Thirty-five years after the 'Terminator' franchise began, 'Dark Fate' is charting a new path to the future.
Three decades after we last saw her Sarah Connor successfully preventing Judgement Day in 'T2', Linda Hamilton is back. She's not alone, either. 'Terminator: Dark Fate' also boasts the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a T-800 with a story from the man who started it all, producer James Cameron.
"It was something where I thought, 'Let me explore this,'" says Cameron. "Let me see if there's something there to be said that hasn't been said... I didn't necessarily want to go back and recreate past glories."
'Dark Fate' marks the sixth big screen entry in the 'Terminator' film series (not to mention two seasons of the television series 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles:), but 'Terminator' isn't exactly your standard franchise. Because of the storyline's time travel elements, there exist multiple pathways through the increasingly complex narrative. In many ways, 'Dark Fate' is a direct sequel to 'T2'.
“Above anything else, we wanted to create a return to form with 'Dark Fate'," says producer David Ellison. "'Terminator' 1 and 2 hold a very special place in cinematic history, and we wanted 'Dark Fate' to be a continuation of Jim’s vision for the franchise."
“After T-2, I felt I had worked a very complete character arc from a nobody to a warrior woman,” says Hamilton. “At that point I didn’t want to just keep doing it without the ability to add something new. But the last 28 years have changed Sarah dramatically and I was ready to explore that.”
"I think we came up with some fresh ideas," says Cameron. "The one idea that did propel me was this idea of the Terminator of evolving to a new level that we haven't seen before. And by the Terminator, I mean not the new guy -- who is obviously a new creation with new powers, that sort of thing -- But the Terminator we know and love, which is Arnold's Terminator. The T 800. Now he's a character that just keeps coming back, you know, relentlessly as this kind of Phoenix, you know, you destroy him and he comes back."
To date, Schwarzenegger has appeared in every big screen iteration of the 'Terminator' franchise, although his brief appearance in 'Salvation' was more or less a cameo.
“The idea always was to be the villain but make everyone walk out and say, ‘That’s really cool! Can you imagine if you had that kind of a power?’" says the star. "People find him inspirational in some ways as well as entertaining... There is a machine-like behavior you get from bodybuilding. It’s all about reps, keeping your emotions out and focusing on your goal. But in this movie we see him becoming more human. He is aware that he’s a machine, but after being around human beings for so long, he has become more human. It made it very interesting and, from an acting point of view, much more challenging. I had to rely a lot on Tim Miller to tell me when to dial it up and down. He did a great job.”
Miller, who made a name for himself helming the R-rated box office smash hit 'Deadpool' in 2016, was hand selected by Cameron to take the director's chair on 'Dark Fate'.
“I thought the action and world he created with that film was brilliant," says Cameron. "Tim was able to craft a movie that reinvented not just the superhero genre, but the R-rated action genre as well, which is exactly the kind of director we needed."
“We all got together in a room with Jim and producer David Ellison to talk about a whole bunch of what-ifs,” Miller recalls. “We considered things like whether it should take place in the present, the past or the future. Should it focus on Sarah; should it be John? We all felt strongly that the film should be in some way a handoff to new characters, but we wanted to continue the structure of the 'trinity' consisting of Hunters, protectors, and prey.”
'Dark Fate' introduces some exciting new concepts to 'Terminator' lore, such as the state of the art Rev-9, played by Gabriel Luna. Sort of a combination of the T-800 and the T-1000, the Rev-9 can separate its liquid metal exterior from its endoskeleton, creating twice the threat of an ordinary Terminator.
“I saw the original after that and I was really, really impressed by the leaps and bounds between those two films," says Luna. "It truly was the bridge between the old way of doing action cinema and the new age. That’s on Jim Cameron. He has continually raised the bar on what’s possible. And it’s been super-exciting to see the triumvirate of Sarah and Grace and Dani. They are like a pride of lionesses and I just keep chasing, nipping at their heels the entire time.”
There is also a new form of protector in Mackenzie Davis's Grace, a fighter from the future who herself has been augmented with cybernetics that give her Terminator-Like abilities. For Davis, fighting alongside Hamilton was a dream come true.
“Sarah Connor is important to the history of cinema and action, and not just because she’s a woman,” she says. “She’s also a cool evolution of a human being. I was really excited to be a part of that lineage and team up with the original Sarah Connor, seeing her age into her 60s and learning who this woman is now. It’s unusual to see a woman have the arc of her life portrayed on screen and I just was excited to be a part of it.”
“Her bones are injected with a material that over time replaces the marrow with a super-strong silicate that is nearly unbreakable,” says Miller. “Her muscle fiber is woven with mesh that is much stronger and more reactive. She takes a lot of chemicals to jack up her reaction time. Her brain has augmented processing power. She is very difficult — though not impossible — to harm and she’s very fast. But there is a price.”
Rounding out the cast of the new film is Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, a young woman living in Mexico City who, for reasons unknown, becomes the target of the Rev-9. Reyes, who stars on the hit Columbian television series ‘Lady, La Vendedora de Rosas’, makes her English language debut with ‘Dark Fate’.
“She has a normal simple life in Mexico City with her family, and then suddenly a Terminator appears,” says Reyes. “She reacts the way any of us would. Then Grace and Sarah show up to defend her and it’s a whole new world. It’s a while before she starts to understand everything that’s happening.”
“I cannot wait for people to see this new cast of characters that expands the story in exciting ways,” adds Miller. “…It’s Linda Hamilton’s return, Arnold’s back, Jim’s here and we have a really great infusion of new ideas and new blood as well. I hope it will be a worthy successor to those two truly great films. You care about every one of these characters. Each of them have moments that I hope will make the audience cry and cheer. There are amazing action set pieces that will get the blood pumping and a plot that will have the audience constantly wondering what happens next. Hopefully, it all adds up to a great time in the theater, which the audience will ultimately decide.”
There's no fate but what we make, but some fates are more easier made than others.
Which came first, the future or the past? When it comes to ‘The Terminator’ franchise, the answer isn’t so simple. Events that haven’t yet occurred affect events that occurred decades ago (and vice versa), an allegorical snake swallowing its own tail. To understand the role that time travel plays in the series, let’s examine each of the filmic ‘Terminator’ chapters and see how they play out in the broader narrative.
THE TERMINATOR (1984)
In the year 2029, mankind is locked in a deadly battle with Skynet, a collective of A.I. machines that, for decades, have ravaged the Earth. Humanity’s only savior is resistance fighter John Connor. Knowing that they will not defeat him in the 21st century, the machines send an infiltration Terminator, the T-800, back in time to 1984, hoping to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor before he ever has a chance to be born.
Fortunately for all mankind, the human resistance of 2029 is able to send back one of their own, Kyle Reese. Reese manages to protect Sarah and helps to stop the T-800 at the cost of his own life. What’s more, Kyle and Sarah fall for one another and he winds up becoming the father of the very individual whose existence he was sent back in time to safeguard.
Despite Reese’s line that “the future is not set,” the original ‘Terminator’, when viewed independently, nevertheless implies that history cannot be changed. In their attempt to take control the timestream, Skynet wound up guaranteeing the very future that they hoped to avoid. This is what is commonly known as a “Bootstrap Paradox”, named for Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 time travel novella ‘By His Bootstraps’. If John Connor is never born, Kyle Reese will never travel back in time to become his father, resulting in Connor never having been born.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
Having failed to prevent the existence of John Connor, Skynet sends another, more advanced Terminator (the T-1000) back in time to 1995, now targeting a ten year old John Connor. The resistance is once again able to send a protector through time, this time in the form of a reprogrammed T-800, tasked with protecting Sarah and John Connor at all costs.
The sequel introduces August 29, 1997 as the specific date that “Judgement Day” occurs, when Skynet takes over the planet. Thanks to the efforts of John, Sarah and the T-800, that future never comes to pass and we learn definitively that time can be altered. As Sarah puts it, there is “no fate but what we make”.
Diverging timelines offer their own sort of temporal headaches, however. If Judgment Day is prevented from happening, Skynet never sends anyone through time to prevent it. The easiest explanation is to assume that alternate timelines coexist and that, rather than fully erasing the apocalyptic future of 2029, the events of the film offer a detour into more positive path to tomorrow. ‘Dark Fate’ director Tim Miller weighed during the film’s panel at this year’s Comic-Con International, explaining why a concurrent multiverse is problematic.
"I feel like time travel with multiple realities loses some stakes,” he says. “If you can change time and it can be anything and it can be multiple or alternate timelines, I feel like you lose a little bit of the dramatic stakes. So in the ‘Terminator’ universe, there is only one timeline. If you change something in the past, the time wave rolls forward and changes the future."
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003)
Having lost his mother years earlier, an adult John Connor is doing whatever he can to live off the grid in 2004. Unable to locate him, the Skynet of 2032 send back a new Terminator (the T-X) to kill other relevant members of Connor’s resistance. As was the case previously, the resistance is able to send back their own protector, another reprogrammed T-800.
While ‘T2’ introduced the idea of oneself controlling one’s own destiny, ‘Rise of the Machines’ offers an interesting counterpoint with the notion that destiny may have its own ideas. Even though John and his mother seemingly prevented Judgment Day in 1997, this sequel posits that they only delayed the inevitable. Fate becomes less of an on and off switch and more like a gravitational field. It can certainly be resisted and even altered, but to do so is a fight against the natural order of the time itself.
TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES (2008)
When the ‘Terminator’ franchise moved to the small screen, the series creators found a clever way to circumvent ‘Terminator 3’ while still maintaining continuity with the first two ‘Terminator’ films. In the pilot episode, a 2029 Terminator is sent back to kill John Connor in 1999. Once again, a protector is also sent back, this time in the form of an unspecified model that John names Cameron. Soon, however, John, Sarah and Cameron travel to their future to stop a delayed Judgment Day from occurring in 2007. It is there that the show is then set, insulating the overall storyline from the events of all but the first two ‘Terminator’ films, not entirely dissimilar to the setup for ‘Dark Fate’.
TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009)
There isn’t a lot of time travel that occurs in ‘Salvation’, which takes place almost entirely in a post-Judgment Day 2018, maintaining continuity with the first three films and serving as a direct prequel to the original ‘Terminator’ (despite taking place decades later).
‘Salvation’ is notable, however, for bringing about a little seen chapter in the franchise, the six-episode CGI animated ‘Terminator Salvation: The Machinima Series’. Set in 2016, it serves as a prequel to the fourth film.
TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015)
Arguably the most ambitious entry when it comes to time travel, ‘Genisys’ takes place in a continuity all its own that diverges from the original timeline in the year 1973, eleven years before the first ‘Terminator’ takes place. Its timeline is created when Skynet sends back a Terminator to kill Sarah Connor when she is just nine years old. A T-800 is again sent by the resistance and, although Connor’s parents are killed, Sarah survives as is raised by T-800, who she nicknames “Pops”.
As they did in the first film, the Skynet of 2029 send back a T-800 to the year 1984 to kill Sarah Connor. In this timeline, Pops has been around for more than a decade and is waiting to intercept and destroy that Terminator. Kyle Reese also travels back to 1984 and joins forces with Sarah and Pops, ultimately deciding to use a time travel device that Pops has built to try and stop a further delayed Judgment Day from taking place in the year 2017.
When Kyle and Sarah arrive in 2017, they find a new twist. In the future, John Connor has been attacked by the living embodiment of Skynet itself, a T-5000. It is able to transform John into an advanced T-3000 and send him back to the past to ensure that Skynet comes to be.
“We're marooned, the three of us. We're exiles in time,” says the T-3000 John Connor at one point, also referring to Pops as “a relic from a deleted timeline”.
While this seemingly suggests that parallel realities can continue on independent of the prime timeline from which they split, there are a lot of unanswered questions about exactly how the mechanics of ‘Genisys’ work.
“Alternate timelines are not complicated,” argues Pops, however. “It is merely a matter of tracking possible futures using an exponential growth and decay algorithm.”
TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019)
True to its title, ‘Dark Fate’ returns to the notion of destiny as a force of nature. While Skynet never came to be, an A.I. just as dangerous has emerged in the year 2042.
“Legion is the next Skynet,” explains Cameron. “And I think the conceit here is that there's a natural tendency of the universe toward a certain outcome. That given all the forces at work and human society and human technological development are the forcing factors driving us toward artificial intelligence… The thinking is Skynet was a manifestation of this, of these driving forces. Take Skynet out of the way. Well, it's going to happen again. Take Legion out of the way. It's going to happen again. It's going to keep happening because the universe is driving in that direction relentlessly. So the question is, ‘How do you resolve that conflict?’ That a neat conflict. Either we're going to win, but by doing so we'll have to turn away from what we know and our technology and so on and go back to some kind of dark age. The machines are going to end, in which case we're extinct, we don't have to worry about it. Or there's some other path. What's the other path?”
Ultimately, though, it’s up to the viewer to decide how they choose to view the ‘Terminator’ franchise and, hopefully, the story will inspire audiences to consider their own path through time.
“I think it would be great if audiences sort of asked themselves what their impact on the world might be,” says Cameron. “Which is why the Terminator said, ‘o you believe in fate or do you believe that we changed the future every second with the choices that we make?’ …We should all walk out of that movie and ask ourselves, ‘Are we making the future every second with every choice that we make?’ Hell yeah, we are. So make good choices and value yourself. Value yourself and the impact that you have on the world and on the people around you.”