Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Media Review: January 2020

Terminator: Dark Fate
Directed by Tim Miller
Produced by Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Skydance Media
Released November 3, 2019

I only wanted to see Terminator: Dark Fate because Linda Hamilton is in it. The fourth film in the series, Terminator Salvation, was so execrably bad I bailed on the whole franchise. It took Hamilton to bring me back. Her Sarah Conner, that character’s transformation, is the beating heart and soul of the first two Terminator movies. Everything else has been noise.

In many ways Terminator: Dark Fate is a retelling of 1984’s Terminator. We meet a personable young woman who is just living her life. For mysterious reasons, a relentless hulk of a man pursues her with vicious, murderous intent, leaving a wake of destruction. Then, a savior appears to rescue her, and the two of them spend the rest of the movie on the run. We know this story.

This time, though, there’s a wrinkle: Toward the end of the first long, violent car chase and battle, a gray-haired, ripped woman with an array of high-powered weaponry shows up and kicks ass. History is paying us a visit. Warriors from both the future and past have arrived to protect Dani Ramos. Grace, the human protector from the future, demands of the older woman: “Who are you?” “I’m Sarah Conner,” she spits, as if she is tired of explaining it.

But Grace has never heard of Sarah Conner. She has never heard of John Conner. The names mean nothing to her. Ah-ha—this is how you continue a time travel story, yes. Sarah successfully changed the future. And made herself and her son irrelevant.

John Conner’s irrelevancy doesn’t keep him from being killed. As we’ve been told, many Terminators were sent back in time to target him. One of them finally succeeded some two decades earlier, after Judgment Day failed to happen and it didn’t matter anymore. This is very nearly the first scene in the movie, and watching CGI teenage Edward Furlong (who played John in Terminator 2) get decisively shot at point blank with a shotgun is incredibly shocking and also, somehow, unavoidable. We realize what was always true: The savior of humanity, John Conner, was never anything but a McGuffin.

Dark Fate is able to tell this story by pretending that the other three movies and TV series don’t exist. As a result, this movie confirms what the less-lauded sequels didn’t figure out: This story was never about John Conner. It was Sarah who decided to try to stop Judgment Day. It was always Sarah’s agency driving the story.

So why is the story playing out again? Unfortunately, a different Judgment Day happened: not SkyNet, but Legion, an anti-cyberwarfare measure that took control and destroyed civilization much the same way SkyNet did, and is now targeting its enemies in the past to protect itself. That path for humanity seems inevitable, and Sarah doesn’t seem at all surprised. Exhausted, yes.

Sarah has been getting anonymous text messages alerting her when and where new Terminators are set to appear. When Grace realizes that the originating coordinates of those mysterious texts match the coordinates her handlers tattooed on her chest, they decide to go ask for help. Difficulty: They need to stealthily cross the border between Mexico and Texas. The story decisions here are so topical. Our heroes are taken into custody, and the next big action set piece takes place at a border detention center. This is all seamlessly part of the story, but it’s also really pointed commentary. Dani, the savior of humanity, is Mexican. A sizable portion of her dialog is in Spanish. Heroes come from everywhere, they can be anyone. The film takes a stand, and it’s great.

Our heroes escape custody and reach the coordinates. They knock politely at the door, and that face, Sarah’s original nemesis, the old Terminator—Arnold Schwarzenegger himself—opens the door. Sarah’s reaction is reflexive, the same furious determination to kill she had in when encountering him in Terminator 2. Grace has to stop her so they can get the story. (I was skeptical, but Schwarzenegger has mellowed and seeing him reprise one of his best known roles, and weirdly discuss the finer points of choosing curtains for children’s bedrooms, was delightful.)

This version of the T-800 is the one who killed John twenty years earlier. And like Sarah, his reason for existing was suddenly gone. So he found a new one: He found a family to protect. (I like this additional callback to T2, the suggestion that something inherent in the programming of the T-800 can switch it to protection mode, as if the line between protector and destroyer is thin. Sarah has crossed back and forth over that line herself.) Left to his own devices, he grew a conscience. Raising a young boy, he comes to realize what Sarah’s life must have been like after John’s death. So, in practical machine thinking, he decides to give Sarah a purpose too: He’s been texting the locations of Terminator arrivals to her. And now he will leave his found family in order to help defeat the Rev-9, the spooky new version of the Terminator than can separate from its own skin for two-pronged attacks. The tradition of Terminator evolution is alive and well.

Dark Fate does what an addition to a thirty-five-year-old franchise ought to do: give us what we loved about the first films—great action, endearing heroes, the tension and terror of an enemy that kills up close and personal and cannot be stopped—while updating and commenting on its own legacy by incorporating thirty-five years of feminist thinking. 1984’s Terminator is already strikingly feminist—the damsel in distress takes charge and learns to look after herself. Dark Fate goes further, filling the screen with women who are all different and all have different takes on the situation. (That this was written by men who seem to Get It gives me hope that the world is getting better, at least in some ways.)

Sarah is sure that Dani is important because she will give birth to someone important. But no, Grace says: Dani is the future resistance leader. It’s Dani who will save humanity. Dani is important for herself. Grace will be her foster daughter—she has come to the past to save her own future. And Sarah seems poleaxed that she wasn’t able to think that broadly. It’s like third wave feminism shows up to tell second wave feminism to chill out and let fourth wave feminism do its thing. Also, Woke Dad will take bullets for you.

We come to understand that Sarah is also important for herself. She has transformed herself into the kind of hero that will serve as a role model for Dani. Sarah gets another chance to save the future, and Dani rises to the occasion because she knows it can be done, because it was done before. When Grace quotes: “No fate but what we make for ourselves,” Sarah is bemused. Where did Grace learn that? From Dani, who learned it from Sarah, in the future. It all comes around. At the end of the film, Dani hangs on a chain link fence watching children play, an echo of the same scene with Sarah in T2. But Dani is watching Grace as a child, knowing what is to come. Right after this, when Dani and Sarah drive off in a Jeep that looks just like the one Sarah drove off in at the end of the first film, I nearly cried. Such a luscious bit of fan service there.

Sarah Conner has one of the greatest character arcs in action cinema because it feels true. How did her adventure change her? We get to see the full extent of that trauma, which is something big action movies don’t usually give us. But we also see her decisive response to the trauma. The image we get of her in T2, the ripped woman at the edge of madness, doing pull-ups on her upturned bed frame because she knows how to use what she has on hand, was so startling, yet so believable, that it made T2 the gold standard of how action movie sequels ought to be. Show us consequences. Follow through on the story you promised.

The ’80s were much better at great women action heroes than we give them credit for. Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise and Sarah Conner are icons, of course. But there’s also Officer Anne Lewis in Robocop, Regina and Samantha in Night of the Comet, Jill in Hardware, Valeria in Conan the Barbarian, Savannah Nix and Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and I could go on. By the early ’00s we lost that kind of hero in a wave of waif-fu magic girls and catsuit-wearing fetish objects. The Robocop reboot from a few years ago did away with Anne Lewis entirely.

What is so striking about most of these women action heroes from the ’80s (well, except maybe Valeria) is how normal they are. These are ordinary women who end up in extraordinary circumstances and then do what they need to to survive. At some point in the last thirty years, action movies decided that kick-ass women couldn’t be normal. They had to be sexy, to be over the top superpowered; they had to have terrible backstories told in flashback or unbelievable destinies. One of the things that makes Sarah Conner great, and we get to see this with Dani as well, is that when we first meet them they are so very, very mundane.

I’ll tell you a secret about badass characters. If we meet them when they’re already badass (I’m looking at you, Trinity), they can really only go in two directions. The story will either be about them becoming superpowered, or it will be about them losing power. Having their power taken away.

But start with someone ordinary and we get to watch them transform in ways that are astonishing, believable, and therefore relatable. I think this is why some of the most iconic heroes resonate so much. Ripley starts as middle-management who’s just trying to follow the rules. Luke Skywalker is a farmboy. Steve Rogers is this undersized kid from Brooklyn. Sarah Conner is a put-upon waitress. They’re ordinary. Just like us. It’s not how powerful they become that makes them great. It never was. It’s who they are and what they do in the face of hardship that makes them great. What the first Terminator film did so well, that is so important, this one does also: show us Dani’s normal life, so that we can see how far she travels.

I love that Terminator: Dark Fate reminds us of this. I love that it shows us the scars, both Grace’s literal scars from the cybernetic augmentations she received, and Sarah’s vast psychological scars. I love this entire wave of movies we’ve been getting, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Wonder Woman to this, that show us women who have fought, survived, and keep fighting.

That’s the real story that Terminator was always about. It was never about the savior of the future. It was always about the relentless villain that can’t be stopped—and the human heroes who are equally relentless and so much more fierce because they have so much worth fighting for.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.