The Terminator series started as the story about a woman with a terrible destiny. That’s how most prophetic narratives work, after all. But after the sequel, filmmakers seemed to forget that. They made new movies in which that woman was dead, or her son took center stage surrounded by men, or she was played by Emilia Clarke for some reason. Every single film past Judgment Day forgot that the Terminator series was meant to be one thing—a moment in time when a singular woman had the power to save the world.
Terminator: Dark Fate is a renewal of faith in that story. And it is a beautiful thing to witness.
[Major spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate]
Dark Fate starts right out by destroying its elephant in the room. We find out that, following the events of Judgment Day, after Sarah Connor saved the future with the help of an oddly friendly Terminator, another one arrived on the scene—looking exactly like the protective Model 101 they came to trust—and blew her son away. She may have saved humanity, but in the end she couldn’t save John. She couldn’t protect the one person who was meant to be her entire life’s purpose.
It’s hard to understate how seismic that move is. The announcement at San Diego Comic-Con this year led fans to believe that John Connor’s role in this new tale would be somehow more significant, surprising everyone with the knowledge that he would be present at all. But they hyped his return only to murder him in the opening moments of the movie. This is a glaring message to anyone who was perhaps hoping it was his turn to take up the mantle: This is not John Connor’s story. In point of fact, it never was.
And in any case, his death was over two decades ago. Now there is a new threat and a new mission: another AI rising that goes by the name of Legion and is after a woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). An augmented human called Grace (Mackenzie Davis) has been sent to protect her, though she’s determined to keep a lid on the future she’s trying to protect and why she must save Dani in particular. It’s no time at all before they run into Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who helps them because all she’s done since John’s death is fight Terminators on mysterious tips from an unknown source that signs each communique “For John”. Sarah is bitter, alienated, known the world over as some kind of rabid criminal. But she knows this story because she used to have the starring role. Her special messages come from the same source that Grace got tattooed on her ribs by her superiors, so they head to Loredo, Texas to find it.
The premise is simple enough, but it cannot effectively communicate what it means to see the Terminator film series own up to its true power and amplify it tenfold. This is a sci-fi action film centered on not one, but three women. Each of them is unique, each of them is important, and each of them is permitted a complete arc that highlights their strengths and vulnerabilities. Sarah can barely contain her disgust for what’s happening to Dani, the assumed mother of another key to the resistance. She already knows what it feels like to be reduced to her status as a bearer of some sort of future messiah, and how being reduced to that status doesn’t make being a savior better or more meaningful. All those years running and hiding have allowed her to save the world over and over, but it doesn’t allow her anything real to hang onto. She drinks each night until she blacks out. She’s forgetting what her son ever looked like. There’s no home base for her, no friends or family to make the purpose bearable.
Then there’s Grace, whom Davis infuses with such intensity and power that she’s frequently hypnotizing. No one else so seamlessly melds intimidation with intense devotion. Grace’s body has been tuned and enhanced for her mission, but she’s still human, and with that humanity come certain limitations. Her body breaks down and requires medicines to bring her back to fighting shape. So, all of her power still requires her to be exposed, to both Dani and Sarah, in order to continue protecting Dani. We get the enjoyment of watching Grace do so many of the things that only Terminators can do, but this time with all the humanity attached, all the prickly emotions and entanglements that brings.
Reyes’s portrayal of Dani is stunning, as we’re forced to reckon with a new woman thrust into Sarah’s old position as Most Important Woman in the World. But Dani’s life isn’t like Sarah’s—before the Rev-9 arrives and destroys her life, she is already responsible for taking care of everyone in her orbit. She has a father and brother to protect, a job at a factory that is intent on replacing people with machines. Sarah Connor’s destiny seemed to come out of nowhere, but with Dani, we see a woman already deeply committed to looking out for others, fighting for them, demanding better of them. Dani Ramos doesn’t have the luxury of partying through her twenties with no perceived direction. Though the terms of her life are not quite so bombastic before a Terminator shows up, she was already operating with the wisdom and forceful purpose of someone twice her age and experience.
All three of Dark Fate’s focal characters have particular ways in which they embody a truth that women know the world over—they are each expected to give and give of themselves until they have nothing left. And then they are expected to give more. Batteries at zero? Power up and keep moving. Family murdered in front of you? There isn’t time to mourn. Spent the last three decades saving humanity? That’s sweet, but there’s still more to do. There is no rest for these women. No scheduled reprieves to remind themselves that they’re human, or comforts to make going along a little easier. But they don’t seem to notice that they never get a break because that’s the default they’ve always operated under.
Sure, Schwarzenegger shows up and gets his own heroic arc. He’s living as “Carl”, and he’s the same T-800 that killed Sarah’s son all those years ago, though he managed to grow a conscience and tried to give Sarah purpose by telling her where new threats would emerge. But the film lets his character work in service of Sarah’s story, and Dani’s, not the other way around. He’s their glorified bodyguard, arriving at just the right time to enable not only the narrative, but the emotional bonds these women end up making with each other. He’s a very fun means to that end.
Dark Fate has politics in play that are extremely relevant to this exact moment in time, and it smartly doesn’t shy away from them. A hefty portion of the film’s action is dedicated to a perilous cross at the U.S./Mexican border, one which sees Dani, Sarah, and Grace caught and placed in holding pens while the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) hunts them down. Grace is injured and taken for medical attention, and when she wakes and demands to know where the prisoners are being kept, one of the guards tries to correct her by saying “detainees”—Grace isn’t having it. The fact that the film devotes so much focus to the concept of the new world savior being kept in a cage (and almost killed) for crossing a border illegally is something the audience must engage with. The fact that said savior is also a Mexican woman who spends much of the film speaking Spanish is equally important. These elements only add to Dark Fate’s relevance as a story, making it more grounded than ever.
The film’s action sequences and special effects are all excellent, and with them comes a visual theme that is rarely found in movies; because Terminator: Dark Fate is a story centered on three women, the action sequences are constantly rotating around the ways in which they interact, but more explicitly on how they protect one another. Almost every fight or battle inevitably involves some form of close-up with these women holding onto each other, covering one another, shielding each other with their bodies. It is hard to describe how powerful and moving that is when it’s so uncommon to what we see on screen.
And the end of the film that begins with the death of John Connor takes this one choice step further. Terminator: Dark Fate is about Dani Ramos, and it’s about her bond with Grace, and it’s about a renewal of purpose for Sarah Connor. Because Dani isn’t really Sarah—she doesn’t give birth to a leader, she is the leader. It’s fairly obvious that this reveal is coming right from the beginning, but it matters because it reframes the entire Terminator series around the woman who drove it from the start. Sarah Connor wasn’t special because she gave birth to John Connor. The leader of humanity’s resistance was never going to be one special man because that conceit is ridiculous. There are other leaders all around us, and the person who keeps back the monsters is whoever steps up to take the mantle. Sarah Connor already did that. She did it with every action she took. The gift of Dark Fate is its decision to prevent her from facing that destiny alone. Is this theme a little on the nose, at times? You bet. But it doesn’t wrestle one inch of power away from that choice.
It would have been so easy to make a movie that was Sarah Connor’s Last Hurrah. But Terminator: Dark Fate is anything but lazy. Then again, it’s the next chapter in a story founded on the power of Sarah Connor… so it had a lot to live up to. And it finally lived up to the challenge.