The History of Things to Come

“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged on for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.

It would be fought here, in our present.

Tonight…”

The wind whistles past piles of bleached human skulls, barely visible in the half-light, as the twisted ruins of a post-nuclear Los Angeles come into view. Laser fire splits the night. A VTOL aircraft of unfamiliar design wheels overhead, firing down on an unseen enemy; while a tracked war-machine rolls forward in its wake, crushing the last shreds of human resistance as easily as the bones beneath its treads.

This, as it turns out, is the best-case scenario. Welcome to 2029.

The Terminator franchise has been a hit since well before I was born, and for good reason. James Cameron’s original 1984 sci fi horror, with its inhuman, nigh-unstoppable antagonist doling out several slasher films’ worth of mechanical murder in pursuit of its target, is genuinely terrifying. From its opening moments to the climactic confrontation among the Terminator’s industrial forebears, the movie takes a uniquely modern fear of the machine — of being violently replaced by something which never tires, never stops, and which you can’t control  — and endows it with a terrible, singular purpose.

This machine can look like us, even sound like us long enough to get close. But it is not us. Underneath the veneer of muscle and skin lies cold, hard metal. Metal that requires neither rest nor food. It does not feel fear, or pity, or pain. It does not love. It sees the world in grids and lines, targeting reticules and data-feeds. It is the antithesis of our fragile, lonely meat. And it wants you dead. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titular “cybernetic organism” is, quite literally, our fear given flesh.

This sense of powerlessness in the face of an unfeeling, unstoppable mechanism is reinforced constantly throughout practically every scene in the opening forty-five minutes. Shot after lingering shot and several significant match-cuts connect the world of ’80s LA, and particularly the machines in the film’s present day (far larger than any of the people operating them), with a future where our tools have turned on us. And you start to wonder when the roles actually reversed.

No one on screen, other than the Terminator, is ever in control of the world humans have built for themselves. The systems put in place to protect them and the weapons they try to do so with serve only to create a false sense of security. Firearms and appeals to the authorities or family for aid are, at best, costly distractions from the only useful thing anyone can do: run. At worst, they’re actively used against you.

Very little works against the T-101, though. Almost nothing Sarah and Reese throw at it does more than slow it down. Bullets and bombs both fail. Quick thinking and finely honed combat skills merely seem to delay the inevitable. The only thing that can kill this machine, in the end, is one of its own.

Sarah Connor survives as much through blind luck as through her own valiant efforts, or those of the man sent to protect her. She is the cleverest, most resourceful character in the story, working out that she’s being hunted the instant she hears about the initial phonebook murders on the news. After which she immediately hightails it to a very public place, picks up the phone, and attempts to both warn her roommate and get help from the police. It’s exactly what you might shout at the reassuringly-stupid protagonist in a slasher movie to do at the first sign of trouble. All it does here is put her and others in mortal danger.

Most of the time, our heroes do everything right they possibly can with the information they have. Yet still the “Mother of the Future” barely gets out alive — as traumatised as Reese by the time the credits roll, and on the run for the rest of her days. Reese, for his part, is dead. Everyone else we met along the way is also either dead or in a holding pattern for the apocalypse.

The conclusion is clear from the get-go. Humanity as a whole, and by extension the audience, cannot win this round. For any of the events on-screen to happen, the world we know must end in nuclear fire. The most anyone can do until Judgement Day is fight a desperate rearguard action to ensure our survival after the balloon goes up.

We are told that the machines are close to defeat in the future, assassination their final gambit. But before our victory can be secured, billions of people have to die. It is inescapable. There is a storm coming. The history of things to come has already been written. What sliver of hope does exist for our species rests on the shoulders of a lone woman and her unborn child.

Not exactly a feel-good ending, is it? The Terminator is a tale of tenacity in the face of impossible odds. It is about dealing with the inevitable and doing what you can with what you have, when sometimes all you can do is simply refuse to die.

No Fate But What We Make

“The future’s not set. There is not fate but what we make for ourselves.”

Terminator 2: Judgement Day takes a dramatically different approach. Cameron decided to change things up for the sequel, and switched from horror to action. In so doing, he flipped the script on its head.

As with another genre-defining movie of his, Aliens, what had been a tense, visceral experience with body-horror straight out of The Thing the first time round became an emotive, entertaining, comparatively upbeat rollercoaster ride. It’s an effective change, and certainly makes the movie more fun to watch. The cast is much bigger, as is the budget, and there are many more explosions. The janky stop-motion Terminator skeleton of the first film is replaced with a sleek, liquid-metal foe that’s still impressive for 1991 CGI.

The writing remains top-notch too. James Cameron has never been accused of subtle storytelling (Unobtanium, anyone?), but the man knows how to spin a satisfying yarn nonetheless. From the first shots of the reprogrammed T-101, which the audience don’t yet know has been sent to protect rather than kill, T2 turns its predecessor’s cinematic language and messaging upside down.

Where in The Terminator the camera movements, score, and framing instantly made us aware of the threat Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscular form posed even when naked, its sibling takes a more playful attitude. The camera moves between the cyborg’s perspective and a surprisingly egalitarian gaze, lending both the obvious power fantasy and its star’s physical beauty an at-times comic effect. The violence is less extreme, and while people do get seriously hurt, no one dies. He beats up some bikers, sure, but he doesn’t put his fist through a guy’s chest this time, or project the same palpable menace as before. This is played for a certain amount of levity as well — Arnie’s robotic delivery makes the most mundane of one-liners memeable, and his opponents are hilariously inept in a fight.

Everything about this new Terminator, from his initial appearance through to having acquired those iconic clothes, boots, and motorcycle, tells you he’s a different breed to the cold, implaccable death-machine of the first movie. This is confirmed when we cut to another time-traveller appearing naked in a ball of light, and the cinematic language inverts, telling us before we see him do a single thing that this new character is dangerous. We don’t actually witness him murder the first person he encounters, but it’s a safe bet.

Still, for all the audience knows based on the pattern established in the original film, the T-1000 is the good guy. It doesn’t feel that way though. Cameron uses the same initial structure, having the T-800 appear first and displaying the harm it can do while giving us little information about its opponent, to arrive at a diametrically opposite effect.

There are no shots of looming machinery or a general sense that our tools are beyond our control, no PTSD flashbacks to a future where humanity has finally been swallowed by our grand systems. John Connor is introduced to us as a child, using technology to achieve a level of freedom and control over his life previously reserved for his mother’s would-be assassin. This, unsurprisingly, establishes a central theme of the movie. Machines aren’t purely a threat anymore, they can be controlled. They can be helpful. They can even learn to love.

The idea that something inhuman could be more humane than any human being is one James Cameron has spent decades dissecting. In Aliens, for instance, he directly addresses Ripley’s (completely understandable, based on her experiences) fear of androids, and a large part of her character arc is learning to trust Bishop. As it turns out, he’s critical to her and the other characters’ survival. In the two years between the The Terminator and Aliens, Cameron seems to have changed his mind.

With T2 we see this exploration come to fruition and animate every aspect of the production. Like Ripley, Sarah Connor has to get past her own trauma and justifiable hatred for artificial intelligence to succeed, and learns not merely to trust the machine that almost killed her but comes to see it as a potential father for John. This isn’t subtext either, it’s right there in the dialogue. In a soliloquy perfectly mirroring the terrifying description of the original T-101 Reese gives in The Terminator, Sarah muses that:

“The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. It would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

We are, throughout the movie, meant to empathise with John, who — whilst he has been told of the havoc a Terminator can wreak — has no first-hand experience of it. He has little reason to fear, and his first encouner with the machines out to kill him ends with one saving his life. The T-800 very quickly becomes the strong, protective father-figure he’s always wanted, and stays that way until the credits roll. From John, the emotionless machine learns to feel, and gets more and more human as they bond over the course of the story. Dogs do not bark at him as they once did, and still do at his more advanced replacement. The Terminator is no longer an “it”, as John says in as many words, but a “he”. A person. One who grows more in a day than many humans do their whole adult lives. By his final, poignant descent into hot steel, not only has this death-dealing machine learned the value of human life, but he understands why we cry.

Where in 1984 we were presented with humans struggling against the inevitable, unstoppable embodiment of technological terror, by 1991 Cameron has the audience rooting for a robot.

He takes a different attitude to the systems around us as well. Instead of being crushed by the unstoppable, grinding progress of machinery of which we are only a tiny part, here we have the power to stop it ourselves. It might mean throwing our bodies on the gears, but we do have a chance.

The Connors and their friendly T-800 aren’t just pursued by the new and improved Terminator, they’re enemies of the state. The T-1000 uses the power of the militarised US police to hunt John Connor, and law enforcement are upgraded from a bumbling, misguided, but fundamentally well-intentioned hinderance to a consistent threat throughout.

Sarah Connor has become a gun-running bonafide badass since we last saw her, desperately trying to prepare John for his future role as leader of the resistance. But she starts the story locked away and treated like a lab animal by the friendly psychologist from the first movie, hated by the son she tried to protect for being “a psycho”. Meanwhile, she’s been abused and further traumatised by everyone with the power to help her, upon whom she later takes appropriately brutal vengeance. It’s clear this movie has a problem with authority.

That said, it doesn’t follow its logic to quite the same place as before.

Cameron isn’t so down on the rest of humanity as he was seven years prior, and it’s not like the police are acting particularly illogically in the situation. From their perspective, they’re chasing a group of domestic terrorists responsible for a swathe of death and destruction. Everyone except John and his mother, who have good reason to fear them, trusts the cops. They might end up dead for it, but always at the hands of the liquid-metal Terminator in disguise and not (as is way too common in reality) actual agents of the state. It’s depicted less as a flaw with their view of the world, or the normal functioning of society, than as a situation which they were never prepared to handle.

The T-1000, and even Skynet itself, are by and large presented as rogue elements in an otherwise functional system rather than its inescapable conclusion. Skynet, after all, only exists because Cyberdine are developing technology it sent back in time. There is no reference to the “defence mainframes” of the first movie, with their roots in Harlan Ellison’s vision of heuristic armageddon. Without actively changing the past to create their own future, the machine uprising ceases to be a possibility. It was never inevitable.

Hell, the scientist who is to be responsible for the end of the world joins forces with the Connors to save it, at the cost of his own life. T2’s Dyson is not an Oppenheimer or Fermi (“the men who built the hydrogen bomb” as Sarah puts it) pressing forward with no regard for the consequences. In spite of the financial and professional incentives not to, he listens to our heroes, believes what he sees, and ends up destroying his own work. There’s not a moment of hesitation. As soon as a good man in the right position understands what’s going on, he takes decisive, heroic action. And he, along with our plucky band of protagonists, succeeds.

T2 reframes the central statement of its older, darker sibling — “We are destined to destroy ourselves” — as a question. One it ultimately answers with, “there is no fate but what we make.” Now, the sole thing that can take down a rampaging machine is humans in true command of our own technology.

It’s a far more positive message than the first film. It’s reassuring, warm, comforting. Against all odds, we actually won. The world doesn’t have to end! This is directly stated in the closing voiceover, with Sarah Connor expressing hope for an uncertain future in which “if a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too” — the polar opposite of its predecessor’s gathering storm. In less than a decade, we went from barely surviving the inevitable apocalypse to cancelling it outright.

There’s definitely something to be said for how the end of the Cold War, and the sense of newfound freedom from not living under the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, influenced the writing of Terminator 2. The world was a much scarier place in 1984 than 1991, and the danger was all too real. A lot of media from that time channels this atmosphere of impending doom. It’s natural that, once the obvious danger receded, we would see a movement towards more upbeat stories. But I have a feeling Cameron had already decided we weren’t all going to die before then. His work in the intervening years speaks to a sea change in the way he saw technology and how we use it. By the ‘90s he seems to have decided that, if the right people wield power in the right way, we can be safe.

A Future that Never Happened

The first two Terminator movies fundamentally disagree with one another, using a similarly structured story and many of the same themes to arrive at entirely different conclusions. It’s a testament to the director’s filmmaking chops, and a major reason the sequel feels so original even three decades and innumerable imitations later. It’s also why all the subsequent movies failed as spectacularly as they did. None of them wanted to address the central question of the franchise.

This is where we come to Terminator: Dark Fate, and why I ended up writing this piece in the first place (other than a desire to ramble about two of my favourite films for a few thousand words). The other day, I stumbled across a review of the latest instalment in the franchise, made by someone who was clearly a huge fan of the series. By his account, it’s not technically a bad movie, but rather a functional remake of Terminator 2 made all the worse by being a pale imitation of the original. He was, to say the least, painfully disappointed. He’d been led to expect better of it; he wanted something new. After the trainwreck that was JJ Abrams’ latest assault upon Star Wars, I thoroughly empathised with his dashed hopes for a better conclusion to a beloved franchise. So, not having seen Dark Fate and always up for some good, old-fashioned cinematic rubbernecking, I immediately found and watched it.

In the event, I ended up pleasantly surprised. I went in braced for, well, a Terminator 2 sequel. After three prior attempts to follow up James Cameron’s classic turned out as spectacular failures, my bar was set pretty low. Dark Fate managed to clear that on the basics, at least. It’s really not a terrible film, and it does make gestures towards trying to say something relevant to the modern world. It also smartly does away with any of the events of the previous sequels, and soft-reboots the franchise by having another T-101 kill John Connor “acting on orders from a future that never happened” right at the start. Unfortunately, just as with T3, Salvation, and Genisys, it can’t decide which story it wants to tell. Are we inevitably doomed or aren’t we? Are our systems fatally flawed or do we just let the wrong people control them? Unlike those films, that isn’t because it’s a sequel.

The problem with Hollywood sequels has been well-documented for a very long time. The pattern goes like this: A new movie comes out, it’s original and good, and it’s successful. Then, to try and repeat that success with a now-popular IP, a sequel gets greenlit. Usually, this turns into a straight retread of the first, with the writers, director, or studio unwilling or unable to deviate from what worked in the past. The near-universal solution to “what happens next” under these circumstances is to do the same thing again, but bigger and with more money behind it. Sometimes it works. More often than not, it produces the cinematic equivalent of very expensive fanfic (not that there’s anything wrong with fanfic; I just want more out of a trip to the theatre).

(Side-note: The Hammer Horror Dracula series is a fascinating example of just how far a franchise can fall down this slope before it hits bottom. Check out The Satanic Rites of Dracula if you really want to go spelunking.)

James Cameron seems to be uniquely talented at avoiding this trap, able to keep his work fresh by switching up the genre between movies. But less-gifted filmmakers fall into it all the time, especially with the Terminator franchise. To be fair, Cameron did try to save them the trouble. When a movie slams the door as hard on sequels as Terminator 2, failure is almost guaranteed.

But money talks, and so we got four sequels to a story that wraps itself up very, very neatly. The future might be uncertain for Sarah Connor and her son at the end, but you know — and she says — it will not contain Skynet. Judgement Day will never come, because they stopped it.

Three stories about Judgement Day coming regardless later, we’re treated to one in which it initially appears not to have happened. At least not in a way the audience would recognise. The first lines of the film confirm it never occurred. In voiceover, Sarah tells us so. Skynet does not come online. It’s never built. Dark Fate’s malevolent future AI, Legion, is later revealed to have grown out of a cyberwarfare program that went rogue. A different tool of the military-industrial complex gone awry. Her response on hearing of its origins is a world-weary “they never learn…”, indicating that while she may have stopped an apocalypse, she’s under no illusions as to our propensity for self-destruction. The movie seems to agree with her, and presents its armageddon as inevitable. But here, unlike past instalments in the franchise, the one she stopped stays that way.

This future’s version of the apocalypse is slower than the original, too, with Legion simply turning off the power and letting us beat each other to death before rolling out the robots. The world ends with more of a whimper, though there are still plenty of nuclear bangs. It’s a timely update of the “defence mainframes” of the first movie, and one unreliant on the existence of Skynet. So far so good for the theme of our inevitable doom.

Then about two-thirds of the way in, Grace, the “augmented human” (we’ll get to that later) sent back in time to save the future mentions Judgement Day, and that thread goes off the rails. For context: she’s the character whose job it is to explain the stakes, and lay out the history of things yet to come. The apocalypse she describes is absolutely not an event anyone who lived through it would refer to as Judgement Day — for one thing, it happens over multiple days. More importantly, the phrase “Judgement Day”, in the Terminator franchise, means one thing and one thing alone. It is never used as a general reference to the end of the world, as it is in our own. It is capitalised every single time someone mentions it on-screen. You can tell. No one who doesn’t know what it means ever uses it. And it always refers to the apocalypse brought about by Skynet.

The entire premise of the movie, the reason that any of it happens, is that Judgement Day never came. Something else did. The only reason for Grace to refer to the end of her world as Judgement Day, in this story, is because the audience know what it means. She does not. It feels like the writers glancing over at you and winking, a reference for the fans. It is diegetically nonsensical shorthand that obscures more than it illuminates. All for a momentary frisson of recognition, of nostalgia. Honestly, in this case it’s so small and offhand I don’t think they even realised they were doing it.

It is by no means the worst or most glaring example of Dark Fate trying to lean on its better forerunners and falling over in the process. An out of place “Judgement Day” is subtle, and pretty inconsequential, but it’s representative. Because it’s constant. Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t just a retread or soft-reboot of Terminator 2 with nothing new to say, as the fellow who put me onto it suggested. No, it’s much worse than that. It’s a two-hour-long string of references in the shape of a movie and it’s trying to say something anyway.

If it seems like I’m being unkind, I am a little. It’s not badly put together or particularly terribly written, and any production made by flat-out copying one of the best action films ever (but with a bigger budget and modern CGI) is going to have at least something to recommend it. And it does! It’s entertaining, and a good ride if you set your expectations to “brainless fun”.

The thing is, Terminator has never been about brainless fun. To their credit, the filmmakers appear to have understood this and tried to find ways to grasp at originality in the varied settings and the trappings of the story. John Connor is a girl called Dani now! And Mexican! Look, we’re having them sneak across the border! Oh no, they got captured and are in a concentration camp! The new Terminator is disguised as an ICE agent, not a police officer, and the saviour from the future is a human with machines in her! What about drones, eh?! And hey, Arnie’s back again, but he learned to be good on his own and has a loving family! Look! Politics! Themes! We swear!

Unfortunately, it never gets to expand on any of the concepts implied by its settings, new characters, or the situations they find themselves in. There isn’t time to explore what, say, the merging of human and machine in Grace means for humanity’s future, or why they don’t upgrade all their soldiers (because she’s definitely not the only one). We don’t get to see more than a couple of minutes of T-101’s wife and adopted son, or really understand why this Terminator learned to be a person for them. We’re just told that he did. It’s too concerned with getting to the next reference, the next moment the audience will vaguely recognise. There’s no depth to any of it, just a bunch of ideas with no room to breathe.

From the first scene to the last there’s a slavish devotion to recreating every single memorable moment of Terminator 2. Enough details are changed so the sleight of hand might not be immediately obvious if you haven’t seen the original in a while, but with it fresh in your mind the seams are unmistakable. Certainly, no fan would miss them. I could go through a list of moments and shots that are pretty much exact copies, but it’d take far too long. The entire thing is built around them. The worst part is, it’s not a bad movie. If it were bad, it’d be easy to dismiss or laugh at. This? This, we have to talk about.

Letting the Past Die

Watching Terminator: Dark Fate is a frustrating experience. You can almost see the much better movie hiding in the margins, struggling to get out. It has a lot to say around the ballgag it’s decided to wear, but never gets around to doing more than gesturing towards the points it wants to make. It’s silenced by a suffocating, pervasive nostalgia.

The first Terminator is a terrifying exploration of our fear of the machine, and of our inevitable extinction. Rewatching it for this piece, I was struck by the weight of each shot, the amount of meaning crammed into every scene. James Cameron clearly had a lot of thoughts about how we use technology and how it uses us in turn. He was also deathly afraid most of us weren’t going to be around in the not-too-distant future when making it. The movie conveys that terror perfectly, and actively engages you in a dialogue about it. It’s a truly frightening depiction of the fears of its age come to haunt your nightmares and make you look askance at your iPhone.

Terminator 2 takes those concepts and reinterprets them for a more idealistic era. It’s a classically (relatively) optimistic ‘90s action romp, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. It’s tense, touching, and hopeful in equal measure, not to mention exciting and incredibly well shot. And it manages to make you damn near cry over a scary death-robot you would have been glad to see a pile of scrap two hours earlier. There’s a reason it’s the one everyone remakes.

Dark Fate so badly wants to be Terminator 2 it hurts. Every Terminator movie since 1991 has, to be fair, but Dark Fate doesn’t want it in quite the way the previous ones did. Six films into a franchise and almost thirty years later, it’s impossible to recreate the success of such a definitive work with a standard sequel structure. They tried that with the third one and it did not end well. Instead, they went with a Star Wars-style soft-reboot, and it hamstrung them in a very similar way to both The Force Awakens and Rise of the Skywalker.

Now, Terminator is not Star Wars. They’re very different beasts, and you generally shouldn’t judge them by the same yardstick. Star Wars is science-fantasy, with laser-swords, space-wizards, and Dark Lords. It is not sci fi, it’s not trying to hold a mirror up to anything. It’s just there to show you a good time and tell a fun, entertaining story the shape of which you’ve seen a million other places. The good guys win, bad guys lose, and all is right with the galaxy at the end. Terminator is about as far from that style of storytelling as you can get.

All the same, right now both franchises suffer from a similar issue. And it’s having comparable effects on the way their movies come out, as well as some of the specific problems they share. Neither can get away from their former glories.

It’s particularly noticeable with Star Wars, where the nudge-nudge wink-wink across the fourth wall is rendered so important as to justify bringing the experience to a screeching halt every time it happens. You can practically see the buttons they’re reaching for. It’s jarring, but not quite to the point of distress, with The Force Awakens. And much as I love The Last Jedi, it is admittedly guilty of this at times too.

In Rise of the Skywalker, we see this trend reach its apotheosis. It more or less drives the entire plot. Everything revolves around getting from Nostalgia Button A to Nostalgia Button B via a nonsensical rollercoaster of exciting, meaningless visuals. It practically becomes a slideshow at one point. None of the extremely consequential events in the story have any weight, or any time to breathe between set-pieces. Nothing feels like it matters. Aside from the questionable plot decisions and uncomfortably fast pacing, the main factor dragging JJ Abrams’ conclusion to the Star Wars saga down is a bad case of nostalgia mixed with a strange species of fan-service. Can’t not give Chewie a medal, can we?

Terminator: Dark Fate feels very similar to Rise of the Skywalker in that, although it’s admittedly a better film on just about every level (not that that’s saying much, but credit where it’s due), it refuses to move on. Therein lies the frustration. Because its core problem is that it can’t shake off the straitjacket it’s donned, unable to say what it wants for everything it forces itself to repeat. The writers tried to update a classic for modern audiences, adding in a sprinkling of new ideas to keep it relevant, and all they managed to do was make you wish they’d had the courage to give those their own movie. The action on-screen is explosive, and fun to watch, but ultimately even that ends up as a series of elaborate references.

You can glimpse the potential for a more interesting story straining at its old, ill-fitting bonds. The ideas are all there, it just won’t use them. It’s too busy reminding you of what you already liked. Were I an ardent Terminator fan hungry for something new, or expecting it for that matter, I’d have likely been quite upset.

It’s sad, and illustrative of the insidious ways chasing nostalgia can wreck otherwise competent work. Ironically for a story about unstoppable killer robots from the future, for all it tries so hard to seem novel, Dark Fate can’t escape its past.

A tip for screenwriters: Let the past die. Terminate it if you have to.

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