The sixth installment of the “Terminator” series rolled out on Friday to mixed reviews and the worst opening box office numbers of the entire franchise since it began in 1984. The film picks up two years after “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” where we see digitally reproduced, younger versions of Sarah and John Connor hiding out in Guatemala, having successfully averted Judgement Day.
Then another Arnold-like T-800 terminator appears and kills John as Sarah helplessly watches on. With Skynet succeeding in killing John Connor, an entirely different timeline begins—one that contains none of the events from the three Terminator movies that came after “Judgement Day,” “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” or any of the comic books and video games about the franchise.
Nevertheless, true to “Terminator’s” essential narrative, another computer system named Legion becomes self-aware in the year 2042 and once again proceeds to try and kill off humanity. When the humans rise up and are about to defeat the system, Legion sends an even more highly advanced “Rev-9” terminator back to a time 22 years after the opening events to kill the alternate timelines’s resistance leader.
There’s been a lot of buzz about how “Dark Fate” serves the same purpose “The Force Awakens” did for the “Star Wars” franchise, namely as a reboot of the original film for a different generation. But a better analogy would be that it serves the same purpose of “The Last Jedi” in that it is not just trying to retell the original story, but to destroy any and all ties to it.
While such a version of the film may rub some viewers the wrong way, it mixes humorous situations with just the right amount of brooding ruminations from Linda Hamilton’s wizened Sarah Connor. That, coupled with action-packed scenes and phenomenal special effects, makes the movie worth seeing—provided you don’t take it too seriously.
Whether “Dark Fate’s” low ratings mark the end of a bankable film series or the movie was simply meant to serve as reboot for a generation with different sensibilities, the “Terminator” franchise will no doubt remain popular with its fan base because of the way it deals with two perennial sci-fi tropes: time travel and fate.
Time travel has generally been seen as a means to both indulge our curiosity about and assuage our anxieties over how the future is blindly shaped by our present actions. In this respect, time travelers can be seen as a kind of guilty conscience that arrive in our present time to tell us how we have gone too far or not far enough in our attempts to obtain some future desired outcome. The “Terminator” movies are about those in the future trying to control their present by changing the past.
The genius of the “Terminator”series is how it mixes those fears about what kind of future awaits us with a variant of the Frankenstein Complex, involving an A.I. system (either Skynet or Legion) that becomes self-aware and contrives some Herodian-type scheme to wipe out humanity by snuffing out the life of one human in the past.
That struggle between man and machine in the franchise as a whole, and “Dark Fate”in particular, is ongoing and has become one of its identifying factors. This is clearly illustrated by the numerous sequels to the original movie and Sarah Connor’s admission in “Dark Fate” that she has destroyed many other terminators in the two decades between her son’s murder and the arrival of the Rev-9. This cycle of action and reaction creates an endless loop of causality, because every attempt by the those in the future to fix their present by interfering with the past creates a butterfly effect of outcomes that never quite seem to achieve the desired end.
This is why in spite of one of the franchise’s key catch phrases—“There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves”—the destinies of the characters in “Dark Fate” and the rest of the “Terminator” franchise are, in fact, sealed. From a narrative point of view, this is both a liability and an asset. Certainly some will grow weary of the franchise given the limited venues from which the story can be told. Conversely, the hook that the characters reside in an existential and narrative loop ensures the series will continue.
In the end, though, for all of “Dark Fate’s” shortcomings, it still manages to do a decent job in treating issues like time travel and the fate of humanity over whether it lives or dies by means of some Tech Noir or technology run amok. For every time the audience sees a terminator and a guardian arrive from the future, they see on one hand a terminator who symbolizes a humanity that has become sterile and mechanical, whose rational capacities have been reduced to a single-minded will to control the fate of everyone around them by any means necessary.
But on the other hand, the guardian represents a humanity whose self-awareness is rooted in its Imago Dei, and thus understands the fate of humanity is wrapped up in the fate of individual persons, people who have worth and purpose. People worth protecting, and even dying for.
That’s as good a reason as any to see “Terminator: Dark Fate.” And it’s why the franchise will continue to resonate with fans.