In the late producer Robert Evans’ book, which I was reading this week for a tribute post, he writes of pre-production, “Fighting is healthy. If everyone has too much reverence for each other, or for the material, results are invariably underwhelming. It’s irreverence that makes things sizzle.”
Evans isn’t necessarily some font of mystical wisdom, but I think he was onto something with the reverence thing. Ever since T2, the Terminator franchise has essentially been trying to recreate T2. It ends up being fairly myopic in scope because despite being a story about killer robots from the future who can time travel, all the films are confined to a relatively small time period with the same handful of characters. Only the explanations as to why this is get more complicated.
In Terminator: Dark Fate, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton!), an augmented human played by Mackenzie Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s aging T-800, team up to stop a new terminator from a new company — The Rev-9! From an AI company called Legion! Played by Gabriel Luna! They’re trying to stop it from killing Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman who is important to the resistance in ways that aren’t initially clear. This new Terminator movie is “irreverent” in the sense that Tim Miller from Deadpool directed it, so it occasionally has a snarky joke, but reverent in the sense that it’s basically the same story as T2, only with the parts reshuffled.
All things being equal, this Terminator is probably better than the last two or three Terminators since T2. Terminator Salvation was mostly memorable for being bad (that was the one directed by McG, who promised the film would “knock your f*ckin’ balls up your ass”), and Terminator 3 and Terminator: Genesys I barely remember at all. This one has at least three strong characters. MacKenzie Davis looks almost like the basis for James Cameron’s Na’vi in Avatar with her impossibly long neck and limbs, so the role of human 2.0 seems perfect for her, aside from her convincing acting.
Meanwhile, Sarah Connor is pretty dull when she’s trying to remind us of T2 or acting “badass” (Yaaas queen, dissolve my husk in molten metal!), but fairly compelling when expressing the complex emotions of having succeeded so well that she’s no longer the key to humanity’s future. When we meet her in Dark Fate, screeching up in a beat-up pick-up truck on a desolate Mexican highway, Connor has successfully averted Judgement Day, but still couldn’t protect her son John from a rogue Arnold, a lame-duck Terminator “from a future that never happened.” (Don’t ask me to work out the timeline between T2 and this, we’d be here all day, making diagrams out of straws.)
So now here she is, having sacrificed her son and spent her life on the run to save three billion lives for a future that doesn’t even know who she is. A Sarah Connor who is now no longer the target of Terminators and kind of miffed about it, jealous of humanity’s new “Mother Mary” marked for death — it’s an interesting wrinkle.
Arnold’s T-800, meanwhile, is an orphaned Terminator forced to live out his existence as a kind of half-human, where he has apparently developed a conscience and adopted a family. The idea of a Terminator turned family man is a bit of a stretch, and the jokes about it are too cute by half (the T-800 now goes by “Carl,” deadpans “I am extremely funny” and runs a drapery business), but it’s a clever attempt to explore both the nature of consciousness and time travel simultaneously. Not to mention the same fish-out-of-water appeal that Arnold sort of always has. How does he explain never eating? What does he do when his family is sleeping?