and thin of it all. And she is the mother of my eldest daughter. [They were married from 1997 to 1999.] So I called her up, and I said: "Look, we could rest on our laurels. It's ours to lose, in a sense. We created this thing several decades ago. But, here's what can be really cool. You can come back and show everybody how it's done." Because in my mind, it hasn't been done a whole lot since the way she did it back in '91.

MILLER As strong a character as she was, as meaningful as she was to gender and to action stars everywhere, I think it's going to make a huge fucking statement to have her be the really seasoned warrior that she's become.

CAMERON There are certainly plenty of 50-, 60-, 70-something guys out there that just keep cranking along doing action movies and killing bad guys left and right. But there isn't an example of that for women, and I think there should be.

MILLER Which is why we're bringing Liam Neeson in as the bad guy. And she is going to kick his ass. (Laughs.)

CAMERON She fucks him up.

He retired recently. He said he's done with action movies.

MILLER Did he? That's 'cause he was afraid Sarah Connor was going to kick his ass.

Tim, you had a lot of heat coming off of Deadpool, and instead of doing something that is not based on pre-existing material, you decided to do this. Why this?

MILLER: To some degree, all the stories that I love are based on pre-existing materials as either a book I love or a movie I love. And I don’t make a whole lot of distinction between those two things. Story is story. I mean, I wanted to make Deadpool 2. I was going to do that, until I wasn’t. So, there was that, which took up about seven months of my time. But even then, David and I were talking, like afterDeadpool 2, it was going to be this [Terminator].

So, we can thank Ryan Reynolds for you doing this?

CAMERON: Thank you, Ryan.

MILLER: Yeah, if you want. I felt like there was more stories to tell there, but I’m happy that somebody else is telling them. And I’ve got to tell you, there was a sense of relief in that I get to do something new versus Deadpool 2. I think it would’ve been a great movie, but it was also going to be a continuation of what we had done. This really is gave me a chance to do something new. 

Are you planning to introduce new stars for future movies, like the Star Wars model?

CAMERON Absolutely, yeah. A lot of this is handing off the baton to a new generation of characters. We're starting a search for an 18-something young woman to essentially be the new centerpiece of these stories. And then a number of other characters around her and characters from the future. We still fold time in the story in intriguing ways. But we have Arnold's character and Linda's character to anchor it. Somewhere across there, and I won't say where, the baton gets passed, so to speak.

This summer was not a good one for the box office. Why do you think people aren't going to theaters? What's the solution?

CAMERON Look, I don't know what the answer is for the industry at large. I don't think the industry at large is hurting that much. A lot of the good writing is now in television, and I think that feature films could benefit from better writing and better character work in general and a little less spectacle. Not that I don't like spectacle, but I like it at the right moment. You just have to make good movies. Pretty simple.

MILLER There weren't a whole lot of movies that I wanted to go see this year. The Big Sick was, I think, one of the best movies I saw this summer, and it's not my kind of movie even.

Tim, you've made one movie. Do you feel intimidated working with Jim?

MILLER Every minute of the day. But I also feel honored. If Jim didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't be there. And that gives me confidence. He could fire me later and decide: "Why did I believe in this guy? He's a tool."

They do that these days. If it was a Star Wars movie, it could happen.

CAMERON Yeah, no kidding.

MILLER Touche, touche.

CAMERON Don't let that revolving door hit you on the back of the head.

MILLER And you know what? It's a similar situation there. Somebody does a good film, then they think: "Well, he must be a great director." So, it could totally be true in my case. But I don't think that's the case.

Now an uncomfortable question. Arnold is going to be 71 years old when this shoots. How do you get around that fact?

CAMERON: You don’t have to get around it. The beauty of it is: He’s a cyborg. And so, the org part is on the outside, meaning organism. And Reese says it in the first film: “They sweat. They have bad breath.” Because they were supposed to be infiltration units, so there’s this idea that flesh sort of sheaths over a metal endo-skeleton. So that would age normally. So, obviously he’s one that’s been in action and operation for a long time. And that’s all I want to say about the actual story part of it.

MILLER: I haven’t talked to Arnold about this so I could get in trouble. But because he’s been in all the other movies — unlike Linda — I do think there needs to be a reason to be different here. I like my sci-fi grounded. I like my characters grounded. And what Jim said about the exterior aging while the interior remains the same — well, not the interior, as in the brain, as emotionally and intellectually he will have evolved. They’re learning machines. But that’s a way to make it different than it was. Even in Genisys, he looked — I should stop — he was a slightly gussied-up version of the old Terminator. I think we should embrace his age. And that’s what’s going to make it interesting and fresh for the fans.

Jim, you're handing over the keys to your baby to someone who doesn't have much experience.

CAMERON Look, we're both taking a risk. That's the nature of the director-producer relationship. But I feel really confident. We're already about seven or eight months into the creative process, and we haven't killed each other yet. There's been some fur flying, but it's always been for the right reason. I feel Tim's commitment. I feel David's commitment. They feel my commitment. That's it. We're brothers-in-arms at this point.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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