How ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Damages the Legacy of ‘Terminator 2’

     November 4, 2019

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Spoilers ahead for Terminator: Dark Fate.

Making sequels to Terminator 2: Judgment Day has always been a problem. The ending, although portrayed as ambiguous, is fairly binary. Either Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Edward Furlong), and the T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) averted Judgment Day or they didn’t. The ending errs on the side of positivity otherwise the previous 2 hours and 17 minutes were an exercise in nihilism where nothing matters and your choices can’t affect the future. Every sequel since has diminished the ending of Judgment Day because the story “needs” to continue (because studios like money and can’t leave well enough alone). But Terminator: Dark Fate may be the worst offender thus far as its prologue directly follows T2 and goes for shock value rather than considering what it means to continue the narrative.

The story starts soon after the events of T2 where Sarah and John are living in hiding in a sunny beach community. But while John is chatting up a young woman, another T-101 comes out of nowhere and shotguns the young man in the chest. John dies, Sarah is emotionally obliterated, the T-101 walks away, cue title card.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

It’s certainly a shocking beginning, but one that renders the first two movies irrelevant. Yes, it’s all well and good that the larger message of Dark Fate is that humanity’s future rests in the hands not of some white guy who shares Jesus Christ’s initials, but a young Mexican woman. But those Terminator and T2 still exist, and Dark Fate can’t reconcile its shocking prologue with the negating those movies. Instead, the movie tries to have its apocalypse cake and eat it too by saying that while Skynet was averted, a different murder system, Legion, eventually came online and the outcome was the same.

This change, which is necessary to continue the story, makes Judgment Day completely pointless. Sarah Connor’s mission was to avert the apocalypse, not allow it as long as it’s anyone but Skynet. It is the coldest comfort that the heroes in Judgment Day technically succeed but fail in every way that matters. John Connor still dies and the apocalypse still happens. The stakes of Judgment Day are obliterated. Imagine if the last scene of Judgment Day was the first scene of Dark Fate: would it still be considered a classic or would it be a film that gets 99% of the way there only to completely implode at the end?

If Dark Fate were interested in exploring themes of fate, damnation, and redemption in any meaningful way then it may have lived up to its bold prologue. Unfortunately, Tim Miller’s sequel is far more concerned with loading up on set pieces that, while occasionally exhilarating, take time away from getting to know these characters and understand that this is really Sarah Connor’s story. Dark Fate ends up feeling like two scripts smashed together where in one film Sarah Connor is Dani’s (Natalia Reyes) protector and in another it’s Grace (Mackenzie Davis). This odd collaboration could have even worked if there was just a bit more time for character development, but Sarah’s purpose seems to be to toss off cynical one-liners in between fighting a new Terminator (Gabriel Luna).

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Dark Fate desperately needs a scene where Sarah reckons with what she’s lost, and she never gets it. The filmmakers don’t want to include a scene where a mother talks about what it means to lose a son, and remains content to let Sarah be a grizzled “badass” without understanding that what makes T2 work so well are the emotional stakes. Yes, Sarah is very tough in that movie, but that film also has a very big heart between her feelings towards John, his resentment towards her, and his longing for a father figure. Dark Fate doesn’t have those emotional beats. Instead, it looks at a formula—young person on the run, grizzled protector, and machine protector fend off shiny new Terminator—and goes with that.

And if you want to just rebrand Terminator 2 and call it a new movie that’s nothing more than comfort food for people that want a new Terminator movie without actually getting a new Terminator movie, that’s your prerogative. But you can’t have it both ways where you start with a really disturbing prologue that upends everything we know about Terminator and what we cared about with Terminator 2 only to fail on the follow-through. If your starting point is to blow up Terminator 2, then you can’t dress up in the wreckage.

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