It has been a year-and-a-half since the release of Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate, which was largely viewed at the time as a return to form for the floundering Terminator franchise, though its financial failure has also left it dead in the water, with a hard reboot being the only real option moving forward.
That being said, I am not here to rehash my views on the franchise’s future, but rather how Dark Fate relates to the past, which is fitting considering it is a movie tied intrinsically to time travel. Bear in mind, I will be going into deep spoiler territory here, so if you have yet to see the movie, I recommend you do that first before reading on.
For those of you who have seen the movie and know exactly what the title of this article references, here is a quote from Dark Fate’s producer and creator of the Terminator franchise, James Cameron, on the opening scene during a press interview: “Let’s just pull the carpet out from underneath all of our assumptions of what a Terminator movie is going to be about.” Of course, what the Canadian filmmaker references here is the unceremonious death of a young John Connor in the opening moments of the film, which was set soon after the ending of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (any movies after that were retconned in favour of this new timeline). Cameron even doubled down on the pivotal moment during the interview by proudly declaring “The idea that we whack John in the first 30 seconds, that was my idea.”
Curious mafioso terminology aside, as the dust has settled on the controversial moment and I have watched Dark Fate a second time, I can confidently say that it has not aged well. But even more crucially, if the whole point of this traumatic opening scene was to honour the first two movies while subverting “our assumptions of what a Terminator movie is going to be about”, then the story that follows totally contradicts Cameron’s sentiments here.
For the record, while I did have an emotional connection to the John Connor character – given that T2 was one of the most seminal science fiction experiences of my childhood – I was not necessarily opposed to the concept of killing off John Connor, so long as it advanced the franchise in a meaningful way while also respecting all that came before. Instead, what we get is a shallow and insultingly uninspired narrative mishmash that is just more of the same, but with a new paint job.
This might seem harsh, but the fact that Dark Fate reverts back to practically the exact same formula of protecting the world’s future saviour from a literal time-traveling killing machine renders Cameron’s reasoning for killing off John completely moot. Making the saviour a woman this time around, while using Sarah Connor’s mistaken assumption that she is the mother of a future male saviour as a MacGuffin, does not do enough to abate these nagging issues. This is all the more insulting when you consider that audiences by and large figured out early on that Dani was the actual saviour, and these weak attempts to misdirect the audience through a beloved character feels like another slap in the face.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens did a lot of similar things, such as making the new central character female, repeating certain plot threads from A New Hope, and killing off a major character, but they at least made it all work in the process, delivering what I think is one of the best entries in the franchise to date. On the other hand, Cameron and the numerous other creatives involved in developing Terminator: Dark Fate, which included the likes of David S. Goyer, Billy Ray and Josh Friedman, opted for a bold move right from the get-go, but its end in no way justifies the means. The crazy thing is that, in spite of all this, I gave Dark Fate a fairly positive review upon release because as a self-contained blockbuster it can actually be a lot of fun, especially when Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger come into the fold. But as continuation of the franchise, it is a big disappointment that, in hindsight, should have lost a couple of marks in my review for that reason alone.