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The “Terminator” Franchise Has Let Sarah Connor Down

Linda Hamilton's iconic character is as fit and formidable as ever in Terminator: Dark Fate, but the movie ultimately squanders the opportunity to say something new.

Posted on November 4, 2019, at 11:36 a.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Everett Collection

Linda Hamilton wasn’t exactly dying to reprise the role of Sarah Connor in 2019. The 63-year-old actor, who found worldwide fame opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s Terminator franchise, had spent more than three decades trying to outrun associations with Sarah, a spunky twentysomething turned half-crazed supersoldier who thought she bore the weight of humanity’s future on her (extraordinarily muscled) shoulders. She recently told the New York Times that her plan all along had been Shakespeare, not action blockbusters. Terminator changed that.

After the initial smash success of The Terminator, in 1984, Hamilton wasn’t quite convinced she’d like to make a second movie, let alone a third — Terminator: Dark Fate, which premiered this past weekend — almost 35 years later. (Dark Fate is technically the sixth movie in the franchise; Terminators 3–5 were made without either Cameron or Hamilton’s involvement.) In the late ’80s, Hamilton had depression and occasionally dreamed of the murderous cyborg who’d been sent from the future to kill to her character, Sarah. When Cameron first reached out to her about a sequel, Hamilton said she’d only commit to the project if she could “go crazy” this time around. As Cameron told the Times, “I wrote to the hilt based on her directive.”

The resulting film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (or T2), grossed $200 million in 1991, making it the biggest movie of the year. Sarah Connor was no longer a wide-eyed damsel in distress dressed head to toe in pastels; thanks to chin-ups in her cell at the hospital where she was institutionalized, she’d transformed her entire body into a weapon. Hamilton — in a black tank top, fatigues, and steampunk sunglasses, wielding assault rifles and smoking cigarettes in whichever ways would best emphasize her formidable biceps — remains such an indelible pop cultural image because of its specificity and relative rarity: a woman hero for whom physical strength isn’t signified by smooth, subtle toning, but bulk.

In her new Netflix stand-up special, Stage Fright, Jenny Slate jokes about being a woman in Hollywood, where she and her peers are expected to “have the physique of Timothée Chalamet.” Taking on a deeper voice in an imitation of the patriarchy, she barks, “Do not bulk up! adding, “I love that, it’s a fun pressure.” Though your Captain Marvels and Wonder Women are, obviously, in incredible physical shape, none of today’s women action heroes have anything like Sarah Connor’s razor-sharp pectoral definition. Brie Larson and Gal Gadot in their respective superhero roles aren’t even allowed to put their hair up; these women fight battles while maintaining luxurious blowouts. Women in movies today can be strong, but they’re still very rarely hard.

When Cameron wrote Hamilton two years ago, asking her if she’d be willing to play Sarah Connor one more time — Tim Miller, who’d helmed Deadpool, would direct Terminator: Dark Fate, while Cameron would produce — she once again only agreed to sign on if she could bring Sarah to life on her own terms.

That included the idea to go gray for the role, much as it pained her. “Linda Hamilton does not have gray hair yet, but I didn’t want to be compared to myself 27 years ago,” Hamilton told CNET. “I wanted people to go, ‘Wow, that’s not the old Sarah Connor, that’s the old Sarah Connor.’”

Together with Miller and Cameron, Hamilton brainstormed the character’s evolution: Sarah in Dark Fate would be a grizzled, grieving woman avenging the death of her son, John, by killing any Terminators who happened to show up in her era. Cameron would be picking up the series right where he’d left off, after Judgment Day, as if other entries made by different directors in the intervening years — the first of which unceremoniously had Sarah killed offscreen — had never happened. With the canon reestablished, the latest Terminator would see a reluctant Sarah teaming up with a technologically “augmented” human resistance fighter from the future and the young Mexican woman she’s gone back in time to protect.

Hamilton was hesitant to play Sarah again because, aside from a few television roles, she’d more or less left Hollywood; a few years ago she moved from Malibu to New Orleans, where she now lives a regular person’s life. But ultimately, as she told the Times, “It’s not that I was afraid to let the fans down. I was afraid to let Sarah Connor down.”

She needn’t have worried. In Dark Fate, Hamilton does Sarah proud. She’s incomprehensibly fit once again, all the more remarkable for a 63-year-old; she’s responsible for some of the movie’s funniest lines, nailing the role of grouchy but aspirational aging hero we’ve seen her male peers play so often; and she’s still wielding weapons half her size (including a flamethrower!) like a total champ. But much like the first two Terminator movies, particularly the second, Dark Fate ultimately squanders its radical potential to say something new about gender, creation, and power — letting down Sarah Connor in the process.

Kerry Brown / Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Linda Hamilton and Natalia Reyes in Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019.

James Cameron has frequently been quite eager to criticize other filmmakers’ portrayals of women while valorizing his own. Last year, for example, he told an interviewer that he thought the scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) where Sigourney Weaver’s iconic action hero Ellen Ripley strips down to her underwear “stepped over the line” and encouraged Cameron to push back on the objectification of women in his own work. In another interview, he also blasted 2017’s Wonder Woman for oversexualizing Gal Gadot. “All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backward” he told the Guardian, prompting pushback from director Patty Jenkins. “Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.”

When the Guardian reporter, Hadley Freeman, asked Cameron why he thought Hollywood was still missing the mark when it comes to portraying powerful women, he was at a loss for words. “I don’t— I don’t know,” he said. “There are many women in power in Hollywood and they do get to guide and shape what films get made. I think— no, I can’t account for it. Because how many times do I have to demonstrate the same thing over again? I feel like I’m shouting in a wind tunnel!”

Cameron, who credits himself for the radicalism of Sarah Connor, actually created the character with his producer and future wife, Gale Anne Hurd (though he doesn’t make much of her contributions; according to Rebecca Keegan's 2009 biography The Futurist, Cameron insisted, despite Hurd’s cowriting credit on the first Terminator film, that she “did no actual writing at all”). Hurd and Cameron were divorced before preproduction began for Terminator 2, which Cameron cowrote with William Wisher (during production, Cameron started a relationship with Hamilton; they went on to have a daughter together in 1993, marry in 1997, and divorce in 1999). Cameron has now produced Dark Fate with another man, and the movie was directed by a man, written by three men, and based on a story by five men. Though, as Cameron notes, there are indeed “many women in power in Hollywood” — he’s been married to a number of them — he seems to think that when it comes to writing powerful women characters, men are doing the job just fine.

To Cameron’s (and Hurd’s) credit, the first Terminator truly did do something interesting with its woman protagonist, who one was of the foundational examples of the now-familiar trope of the “final girl” in horror movies. we’re introduced to Sarah Connor, she’s a clumsy waiter with sky-high bangs in 1980s Los Angeles. Unlike other heroines in movies of the same era, Sarah seems perfectly comfortable being left to her own devices. After a date cancels on her, she shrugs it off and heads out on the town by herself; she’s just about to tuck into a pizza when Schwarzenegger’s Terminator shows up. (The sentient machines responsible for wiping out most of the human race in the future want to prevent her from having a son who will grow up to lead the resistance against them.)

Sarah’s a bit of a normie oddball, but charmingly so. She doesn’t seem like someone preoccupied with the conventional trappings of womanhood, like marriage and children; rather, she’s perfectly content to keep hanging out with her roommate and her pet iguana, Pugsley, rather than wait by the phone for some guy to call her back. So when Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier from the future who’s been sent back in time to protect her, tells Sarah that she’ll one day give birth to the savior of the human race, she’s baffled. “Do I look like the mother of the future? she yells. “I can’t even balance my checkbook!”

The film does poke fun at the ridiculousness, and blatant misogyny, of its own premise: that Sarah’s only as valuable insofar as she can incubate a fetus who will go on to do the real world-saving. It also troubles its own mythos by, ever so gently, nudging against other traditionally gendered scripts. Even though he’s playing the part of gallant rescuer, for example, Kyle is a softer sort of man. In her book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, gender studies critic Susan Jeffords points out that Terminator divides the male ego into good (Kyle) and evil (the Terminator), the result “of a pattern of masculinity that defines men by opposition to one another.” Where the Terminator is hulking, brusque, single-minded, and incapable of human emotion, Kyle is an average-sized though still conventionally attractive dude who’s driven by his personal feelings just as much as, if not more than, his desire to save the world. After all, he’d been in love with Sarah since her son, John, gave him a photo of her in the future.

The film does poke fun at the ridiculousness, and blatant misogyny, of its own premise.

When Kyle is impeded in his quest by the police — they briefly lock him up, dismissing his warnings about the Terminator as the ravings of a madman — he’s reduced to a pleading hysteric, historically a feminized role (indeed, one that Sarah herself will adopt in Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Once Sarah realizes that Kyle’s not misleading her, she joins him in attempting to kill their attacker; between shootouts, they find the time to conceive their savior son. (Though Sarah is contrasted with her hypersexual and quickly offed roommate, she — crucially — isn’t a virgin, either, which makes her different from so many other final girls of horror who only survive because of their purity.) In the end, Kyle blows up the Terminator — and himself — with a pipe bomb. When the endoskeleton’s reanimated torso attempts to come for Sarah one more time, she lures it into a hydraulic press and crushes the guy for good.

Though Judgment Day is often credited as the better film of Cameron’s two Terminator installments, in no small part because of Sarah’s hard-bodied badassness, there’s still something quietly significant about watching the earliest iteration of goofy, lovelorn Sarah save the day. In his 2017 book Queering the Terminator: Sexuality and Cyborg Cinema, David Greven notes that her “soft” body before its T2 transformation could be read as a stand-in for other marginalized people without hypermasculinized bodies: women, children, queer people. Unlike other movies of the ’80s that center muscular male heroes, “here it is a soft female form that transcendently triumphs over the Terminator.”

TriStar Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991

Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991, picks up about a decade after T1 left off. Sarah has been raising her son, John, for the future he’ll inherit as the human resistance leader against Skynet, the sinister artificial intelligence system responsible for eventually instigating a nuclear holocaust. When she tries to take action to prevent that impending doom, Sarah’s written off as unstable and violent; she ends up imprisoned in a mental hospital, while John is sent to live with foster parents.

In 1995, John is a preteen ruffian in LA and Sarah's plotting her escape from the hospital. We’re introduced to the new Sarah, whose biceps bulge as she pushes herself to complete pull-up after pull-up in her cell. Muscles! Power! It’s an extraordinary sight, just like shots later in the movie of Sarah with her bared arms, high ponytail, and assault rifle. But where Judgment Day could have complemented these arresting visuals with a psychologically complex rendering of a newly hard-bodied woman, Sarah’s character overall winds up disappointingly one-dimensional.

Schwarzenegger is back, but this time playing a T-800 Terminator reprogrammed by future John Connor, who’s been sent to the past to protect his younger self. Our villain is a fancier Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), out to kill young John at Skynet’s behest. Unlike the contrasting “good” and “evil” male egos of Kyle and the T-800 in T1, Sarah is now the foil to this new T-800. Her hard body reflects the calcified hardness within: Now, she’s just as ruthless and single-minded as her onetime tormentor, obsessed with her mission of protecting John at all costs — even if that means she doesn’t have time to offer him care and affection in the process. She yells at her son for risking his life to break her out of the hospital, bringing him to tears; Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, meanwhile, having been programmed to abide by young John’s every command, had softened into a sillier and less lethal figure. He learns his now-legendary slang, makes robotic attempts to play with children, and, per John’s instructions, now simply maims adversaries rather than killing them.

Watching from a distance as John jokes around with his new protector, Sarah conveys a realization in voiceover: Unlike other “would-be fathers” that had come into and out of her and John’s world in the past, the Terminator “would die to protect him,” which is why she’s decided to trust him. In fact, it’s become clear that the Terminator will now be filling a motherly role just as much as a fatherly one.

Unlike other movies of the ’80s that center muscular male heroes, “here it is a soft female form that transcendently triumphs over the Terminator.”

There is something rather extraordinary in seeing a woman delegate her maternal responsibilities to a robot man, which is certainly in line with Hamilton’s request that her character “go crazy” this time around. We’re supposed to root for Sarah, even though, as Cameron points out, she’s “troubled [and a] terrible mother.” But the character’s radical potential sours somewhat when she not only proves to be an ineffectual mom, but an ineffectual fighter — yet another woman who, in her attempt to have it all (in this case, motherhood and world-saving), ends up just kind of crappy at both tasks.

Jeffords cites the one moment in which Sarah’s new hardness temporarily falls away: when she’s on the verge of killing Myles Dyson (Joe Morton), the scientist responsible for inventing Skynet. Watching Dyson’s son crying at his side, she pulls away, deciding not to go through with it, and bursts into tears. Afterward, in a rare moment of tenderness, she tells John that he loves him, as if “her admission of failure at being a tough combatant releases her to have the feelings of a mother,” writes Jeffords.

But by now, John no longer needs her, whether she’s hard or soft or otherwise. In the following scene, Sarah unleashes a tirade directed at Dyson and other “fucking men” like him who’ve reaped rewards from world destruction. John interrupts her feminist tirade with practicality: “Mom!” he says. “We need to be a little more constructive here.” Sarah, during her rant, is framed alone, apart from Dyson and his family, who are sitting around a table with John and the Terminator. It’s clear that Sarah having gone “crazy” served its purpose, but now, the guys have got things under control. In cahoots with his future self, John has taken over his rightful role alongside the good Terminator as resistance leader and human savior.

Sarah’s failure to kill Dyson is the last moment her character does anything of real significance in the movie. The final showdown with the T-1000 (which, at the time, wowed audiences via use of never-before-seen visual effects, a Cameron speciality) culminates with showcases of male bravery. After Dyson dies heroically, blowing himself up to take down the Skynet servers with him, so too does Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, who recognizes that he needs to self-destruct so that the advanced technology used to create him doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Together, Dyson and the Terminator are responsible for giving birth to the future while Sarah, who manages to get in a few hits, has more or less been reduced to a frazzled bystander. John, carrying their torch, will live to save humanity tomorrow — in a series of sequels that don’t even bother to include Sarah at all. And in the process he’ll be saving something else, “something far more dangerous than a mechanized killing machine,” writes Jeffords. “He is saving masculinity for itself, not only embodying the ‘new’ future of masculinity but rescuing its past for revival.”

Kerry Brown / Paramount / courtesy Everett Collection

Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019.

This year’s Terminator: Dark Fate is the first franchise installment since T2 that James Cameron has been involved with. Together with director Tim Miller, he’s scrapped the legacy of Terminators 3–5 and resurrects Sarah once again. The character had appeared previously in a 2008–09 TV series on Fox, starring Lena Headey, which didn’t gain much traction; Dark Fate would be the return of both Sarah and Hamilton to the big screen. It seems like this would be a chance for the filmmakers to finally give Sarah her due — but they don’t get off to the best start.

A few years after defeating the T-1000, Sarah and John are hanging out on a beach when a reprised Schwarzenegger T-800 Terminator once again arrives from the future. This time, in a couple minutes flat, he succeeds at his task: killing John. Hamilton watched from the sidelines while they shot the scene — a body double would be digitally de-aged into a young Sarah — and, once she got home, “I cried my eyes out,” she told CNET. “Blessings to all, but I just was so upset that I didn't really have anything to do with it. Sarah was not putting up the fight that was written in the scene and I'm like no, no, no, no. My body would be doing different things, more fierce. She's not gonna just let him knock her away, she would be biting him, she'd be grabbing his arm — not that arm, grab the arm with the gun! It wasn't me and it really hurt."

You can’t blame her. It’s disorienting for any viewer to go from T2, where Sarah was maniacally protective of her young son, to the opening scene of Dark Fate, where the Terminator strides past Sarah and kills John easily, as if she isn’t even there. (In a way, given that Hamilton didn’t shoot the scene, she really isn’t.)

Sarah is yet another woman who, in her attempt to have it all (in this case, motherhood and world-saving), ends up just kind of crappy at both tasks.

Flash forward 30-odd years later and Sarah’s a hard-drinking loner who responds to cryptic texts telling her where and when yet another new Terminator — a Rev-9, played by Gabriel Luna — will arrive from the future. That’s how she meets Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a cybernetically enhanced soldier sent back in time to Mexico City to protect a woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes). The Rev-9 isn’t anything revolutionarily fearsome — he’s basically the T-800 and T-1000 smushed together, a machine that can separate itself into both an endoskeleton and a shapeshifting piece of liquid metal (just one of many indications that this franchise has thoroughly run out of ideas). Still, it’s fun to watch him face off against Grace, a new hero, especially when she’s joined by our old favorite; present-day Sarah’s entrance is the best moment of the movie.

Some cringey moments of over-the-top fan service aside, it’s also a pleasure to see Hamilton and Schwarzenegger together again, carrying on versions of the same archetype reversals they played out in T2. Sarah is cranky, suspicious, ferociously independent, and more hard-hearted than ever; this version of the T-800 is a reformed killer, having been taught purposefulness and something like love when he learned to take care of a family. It’s charming, and funny, to see the beefy Terminator transformed into a humble, flannel-wearing boomer with his own drapery business, just as it’s charming and funny and perhaps even (ugh) empowering to see Sarah continue to kick absolute ass in her sixties.

Still, such a familiar and uncomplicated role swap feels like a lazy reach for nostalgia and laughs — which, fair enough — rather than any sort of provocative commentary on gender politics in 2019. That’s not necessarily something your average blockbuster viewer is going to the movies for, but action audiences today have come to expect a certain level of consideration regarding women characters. Cameron is well aware of that; he asked Hamilton to return to the series precisely because of the so-called empowerment factor. He told Collider about the long email he sent to his ex-wife, begging her to reprise the role, in which he noted that over the past two and a half decades, other filmmakers have tried to portray “strong female action heroes that are complex and dark the way she was,” but, in his opinion, they’ve always failed.

Dark Fate does do some fun and refreshing things with its three lead women characters, and having three women leads in any big studio movie, let alone an action blockbuster, is pretty notable. (The bar, yes, is on the floor.) Davis as Grace is absolutely ripped in appropriate homage to Sarah in T2, and refreshingly divorced from any sort of feminine ideal: She’s strong, short-haired, and appealingly androgynous, making her, as Jordan Crucchiola writes at Vulture, the perfect “lesbian thirst icon.” Grace might not be particularly exciting to men, necessarily, but that doesn’t mean she’s not hot as hell. (Here’s Christina Cauterucci in her queer reading of Dark Fate: “Director Tim Miller didn’t want his movie to be sexy. He failed.”) Davis herself concedes that she “genuinely can’t find a male gaze in this movie.”

What bummed me out about Grace, though, is that since we know her character has been technologically enhanced, her strength feels neither earned nor interesting. (For a movie where a Terminator somehow develops a conscience and a woman is cybernetically augmented for battle, there’s also surprisingly little energy devoted to parsing what any of this might signify about what it means to be human.) And as for Dani, we are supposed to assume, like Sarah does, that she’s serving the same role Sarah herself once did: a mere reproductive vessel for some future savior. Anyone who’s been semiconscious through the 2010s can spot the movie’s pseudo feminist “twist” from a mile away, but Dark Fate seems to assume it deserves a medal for daring to suggest that women are more than walking wombs.

As David Ehrlich writes for IndieWire, “Sarah has been trapped in a nightmare for too long to be woke — she’s been too busy killing Terminators to see The Force Awakens or Wonder Woman.” But the rest of us out here in the audience have seen those movies, which makes Dark Fate’s grand reveal — arriving “at Dani’s obvious, actual value with an almost Promethean sense of pride” — not only insufficiently radical, but just plain boring.

Kerry Brown / Paramount / courtesy Everett Collection

Schwarzenegger and Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate.

When the Terminator series was still fresh, it was a lot easier to suspend the oodles of disbelief it requires. But in Dark Fate, in which multiple characters once again sacrifice themselves for the greater good, all this effort begins to look comically futile. If there’s an infinite number of possible futures in which an infinite number of AI collectives are attempting to destroy humanity — and if, each time, there’s one special person who can allegedly keep the chaos at bay — why even bother trying to play such chaotic catchup anymore? Every time the future is saved, a new and more sinister one blooms on the horizon.

Dark Fate is yet another sci-fi movie attempting to warn us about the perils of automation and Big Tech without positioning technology’s troubling evolutions within the context of greater and more pressing evils. Unfettered capitalism might not have gotten us murderous robots — not yet, at least — but it has gotten us Facebook, which is scary enough on its own, just as it’s gotten us the disastrous (and present-day) effects of climate change. Watching characters living in our own era attempt to stave off some machine-induced apocalypse by protecting a single individual is starting to get particularly tiring when whole communities are suffering from, and attempting to mitigate the effects of, a dystopian future that’s already here.

At least Dark Fate seems to recognize that our best bet at saving the world is following in the footsteps of women, particularly indigenous women and other women of color. The frustrating thing about the movie, though, like T2 before it, is the insistence that women’s desires to build a better future are inextricably tied to their individual relationships, particularly as mothers and motherlike figures.

The classic male superhero dilemma involves a guy choosing between saving someone he loves and protecting the greater good — think the Green Goblin forcing Spider-Man to pick between going after Mary Jane or a cable car full of people, after he drops both off a bridge — whereas the Terminator franchise presumes that women are only in this fight for the specific people they love; the greater good, if it’s served at all, is just a bonus. Sarah spent T1 and T2 protecting John, and she spends Dark Fate endlessly avenging his death; our new heroes Grace and Dani are both attempting to protect each other in past and future timelines because of the mother-daughter relationship they’ve formed.

In Queering the Terminator, Greven makes the argument that the “women’s film, which went into a period of decline in the 1960s, found a new life in other genres, namely horror and [science fiction].” The term “women’s film” refers to a mushy not-quite-genre of movies written by male screenwriters for an audience of women, starting in the silent film era, that concerned supposedly “womanly” issues like motherhood, the family, and the home — what feminist film critic Molly Haskell called “softcore emotional porn for the frustrated housewife.”

Though they may seem worlds apart, it actually isn’t too difficult to draw a line between those women’s films of the pre-’60s and action films like the Terminator franchise, in which women are still preoccupied with the domestic even as the world literally crumbles around them. Meanwhile, the men of the franchise, from Kyle Reese to Dark Fate’s T-800, keep sacrificing themselves — leaving behind people who love and need them — for the sake of all future generations.

Ultimately, the Terminator franchise seems unable to fully escape the limitations of its original premise, stuck in a time loop of individual heroes besting individual villains. Perhaps, now that Dark Fate’s ending has left the door open for two of its women heroes to return to battle in any number of sequels, the series will become more interested in collective action in response to collective ills. For now, Sarah Connor, as iconic as she is, is still trapped alone in an endless past. This was supposed to be her great return to the screen, and, while it was a welcome one in many ways, Dark Fate ultimately demonstrates, yet again, the limitations of the male imagination. ●

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