Terminator: Dark Fate Cynically Undoes Judgment Day

This article contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate.

The tagline to The Terminator promises audiences, “The thing that won’t die, in the nightmare that won’t end.” It is, of course, referring to the eponymous time-traveling killing machine. However, it could just as easily refer to the franchise itself.

Successful movies have always demanded sequels. That demand trumps everything else. It doesn’t matter that the shark died at the end of Jaws. It will be resurrected to avenge itself on its killers in Jaws: The Revenge. Similarly, Beneath the Planet of the Apes tried to safeguard against future installments by literally destroying Earth at the end of the film. There were three more sequels.

These forces have only grown stronger in recent years, as existing intellectual property has become a cornerstone of blockbuster production. It took George Lucas six years to produce the original three Star Wars films. Disney has released the five latest films at the rate of one per year. Even dormant franchises like Alien and Predator are being revived.

Terminator: Dark Fate Cynically Undoes Judgment Day

The first two Terminator films were massive financial successes. The Terminator earned $78 million on a $6.4 million budget. Terminator 2: Judgment Day earned $520 million on a $102 million budget. The films also became cultural touchstones filled with quotable lines and iconic images. This makes them incredibly valuable commodities.

Sequels to Judgment Day were inevitable. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines arrived in 2003, 12 years later, and the muted response to the film led subsequent sequels to drop the number from their titles to avoid any association. Terminator Salvation came out in 2009, Terminator Genisys in 2015, and Terminator: Dark Fate in 2019.

These four sequels are not part of an expanding or continuous series. They are consciously disconnected from one another. Across the four films, the part of messianic savior John Connor is played by Nick Stahl (Rise of the Machines), Christian Bale (Salvation), Jason Clarke (Genisys), and Edward Furlong (Dark Fate). Outside of Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is little connective tissue.

Terminator: Dark Fate Cynically Undoes Judgment Day

What did connect three of these four sequels was a desire to position themselves as the one true sequel to Judgment Day. Appropriately enough for a franchise rooted in time travel, the Terminator sequels are constantly rewriting themselves in an effort to recapture an idealized past. This is most obvious within Genisys when the characters time travel back to the events of the first two films.

This fixation on recreating Judgment Day is a paradox. The original Terminator film suggested that John Connor existed within a fixed time loop. He doesn’t just save his life when he sends Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time to protect his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton). He also ensures his own conception since Reese is his father.

Judgment Day rejects this idea, insisting that the future could be altered. Sarah decides to prevent Cyberdyne Systems from creating Skynet, and against all odds, she succeeds. Judgment Day closes with a shot of an open road at night, a clear visual metaphor for the limitless potential and possibilities now available to John and Sarah after their ordeal.

The obvious problem with any sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day is that it inevitably invalidates that powerful ending. Destroying Skynet should ensure a future without the time-traveling killer robots at the core of the series. The sequels have taken varying approaches to squaring that circle. Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys each suggest that John and Sarah had only succeeded in delaying the inevitable, which makes their work seem pointless. Dark Fate argues that while Sarah and John did stop Skynet, a suspiciously similar substitute dubbed Legion would arise anyway.

Dark Fate goes out of its way to try to recreate the central dynamics of Judgment Day while sidestepping the fact that the ending of the film was designed to make them irreplaceable. The humanized T-800 destroys itself at the end of Judgment Day, so Dark Fate introduces another T-800 that has coincidentally undergone the same arc and so can pick up where Judgment Day left off.

Over the course of Judgment Day, Sarah reluctantly comes to trust the T-800 that has been sent back to protect John. However, Dark Fate shamelessly rolls back that dynamic by having the T-800 murder John Connor in the opening sequence. This completely invalidates the effort to protect John in both The Terminator and Judgment Day. It treats the character as narrative clutter to be cleared away and emotional leverage to justify resetting his mother’s character arc. 

James Cameron was famously critical of the way in which David Fincher’s Alien 3 casually killed off the surviving characters from Aliens, describing the move as “dumb” and “a slap in the face to fans.” It’s no small irony that Cameron should have a story credit on Dark Fate, which bills itself as “the day after Judgment Day and features the return of both Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong. The demand for another Terminator sequel trumps the earned conclusion of Sarah and John’s journey, so their happy ending is unraveled by the desire to see yet more cybernetic killing machines. Perhaps there is no darker fate than the one determined by box office returns.

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a self-professed nerd living on the East Coast of Ireland. He runs his a blog (the m0vie blog), co-hosts two weekly film podcasts (The 250, Scannain) and has written books on The X-Files and the films of Christopher Nolan. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.

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    22 Comments

    1. I quite enjoyed Genysis (I’d rank it my favorite after the original and Judgement Day) and was very excited for it when it came out, but I also admit I had not seen any of the promo or trailer stuff aside from the Superbowl ad so I had not seen the famous spoilers about the movie. Dark Fate just never really caught my interest. I’m not sure if they just didn’t do a good job of advertising this movie (I didn’t even realize it was out this weekend) or if it’s just a lackluster trailer but yeah nothing I’ve seen so far has made me want to go see it.

      1. Interesting. I’ll readily concede that I’m not a huge fan of any of the sequels to “Judgment Day.” I would probably give “Salvation” a slight edge for at least trying to be something other than “Judgment Day, again.”

        While I didn’t like “Genysis”, it is conceptually fascinating. It works really well as a metaphor for the way in which studios have taken to harvesting and exploiting intellectual property, playing out the same old sequences and rhythms over and over, trying to recreate uncanny versions of what came before.

        1. Yeah, I would say I like Salvation the most for at least TRYING to give us the “Future War” that we (or at least I) wanted to see.

          There were two things I really liked about Genysis. How they used acid to kill the T-1000, and the story of J.K. Simmon’s character “chasing” the Terminator through the decades … I think they could have made a much better movie just about that. Aside from those two things I thought the film was total garbage.

    2. This, for me, feels a bit like how frustrated I am over the Mandalorian retcons in Star Wars. A fantastic culture with decades of lore was erased and white-washed because Mandalorian armor is super iconic so they just slapped it on generic English people for what I’m assuming was “it’s easier to write it then”-ish reasons.

      But like Judgement Day, the Karen Traviss books and KOTOR games can’t be erased. The new stuff suffers from people chasing after MOAR MONEEEEY, but the stories we loved are still there, and we can still share them with others so they know them well.

      1. That’s it, I’d contend. These issues are not problems for “Judgment Day”, which remains a great film. They are problems for the films following “Judgment Day”, and they’ve yet to figure out how to surmount them.

    3. I think the numerous failed attempts at continuing this franchise provide the ultimate tool for people who love the original two films and like to view them as a complete story: alternate timeline.

      Even the filmmakers themselves have used this tool as a way to disavow the franchise’s less popular/failed entries. I haven’t seen Dark Fate yet, but like T3, Salvation and Genisys before it, I’ll just consign it to the alternate timeline folder if I don’t like it. Heck, maybe even if I do like it. That way I can appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do without ruining the, frankly, perfect story told by T1 and T2.

      The Mary Sue also did a great breakdown of why they found Dark Fate an interesting addition from a feminist perspective, even though the movie isn’t perfect. https://www.themarysue.com/terminator-dark-fate-feminist/

      1. I broadly agree with the observations about the film’s feminism and diversity. As with films like The Force Awakens, it’s great to see women and people of colour in roles that have traditionally been white and male.

        It’s also nice to see a blockbuster acknowledge, even fleetingly, the situation at the border.

        But that didn’t nullify the general lifelessness of the film for me. (I have similar issues with Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, which is commendably diverse, but narratively inert.)

    4. Wow, is it really that terrible a collection of coincidences & terrible twists? It would have been better to just have rebooted Skynet rather than go with LA.I.ME.

      1. Yep. The “other dystopian artificial intelligence” future is a massive contrivance.

        More than that, though, it just draws attention to how awkwardly Carl and Sarah fit into this story. It’s somebody else’s Terminator story.

    5. I thought Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys ( I think? Didn’t see it; heard it sucked) all continued the story from T2 in the same timeline.

      1. Genisys is definitely out of continuity with the others. Its version of Judgment Day takes place on an unspecified date in October 2015. It explains that the timeline has been written and rewritten so often that it’s hard to keep it all straight.

        Terminator 3 and Salvation are implied to stem from the same Judgment Day. Terminator 3 places it in 2003 generally, while a tie-in novel to Salvation dates it specifically to July 2003. However, the recasting of the primary roles, the lack of internal continuity between the two films, and change in tone and director represent a soft reboot at the very least.

    6. I feel like the killing of John in the opening was acknowledgement of the fact that 28 Years and 3 bad sequels already killed John in a meta sense. It didn’t really bother me, but I’m always capable of heartlessly categorizing things that don’t match up into alternate universes. So for me T2 is still its own universe where the apocalypse was averted, and Dark Fate is a film whose prequels are T1&2. But I thinks its totally fair if it doesn’t work for others.

      1. Yep. Each’s own. What works for some may not work for others.

        Being honest, I think the healthiest thing for the Terminator franchise would have been to have a clean break from Judgment Day.

    7. T2 effectively ends the franchise, and ever since then it’s been nothing but contrivances to continue this series. Although I feel the excuses they gave before is a little better than what seems like pure laziness on display in Dark Fate. It’s another one of what I call “nostalgia bait” sequels trying to sell itself on being the TRUE follow up to replicate what you loved from the past. So this actually means being creatively unconfident.

      But Dark Fate can’t even be bothered to at least pretend it’s something more from the sound of it. It doesn’t technically undo the resolution in T2 in a sense, but it still does and its most “bold” idea is this opening sequence. Which allows them to do virtually do the same movie once again, as its excuse this time around, is literally just changing the name of Skynet. A new threat that just so happens to do every single thing Skynet does and was going to do. Wow.

      So yea, honestly I’ve gotten over the fact the franchise continues to cynically miss the point of the end of T2, and am just more annoyed at this series’ continued stubborn nature to never actually evolve whatsoever. Salvation is the only one that was at least a different movie even if it didn’t need to exist.

      Also, this is a little off topic but was mentioned in the article. I stand by Alien 3 getting way more hate than deserved. (not as good as the first two but Alien 3 is fine! geez)

      Killing off Hicks and Newt at the beginning isn’t the issue I feel people claim it is. It’s just kinda fans complaining about a character they liked more getting offed. I still think it fits perfectly well in the spirit of Alien.

      I feel some fans don’t want to admit in general that the marines are also basically glorified canon fodder. Mouthy on the service, but get picked off inevitably before Ripley comes along to clean up the mess. And not to mention, Alien 3 is an actual sequel. Not another psuedo-remake like a good chunk of Terminator. Dark Fate’s opening sequence seems like a dramatic opener for the sake of it because it has nothing else to surprise you with.

      1. I’ll second that defense of “Alien 3.” I think there’s something to be said for that choice as an embrace of the nihilism baked into the franchise. I think there’s possibly even an “In the Frame” to be written about it, if we can find the room or the time.

        1. You should totally do that if you can. People have come around to horror sequels like Halloween 3 for example, but Alien 3 is still rather unfairly getting raked over coals.

          It’s not a great movie, and my favorite is still the original, but I always felt there was things worth defending. There should be more in the Alien 3 club by now lol.

          1. It definitely exists in the shadow of the first two. And even the Assembly Cut is a shadow of a great movie. But it’s a more interesting sequel than is often acknowledged, and I’d take it any day over the Terminator sequels.

            I’ll add it to the pitch list, see if we can sneak it in during a quieter season.

      2. I think Alien3 should have just ditched the survivors from Aliens altogether. Sigourney Weaver had officially vowed to never touch a gun or movie gun prop again — I’m not judging her, but it demanded more rewrites of an already rewritten-seven-times script (that’s not an exaggeration). I see no reason to kill off Newt and Hicks, or even follow up on their stories at all. In fact one of the writers agreed with me and tried to change the script to say Newt was in a coma in some medical facility somewhere else; this got shot down by the executives. Meanwhile Fox’s executives were taking every script they could get their hands on and replacing every instance of “monks”, “miners”, “WeylandYutani employees”, etc. with “prisoners”. At this point, why have Ripley at all? Coulda had all new characters

      3. I think Alien3 should have just ditched the survivors from Aliens altogether. Sigourney Weaver had officially vowed to never touch a gun or movie gun prop again — I’m not judging her, but it demanded more rewrites of an already rewritten-seven-times script (that’s not an exaggeration). I see no reason to kill off Newt and Hicks, or even follow up on their stories at all. In fact one of the writers agreed with me and tried to change the script to say Newt was in a coma in some medical facility somewhere else; this got shot down by the executives. Meanwhile Fox’s executives were taking every script they could get their hands on and replacing every instance of “monks”, “miners”, “WeylandYutani employees”, etc. with “prisoners”. At this point, why have Ripley at all? Coulda had all new characters

    8. Hollywood 101: ‘Never let a powerful death get in the way of a good sequel.’ Which is only slightly less popular than ‘Never let a satisfying conclusion get in the way of a good sequel.’
      And if all else fails: reboot and try again.

      1. It’s the same logic that ensures that most network shows run (at least) one season past their prime, as profit motive means that it’s very hard for anything that hits a high note to be allowed to end on that high note.

      2. It’s the same logic that ensures that most network shows run (at least) one season past their prime, as profit motive means that it’s very hard for anything that hits a high note to be allowed to end on that high note.

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