It might be judgment day for the Terminator franchise.

Despite generally favorable reviews and the return of star Linda Hamilton and producer James Cameron, "Terminator: Dark Fate" has opened well below expectations at the box office. Studios on Sunday estimate that "Dark Fate" earned only US$29 million ($45 million) from over 4,000 North American locations. The film from Paramount Pictures cost a reported US$185 million to produce.

It was enough to win the top spot at the box office, but it's a weak victory for the franchise. Although "Dark Fate," which was directed by "Deadpool's" Tim Miller, received much better reviews (currently at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes) and was praised for being a return to form to Cameron's original films, it opened just slightly ahead of 2015′s roundly derided "Terminator: Genisys."

"These big brands carry with them huge expectations, often unrealistic expectations," said Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "It wasn't for lack of enthusiasm for the stars and filmmakers."

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Internationally, "Dark Fate" did much better, earning US$72.9 million from 48 markets. Fox International, not Paramount, is handling international distribution, excluding China.

Second place went to "Joker," which added US$13.9 million, bringing its global earnings to $934 million in just five weeks in theaters. "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" landed in third place in its third weekend with an additional US$12.2 million. The Angelina Jolie-led sequel has grossed US$84.3 million in North America.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate. Photo / AP
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate. Photo / AP

One bright spot of the weekend, which is down nearly 19% from last year when "Bohemian Rhapsody" opened, is Focus Features' "Harriet," which is the first film ever made about Harriet Tubman. Starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role, "Harriet" performed better than expected, earning $12 million from just over 2,000 theaters to take fourth place. The film scored a coveted A+ CinemaScore from audiences, who were primarily female (62 and over the age of 35 (59%). African Americans also made up a significant portion of the audience (49%) according to exit polls.

"It's really heartwarming and gives you a lot of faith that there are still a lot of people who want to see stories about real life superheroes," said Focus Features distribution president Lisa Bunnell. "There's a real feeling of love for this movie. I think it's inspirational for people to see."

Focus did outreach to faith-based groups and educators and has seen enormous success with group sales as a result.

Other newcomers struggled to find that kind of enthusiasm this weekend. Edward Norton's adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" opened in ninth place to US$3.7 million, while the animated "Arctic Dogs" took 10th with US$3.1 million.

One of the highest profile new films of the weekend, Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," does not have any box office numbers to report, however, because Netflix declines to provide numbers for its theatrical releases.

Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, the film which opened in limited release before hitting Netflix on November 27 is expected to be a major Oscars contender.

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Linda Hamilton takes aim as Sarah Connor - her new outing may have missed. Photo / AP
Linda Hamilton takes aim as Sarah Connor - her new outing may have missed. Photo / AP

"With all eyes on 'The Irishman,' it's unfortunate that we don't have numbers on it," Dergarabedian said.

It's especially true considering that other smaller release films with awards buzz continue to perform well. "Parasite" took in 2.6 million in its fifth weekend "Jojo Rabbit," in its third weekend, added US$2.4 million from 256 screens and "The Lighthouse," also in weekend three, grossed US$2 million from 978 locations.

Estimated ticket sales ( $US) for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Where available, the latest international numbers for Friday through Sunday are also included.

1."Terminator: Dark Fate," $29 million ($72.9 million international).

2."Joker," $13.9 million ($37 million international).

3."Maleficent: Mistress of Evil," $12.2 million ($40.5 million international).

4."Harriet," $12 million.

5."The Addams Family," $8.5 million ($25.9 million international).

6."Zombieland: Double Tap," $7.4 million ($7 million international).

7."Countdown," $5.9 million ($1.1 million international).

8."Black and Blue," $4.1 million.

9."Motherless Brooklyn," $3.7 million.

10."Arctic Dogs," $3.1 million.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at international theaters (excluding the U.S. and Canada), according to Comscore:

1. "Terminator: Dark Fate," $72.9 million.

2. "Better Days," $47.8 million.

3. "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil," $40.5 million.

4. "Joker," $37 million.

5. "Weathering With You," $26.2 million.

6. "The Addams Family," $25.9 million.

7. "Das Perfekte Geheimnis," $11.6 million.

8. "Abominable," 7.8 million.

9. "Zombieland: Double Tap," $7 million.

10. "Kim Jiyoung: Born 1982," $6.2 million.

- AP