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In ‘Terminator: Dark Fate,’ the Future Is Female

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back for the sequel, but the film belongs to its heroines. Truth is, this franchise has always been more feminist than it’s been given credit.

Ellen Ripley wasn’t the original female action hero. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia were out there battling bad guys long before Sigourney Weaver’s interstellar character came on the scene. Still, Ripley remains perhaps the most significant early example of a guns-blazing, tough-talking woman who was also a franchise’s key figure. In 1979’s Alien, which is more of an ensemble piece, she’s a lowly warrant officer whose superior smarts and survival instincts allow her to outlast her fellow crew members as a nasty extra-terrestrial wreaks havoc on her ship. But by 1986’s Aliens, which was written and directed by James Cameron, she had become a battle-tested warrior, fearlessly leading a group of soldiers against a whole mess of gnarly aliens. That’s the Ripley of the subsequent sequels and the one that’s embedded in the public consciousness — the one that sneered, “Get away from her, you bitch!” before engaging in one final showdown with the galactic beast. 

After Aliens, there was no longer any question whether female characters could carry an action movie. Ripley, Weaver and Cameron changed all that.

We now live in an age in which it’s hardly novel for a blockbuster to be led by a female protagonist. The Hunger Games, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel were all huge successes, and next year, we’ll finally get a standalone Black Widow film. So the news that Terminator: Dark Fate is a female-focused sci-fi spectacle isn’t particularly groundbreaking. And yet, this competent, relatively satisfying sequel to an outdated franchise still feels special because of the ideas it embeds within its storyline. For a series so synonymous with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s swaggering physique, women (and stereotypically female emotions) have always been at its center. Dark Fate just brings those themes to the surface.

The 1984 original, directed and co-written by Cameron, had a killer concept: A terrifying robot assassin from the future (Schwarzenegger) goes back to our present to murder a seemingly ordinary woman, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will give birth to the leader of a resistance that will try to overthrow the robots that have enslaved their human masters. The Terminator cast Hamilton as a damsel in distress who was in need of rescuing by the rugged soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who had gone back in time to make sure the T-800 failed in his mission. But just as with Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day demonstrated that the female character from the original was no longer some shrinking violet. Trapped in a loony bin, Sarah spent her time getting buff, preparing for the inevitable war with the machines — she wasn’t going to be caught unprepared the next time a Terminator crossed her path. 

There were other Terminator movies after Judgment Day — for instance, 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines featured a female Terminator — but Dark Fate tweaks the timeline so that none of those exist anymore. (This is just as well: Not much there was memorable.) The new film takes place roughly in the present, but one in which a fearsome artificial intelligence known as Legion threatens the human race. (It’s complicated, but basically, Skynet is gone and has been replaced by Legion as the franchise’s principal villain.) And a familiar story is about to unfold: A terrifying robot assassin from the future (Gabriel Luna) goes back in time to murder a seemingly ordinary woman, Dani (Natalia Reyes), who will give birth to the leader of a resistance that will try to overthrow the robots. And, once again, a rugged soldier, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), goes back in time to make sure the assassin fails.

The sequel knowingly echoes The Terminator and Judgment Day, seeking to create a sense of history repeating itself — or, more accurately, the notion that no matter how many times we reshape the future, some events keep recurring. But some things have changed. This time, there’s no alpha male coming to save the mother of the resistance. It’s not just Grace who will protect Dani — Sarah appears out of nowhere, well into middle age but jacked and armed to the teeth. The years have been hard on her, but she’s resilient — like the Sarah of Judgment Day, she’s ready for Terminators, whom she spends her time hunting down. She’s the action hero of her own story.

Dark Fate follows these three women, all from different generations (and time periods), who must band together to defeat a new Terminator, known as the Rev-9, who’s the primary male character for much of the film. Other men — family members and periphery figures — get killed off or prove ineffectual. It becomes fairly obvious to Grace, Sarah and Dani pretty quickly that they’ll have to rely on each other to stay alive. The future of humanity rests in their hands.

The preciousness of motherhood has been a theme in several sci-fi works, everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to Children of Men. Women — and mothers especially — are often portrayed as nurturing, virtuous, the hope for a brighter future than the dystopian present where the characters currently find themselves. Cameron made motherhood central to the first two Terminator films, as well as Aliens, which was very much about Ripley protecting a little girl from the big, bad E.T. (Ripley’s status as a warrior mom was developed in subsequent sequels that didn’t involve Cameron.) The director helped produce and come up with the story for Dark Fate, which might explain why it returns to this maternal notion. And the movie certainly tries to be timely: At a moment in U.S. history where reproductive rights are being threatened, it’s not much of a stretch to see Dark Fate as a somewhat forced metaphor for women fighting to control their bodies against an evil menace.

But the film’s feminist stance extends beyond any simplistic “girl power” depiction of Strong Female Characters™. It’s also felt in its treatment of the aging T-800, whom Schwarzenegger made famous 35 years ago. When the women finally encounter him, he’s graying, bearded, settled down. He’s long stopped being a killing machine, finding some semblance of domesticity with a human woman. As best as he can, the T-800 has gotten in touch with his feelings. This is an old sci-fi trope — the robot who develops a heart — but it’s been a feature of the T-800 since Terminator 2, which spent a lot of time asking whether Arnold’s sleek machine could ever process emotions. That he couldn’t was seen as a failing: What was the point of saving the human race if you had no humanity of your own?

Dark Fate can be generic and cheesy, but it’s strongest when it suggests that people are at their best when they’re not just ass-kicking action heroes. Grace, Sarah and Dani all get to do cool things in the movie, but the filmmakers aren’t embarrassed to let them be emotional and scared, too. Dark Fate isn’t afraid of feelings, and unlike other female-driven action movies, there’s little concern about ensuring the characters get love interests or male sidekicks. Even Dani’s perceived role in humanity’s future is nicely tweaked, sending up a gender bias that’s been hiding in plain sight from the beginning of this franchise. Earlier this year, many criticized that scene near the end of Avengers: Endgame where the female Avengers all teamed up to fight Thanos: Sure, it was a nice blow for equality, but it was also all of a minute long. Terminator: Dark Fate is a whole blockbuster devoted to women working together. Ripley would be proud to join their ranks.

Here are three other takeaways from Terminator: Dark Fate

#1. Let’s remember the debt this franchise owes to Harlan Ellison.

Harlan Ellison was among the most prominent and influential of science-fiction writers. Dying in the summer of 2018 at the age 84, he left behind a large body of work, including novels, short stories and several episodes of television. But it’s possible he’s most well-known for a movie he didn’t write but inspired: The Terminator.

It’s a story that’s been oft-told: A young James Cameron, trying to break through in Hollywood, hatches the idea for The Terminator. But because he can’t help himself, he brags to people about how he came up with the concept, supposedly saying, “Oh, I ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories.” The stories in question were episodes of the anthology series The Outer Limits that depicted robot characters who go back in time to kill. Ellison found out about the creative borrowing and sued. This video does a nice job of distilling what happened from there:

To summarize: Ellison got the studio to agree to pay him around $65,000 to $75,000 — that’s a nice chunk of change for the mid-1980s — and had a disclaimer added to home-video copies of The Terminator that read, “Acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison.” Cameron, always the magnanimous sort, took the whole thing in stride:

“It was a nuisance suit that could easily have been fought. I expected Hemdale and Orion [which, respectively, produced and distributed the film] to fight for my rights, but they abandoned me. The insurance company told me if I didn’t agree to the settlement, they would come after me personally for the damages if they lost the suit. Having no money at the time, I had no choice but to agree to the settlement. Of course there was a gag order as well, so I couldn’t tell this story but now I frankly don’t care. It’s the truth. Harlan Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass.”

It was an epic battle between two infamous egomaniacs who refused to kowtow to anyone. Ellison has always been a guy I’ve admired. I met him once in film school, and he was tough as nails. He believed that writers shouldn’t be pushed around by studios and producers. He insisted that writers stand up for themselves. As he memorably said in this interview, “I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.” 

I watch this video a decent amount. It’s a good reminder that not just writers and artists, but everyone, needs to know their value. If you don’t, no one else will, either.

#2. One plot point in the Guns N’ Roses video for “You Could Be Mine” has bothered me for decades.

The summer of 1991 was exciting for several reasons, including the release of Terminator 2 and the imminent arrival of Guns N’ Roses’ heavily anticipated Use Your Illusion records. Those two events were preceded by “You Could Be Mine,” the first Use Your Illusion single, which had a video that incorporated footage from Terminator 2 — and, strangely, a Terminator­-esque storyline.

In the clip, Guns N’ Roses, led by frontman Axl Rose, are rocking out in a nondescript space while the crowd goes nuts. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 enters the room, shotgun in hand, as he moves menacingly and slowly toward the stage. These scenes were intercut with clips from Terminator 2, giving fans a taste of what the movie would be like, including Arnold’s “Hasta la vista, baby” catch phrase.

There are plenty of dopey elements to the “You Could Be Mine” video, not the least of which is that it’s pretty clear that the footage of the T-800 moving through the crowd was not shot at the same time as the GNR concert scenes. Also, it seems weird that the T-800 wouldn’t just start blasting the band members if he was there to kill them. What’s he waiting for?

But none of that has bugged me for the last 28 years. My issue is with the video’s ending. After the band gets done performing, they exit through the back of the arena — only to discover, holy crap, the T-800 is waiting there for them. Forgetting for a moment that, again, Schwarzenegger could have easily shot them inside the venue, he then scans each of them, clearly looking for Rose. When the singer finally emerges, the T-800’s high-tech system determines that he’s a “Waste of ammo,” and so, the Terminator lowers his weapon.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Okay, so, here are my questions: Why is Axl Rose a waste of ammo? Does that mean he’s not worth killing? That kinda makes Rose sound like a loser, right? If so, is this supposed to be funny? And if he is a waste of ammo, why did the T-800 go to all that trouble in the first place? Is Skynet faulty?

I’ve never heard a satisfying answer to any of my queries. This video is a goddamn riddle. I’ll figure out how time travel works in a Terminator movie before anything in “You Could Be Mine” makes sense to me.

#3. The “Why does the Terminator have a penis?” argument will never die.

Despite what I said earlier, most still associate The Terminator with Arnold. It’s hard to forget his memorable introduction into the movie, all buff and naked after being deposited into our present day. And a select group of fans have fixated on one specific moment of that sequence:

Beyond the juvenile titillation of “Hee hee, we saw your junk,” Schwarzenegger’s intro has long inflamed a debate: Why, exactly, does the T-800 need a penis? Well, worry not, because the people of Reddit have answers.

On one thread, TheType95 suggests it’s a way for Terminators to more easily blend into human society: “If Skynet was known to leave [the penis] out, [the resistance would] just have all the men drop their pants upon returning to base, any eunuchs get fired on instantly.” This is a good point, actually. 

Meanwhile, AlistairStarbuck got super-technical, noting, “Well it’s human flesh grown onto an android core. That requires a fair amount of biological engineering to keep it alive without all of the internal organs, removing the penis from that template would be additional work for no additional gain, and come to think of it, it’s probably beneficial to the growth of muscle mass on the flesh covering to have testicles included in the system for testosterone production.”

That clears it up, right?

It’s easy to make fun of nerds online who worry about nonsense like this. (And who can forget the freak-out that some people had when it was rumored that the Terminator in Terminator: Genisys would “look like a Ken doll”?) Still, I have to confess, I was also thinking about the T-800’s unit while watching Dark Fate, which establishes that he’s in a loving relationship with a woman. I couldn’t help myself: How would that work exactly? Does a Terminator penis work the same as a human penis? Can he reproduce? 

I look forward to these questions being answered in the sequel Terminator: Daddy Day Care.