The Terminator franchise has had an interesting lifespan to say the least. The micro-budget horror film turned action franchise has both shocked and disappointed fans for the last 30 years by consisting of some of the best action scenes of all time, but also the most frustrating cinematic moments of the genre. After the continuous failures to continue the franchise and even an attempt to restart it with 2015’s Terminator: Genisys, it was safe to assume that James Cameron had finally laid the story to rest. But now, we have another Terminator film out in theaters, and it seems like Cameron has finally figured out what he was missing the entire time.
What makes Terminator: Dark Fate different than the other Terminator films that preceded the 1991 sequel is that this film seems to be going back to its basics. What’s the Terminator‘s foundation, you ask? Its protagonist.
Underneath all the heavy action and impressive visual effects is a basic story about a character. Most audiences members think the Terminator‘s protagonist is its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, but that is not correct. Who’s our hero? Not the robot sent back in time, but the waitress turned military expert: Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. At its core, Sarah Connor is the beating heart of the franchise. Without her, the story doesn’t exist—without her, there would never have been a story at all to even begin with.
Starting with the original 1984 film, The Terminator consists of a robot from the future traveling back in time to kill a person: Sarah. Immediately, the audience is invested in Sarah’s survival—if she dies: there is simply no more movie. The film enters her world and flips it upside down, the audience is invested, and we want her to live as we also figure out what is going on alongside her. The film might be known for the introduction of Schwarzenegger, who would become one of cinema’s biggest action stars, but the main principle of the film lies within Sarah’s character. If the audience doesn’t care for Sarah, an innocent, native waitress who was targeted for termination for something she didn’t do yet, then the film doesn’t work.
In the first film, the story revolves around Sarah’s need to feel significant, which is what happens by the end of the film—she saves herself. In the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, writer and director James Cameron still sets the story in Sarah’s world. When the film starts, we learn that Sarah had a son named John who is now 10, but he has lived with foster parents for most of his life. Sarah is in a mental hospital and John has no father. Within the first 30 minutes of the film it is clear that Cameron has not only updated the franchise from a horror film to an action film, but from a love story to a story about a broken family—Sarah’s broken family in particular. Now, the audience doesn’t only care about Sarah and what happened to her, but they also care about her son and the process of them coming together again.
When one takes a closer look at the two films, it is clear that Sarah is the character with the full arc. Cameron introduces his audience to the average woman who has the potential to change the future and shows what the toll of knowing the world’s doomed fate can put on that person. Within these films Sarah had a choice: to accept the information she was given by Kyle or to attempt to change the future and save humanity. The first two Terminator films are great films with amazing special effects and action sequences, but at its core it is a story about a woman’s choice and her relationship with others. Within each film, the plot revolves around Sarah’s goal: to survive in the first film and stop judgment day in the second. She is the character who is on a journey where she learns a valuable lesson at the end of the story, and the machine is only her obstacle or weapon in the respected films.
The main reason that the last three Terminator films have failed is because they weren’t about Sarah. Instead they were about the action, the special effects, or The Terminator itself. A body can have a healthy skeleton and organs, but without a heart, it can’t live. Without characters for the audience to connect to, there’s no desire to watch. If an audience doesn’t care about the characters in danger, there’s no point to put them in danger in the first place. With no Sarah to fight for us and for John’s survival, there is simply no reason to care.
But here we are for the first time in 28 years, the audience is transported back into Sarah’s world. Like the first two films, she probably has the same desire: to kill Terminators. But her need is going to be different: in the first one it was to feel significant, in the second it was to reconnect to her son. What could her desire be in this film? Maybe realizing the value of human connection?
The fact that this latest film is titled Dark Fate shows that the creative team is ready to return to their true heroine. The term is an instant call back to Sarah’s life motto that John made Kyle tell her in the original film: “the future’s not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” By choosing this specific title, it shows that director Tim Miller is aware of how important Sarah Connor is to the Terminator World. If Sarah’s fate truly is dark, then we need her now more than ever.
Again, the Terminator franchise has disappointed fans more so than exceeded their expectations in the last decade, so it would be wise to go into Terminator: Dark Fate with low expectations. But if Miller has anything right, I would say that bringing back Linda Hamilton is a phenomenal start because it shows that after 30 years, the world has finally understood the power Sarah Connor has.
Terminator: Dark Fate is now in theaters worldwide