The Terminator series has always been a guilty pleasure. The action franchise is about a genocidal AI sending advanced robots (i.e., terminators) back in time to kill the future leader of the human-led resistance. While the first two movies were a fun joyride replete with sick stunts, awesome explosions, and meme-worthy catchphrases, they don’t make a lot of sense. The plot relies on the belief that one person is so integral to human history — no matter how many alterations happen to the timeline — that a post-singularity AI deems them necessary to kill in the womb.
This emphasis on a chosen one has historically been a masculine narrative. From Harry Potter to Tony Stark, there are countless stories of white men saving the world, and Terminator’s John Connor is no different. He is the leader needed to stop the godlike AI Skynet from wiping out humanity for good. His mother Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is the hero insofar as she shepherds John to his fated lot in life as a benevolent savior.
She is only useful for her womb.
Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t so much alter the chosen one dynamic as shift its focus. The people who are given the hero and villain labels have identities that have historically been ignored in western media. This twist alone makes Dark Fate something worth watching, but what pushes it that extra mile is where the film believes the villainy of AI originates. The cold and robotic rationale of our AI overlord is not separate from humanity, but integrally tied to how it currently operates.
The series is technically a continuation (not a reboot) in a timeline where Sarah Connor has stopped Skynet for good, and in the process, delayed the robot armageddon by about 30ish years. The end is still coming, though. Humanity is slated to construct a different genocidal AI — this time named Legion — which also wants to eliminate the human resistance’s future leader by sending terminators back in time. John Connor is dead, and humanity has a new savior who needs saving, and this time around, there’s not a white man in sight.
The film smartly casts the “new” Sarah Connor (the old still exists) as an ambitious Latina woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Dani lives in Mexico City, and the film spends its initial runtime, making her character fully fleshed-out. In the opening moments of her introduction, she guides her brother (Diego Boneta) through an informal English lesson and gives her father a task to bring back eggs. She is the de facto head of her family, and it’s understood immediately.
The protector character, sent by the human resistance in the future, is an augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). She is a total badass who physically can outpace nearly everyone else in the movie. For example, in a 20 minute period, Grace descends from a burning plane, safely makes it to the surface, and spins a chain so fast it cuts steel — all while fighting an almost unstoppable terminator. The movie firmly establishes the mechanics of her augmentation in a way that makes any accusations of her being a Mary Sue utterly ridiculous.
The biggest surprise here is the Terminator. His form is predominantly that of Latino Gabriel (Gabriel Luna). Luna’s performance is astounding. From the moment he effortlessly falls from his temporal portal onto the ground, Gabriel brings to every scene a discomforting efficiency. He holds no malice for the humans he kills. He is merely following his primary objective to kill Dani. This is best illustrated in how the camera often cuts to black moments before he ends a human’s life.
Their deaths aren’t even important enough to show.
Terminator Gabriel will often exploit human cultural norms to get away with his goals. He will disarm people by speaking softly and calmly to them, sometimes even apologizing before he kills them. When he finds himself north of the border, he code switches to a Texas accent to take advantage of the status that comes with being American. In one poignant scene, he uses a fabricated veteran identity to get past a metal detector, claiming that his robot form is shrapnel from serving two tours in Afghanistan.
The officer lets him through.
In media, AI is often depicted as inhuman and uncaring. Yet something Dark Fate makes clear is that Legion’s cold and bureaucratic ruthlessness is not an anomaly of humanity gone awry. It is a direct result of our society.
Early on in the film, Dani goes to her factory job and discovers that a machine has replaced her brother’s position. She asks her notably white boss to reverse this decision, and he responds with indifference. Her brother’s replacement and termination, in his opinion, is an inevitability.
Later they find themselves at an American border patrol facility. Grace is trying to track down Dani and Sarah Connor. She asks one of the officers where they keep the other prisoners, and the guard (who is a white, blond woman) corrects Grace almost without thinking: They’re not prisoners. They are detainees. This guard was conditioned — one could say programmed — to devalue the brown men, women, and children at the facility, even under the threat of violence from Grace.
Racism is this guards operating system, and dehumanizing her “detainees” is her primary objective.
We never learn why Legion turned on humanity, but the film subtextually implies that it was our civilization’s desire to dehumanize other groups of people. It’s not hard to envision a future where the US government creates an AI system to stop migration by any force necessary, and is unable to rein Legion back in once it cannot distinguish the difference between “bad” and “good” humans. A future where we become so wrapped up in otherizing humans that we don’t care about the forces we use to implement that hatred.
It would be easy for a film with this subtext to end up with a grim conclusion, but Dark Fate doesn’t fixate on the hopelessness of human cruelty. It subverts our expectations by making Dani, the Sarah Connor archetype, the actual leader of the human resistance. She is not some womb that’s important for the man she carries inside of her, but the leader that will guide humanity through its darkest moments.
This turn — though evident in the face of Dani’s countless acts of leadership throughout the film — is still refreshing to see. We are not only witnessing a Latina woman portrayed as a symbol of power in a major Hollywood film, but an implicit criticism of the racism and cruelty happening at the US border.
Regardless of your taste in cinema, it’s nice that these stances are being made, especially given the fact that this film was written and directed by white men.
Is this what growth looks like?
TL; DR — Terminator: Dark Fate is an enjoyable blockbuster with an even better message, and you should see it.