Humanising the Machine
Why ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ didn’t work
Given the pretty rapid decline of the franchise after Terminator 2, when Dark Fate was announced I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it until the marketing trumpeted the return of original writer and director James Cameron. I am a big fan of the original movie and an even bigger fan of the sequel, both written and directed by Cameron so this announcement about Dark Fate felt significant. The marketing also boasted that the film was a return to those two (excellent) original films, essentially ret-conning out the last three (dreadful) movies from the intractable knot of backstory they had created with alternate timelines, reboots and recasting. Instead, it is presented as a direct sequel to Terminator 2 with (parts of) the original cast. Music to my ears, I thought, until I saw the trailer, which revealed it was the same story as the rest. Again. A robot is sent from the future to kill the leader of the human resistance. Oh sure it’s a woman this time and it’s ‘Legion’ now not Skynet but it’s all the same beats and all the same set pieces as the last five. The trouble with this is that, while Dark Fate, is certainly the best sequel since Judgement Day, it can’t escape the simple fact time has moved on and the significance of that, both in and outside of the movie.
Upon initial release in 1984 there was a general acceptance of a science fiction future being on the horizon. Technology was advancing at a rapid pace in industrial and domestic settings. Automation and outsourcing was changing the workplace for the entire planet, while domestic appliances were becoming more powerful themselves. This was the era of the VCR and the video game console. A paranoia about this wave of all-encompassing technology was well articulated in pop culture in the likes of Robocop, Blade Runner, Short Circuit, Batteries Not Included, War Games, Tron and, yes, The Terminator. For me, it is Robocop that best seemed to hit the nail on the head when it came to fears about the unstoppable “March of Progress” represented in unwanted tech that was being foisted on the public by large multi-national conglomerate companies, whereas The Terminator is a much more ambient, existential look at what this ‘progress’ felt like. Market enforced ‘progress’ that walked and talked like a person but hid a cold, metallic skeleton underneath. This, combined with a fresh paranoia over nuclear war, meant, at its core, The Terminator is a low-budget horror movie a la John Carpenter.
In contrast, Terminator 2 (from the good old days when sequels were just numbered) is a high-budget action movie. This time, in the more economically stable, decadent, Neo-Liberal utopia of the 90s, the villain of the previous movie is the saviour here, whereas the antagonist is a nebulous, shape-shifting Other, an uncanny, intangible being that can appear as a friend, a policeman or a mother but one that wants to kill you and your children. The technology of the previous decade is now your friend, your ally, the film says, whereas the enemy could be anyone. Terminator 2, without wishing to denigrate the original, is the superior film of the two as it articulates the nebulous distrust of your neighbour, the proverbial ‘Other’, fostered by the contemporary politics of individualism at the time. It also makes some bold stabs at the weighty existential questions posited in the first movie. There are few Box Office Blockbuster action movies today that dare to have a lead character ask “It is in human nature to destroy yourselves?” Or “Why do you cry?” It’s a great action movie but it has an affecting and absorbing atmosphere that has stayed with me ever since I first saw it.
The sequels that followed had no such interest in the broader questions forced on us by accelerationism and technocratic solutionism. Rise of the Machines was just the typical early-2000s model of “bigger and better” that was a garbage retread of the previous movie, Salvation was a post-Dark Night attempt at “gritty realism” for the franchise which really had nothing much to say at all and was overshadowed by Christian Bale’s on-set meltdown that went viral, and the less said about Genisys the better. What this decline in the franchise represented, other than the property owners flogging a dead horse, was that the paranoia and fear that fueled the original films didn’t exist anymore. The first two terminators were made before the Internet was even a thing outside of laboratories. Since then we have been living in the sci-fi future, to the extent that when it was revealed the government used our ubiquitous smartphones and tablets to quite literally watch our every move, the overwhelming response the world over was: “So what?” Fears over AI and automation are redundant when the worst fear over AI we have today is if Alexa didn’t order the right quinoa. And it was into this world Dark Fate wanted to set out its stall.
To its credit (I imagine largely thanks to Cameron’s story credit), the film does make glancing references to modern technology’s ubiquity with its smartphones in crisp packets, people losing jobs to machines, drones patrolling borders and so on. The trouble is it never marries this to the concept of the future being a threat, the present is more of a threat here than any possible apocalypse (it feels even more tone deaf since the pandemic). There is, however, one theme that the film unintentionally develops from the original that could have made for a much more interesting film. The theme of age and frailty.
Given the near 30 year time difference between the film it purports to be a direct sequel to and Dark Fate itself, a rich mine of looking at how times have changed and what that means for a future was the obvious choice for how to progress the story. What if the future is repeating itself and is this a cycle of unchangeable violence or is peace a better option? What is the necessity of this technology? Or, more interestingly, what does a self aware, learning machine look like? Schwarzenegger’s reappearance in the franchise as an old terminator with a beard (bizarrely) who, though in great shape, is clearly stiffer and older than the unstoppable might of the original Terminator in his prime, who now has a family and has developed an understanding of the human need for connection and love suggests interesting ideas about what a ‘Self’ even is. Is this “machine learning” or is this a soul? Would a terminator always stay a terminator if it had a life span of a hundred years? Schwarzenegger’s frailty as an ageing actor compared with his prime as an ideal, hyper-masculine specimen of perfection in the 80s and 90s could have been the perfect opportunity to explore questions about planned obsolescence, on-boarding and off-boarding in the sale of technology, military spending and replenishment statistics for their own technology, the efficacy of murder machines, the use of unmanned kill-machines and culpability as years pass and of if programmed with a learning algorithm, is his presence as a father figure indicative that violence is proscribed and human nature perhaps trends towards peace? Not only all this, with Linda Hamilton’s presence the film offers the reverse argument with human’s place in these questions; if we must bury our children how do we replace them? Are the ideals of an older generation out of date or might they be integrated? As women live statistically longer than men and given the need for Sarah Connor’s continued resilience, is the reliance on masculine figures for a terminator misjudged by the AIs of the future? Do you ever stop being a mother? There is a wealth of existential questions relevant to contemporary discussions on the pervasiveness of technology and of identity that are part of the global consciousness today, all baked into Dark Fate but which are not explored any further than a passing reference, if not simply ignored.
All of these genuinely arresting, compelling themes revolve around the fact that, where, in the 80s, technology was a cold and unfeeling monster that might destroy us, today tech companies have gone to great lengths to humanise their products, giving them names and personalities, like… oh I don’t know… Carl? Yes, the heartless villain, that became a saviour, is now a suburban Dad called Carl in Dark Fate. It is intended as a subversion for humour’s sake, like Fat Thor, but, just like Fat Thor, it doesn’t extend beyond that initial subversion for a laugh. In the same way a shed full of guns is funny because Texas *pause for laughter*. There’s a far more interesting story to tell here about how a machine learned to be a human and how Sarah Connor learned to be a robot. For instance: the better ending for Dark Fate would have been for Connor to die saving Dani and for Carl to survive, being forced into protecting and training the future saviour of humanity. This would be a final inversion of The Terminator’s original thesis, going from technology as a malevolent unstoppable force, to friend, saviour and loved companion. Meanwhile the female protagonist went from young wage-slave every-woman, to battle hardened survivor, to single minded, heartless, machine-like killer. Seeing Schwarzenegger hobble up the garden path and talk about drapes unitentionally humanises him, while seeing Sarah Connor say “I’ll be back” and coolly whacking another terminator dehumanises her. If this had been intentional it could have made for a far better movie if more intelligently expressed. The work is there, but, in favour of retreading the path walked by, now, five full movies, Dark Fate opts for the safe option of rehashing the same old story. Again. The freshness and zeitgeist-tapping popularity of the original two Terminator films was due to, firstly, articulating a cultural sense of worry, and secondly, subverting its own previously established rules. Dark Fate tries this but whiffs it. By making the changes superficial and shallow it, instead, comes across as yet another pale imitation of its forebears. Arnie might hug and kiss his wife and son goodbye or leave his iconic shades behind but in the very next scene he’s back to pounding another Terminator into the dirt. The person the heroes are protecting is a girl this time but she’s still doing the same job as John Connor. Grace is a girl but she’s still just Kyle Reese. And Sarah Connor’s still just Sarah Connor, the same traumatised, hard-nosed badass she was in the second movie (much unlike the ditsy, scared, naive waif from the first film). It’s the same dance in a different dress and it fumbles what could have been an era-defining movie about our relationship with technology specific to this time that is sat so firmly in such a strange period between generations, one of whom had none of it and the other that has only ever known it.
When these criticisms crop up against the seemingly endless litany of sequels, remakes, reboots and ripoffs that clog up the major studio’s release schedule over the last decade, fans often (hysterically) respond “It doesn’t need to be different! It’s just more of the same! This is what we want!” Except it isn’t. Terminator 2 wasn’t so successful because it was just a retread of the original, people loved it because (and this is a fact seemingly lost to time), it was an unexpected subversion of the original. Schwarzenegger’s presence in the promotion of the film was that he was the assumed villain again, but he wasn’t. He’s the good guy. The scene in the hallway was, at the time, a gotcha moment. No one saw it coming. But unlike Dark Fate he doesn’t just go back to being the same character from the previous film in the next scene. Terminator 2 builds on its subversion. The franchise has, pretty much since that scene, stagnated, with not a single original idea used in any film since. When I look back on these movies that have now become the bloated, focus-group driven, corporate mandated franchises that they are, it breaks my heart. Alien, Terminator, Star Wars, Robocop, Halloween, all of these and more, were original screenplays with sequels (two of the most notable of which were both by James Cameron I might add) that jump off from the original in new directions. And by new directions I don’t just mean a re-skin of the original. I mean different themes, settings, characters, arcs, the lot. It was expected that a sequel would be different back then, now that is the antithesis of what is expected by both studio and audience. There are almost no non-franchise big budget movies made today (that aren’t made by Nolan) whereas the word ‘franchise’ didn’t even exist in Hollywood until the late 80s/early 90s. I beat this drum a lot but it’s true: mainstream cinema has totally stagnated and Dark Fate is a prime example of this. While aesthetically the quality has never been higher, cinema has barely budged an inch in 30 years, which is a perfect encapsulation of politics and culture in general in that time. But that’s for another article…
I’m not going to say “if you liked Terminator 2 you’ll love Dark Fate because it’s basically the same” because you won’t. It just made me want to rewatch Terminator 2 because that still holds a firm place in my favourite films list. If the Terminator franchise must continue — and seemingly it must — then I am desperate for someone to come along and completely rethink the franchise. What began as a low-budget horror should return to those scrappy roots. Which is where I throw my hat in the ring and say I’ve written my own spec-script for a possible sequel. So if anyone from Skydance Media is reading this, hmu. In the meantime, Dark Fate isn’t worth the watch. Linda Hamilton and Mackenzie Davis do their best with a thoroughly dull and uninspired trudge through older, better movies but even their standout performances can’t save it. There was an opportunity here though, to tell a really interesting story that could capture public imagination in a way akin to The Dark Knight, but, instead, we just got yet another bad Terminator sequel. Better luck next time Skydance. *Hint hint*