If there is any film franchise potentially in need of hitting the reset button, it’s the Terminator series. Launched back in 1984 with The Terminator, a low-budget cult classic sci-fi thriller, and continued in 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, one of the most spectacular and groundbreaking action blockbusters of all time, the franchise sent itself down several different and twisting narrative roads over the course of three more movies and an acclaimed but short-lived TV show.
But now a new film, Terminator: Dark Fate (out Nov. 1), is taking a different tack. The story threads pursued in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys have been jettisoned in favor of a direct sequel to writer/director James Cameron’s first two films. The contorted continuity that plagued the later entries is, appropriately for a tale about the future, a thing of the past.
What makes this instantly compelling is the return of two key personnel who have been long missing: Cameron, who reacquired the rights to his signature franchise and decided to take an active role in conceiving the story and producing the film, and Linda Hamilton, who played Sarah Connor in the original two movies and returns as the series’ heart and soul for the first time in 28 years.
Of course, the iconic star of the series, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is back as well, while the movie introduces a fresh cast including Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049), Gabriel Luna (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Natalia Reyes. The director is Tim Miller, who made his directorial debut in 2016 with Deadpool after working for years as a visual effects specialist.
Miller came on board after meeting producer David Ellison, who was behind the previous attempt to reboot the franchise with Terminator Genisys. “Even despite Genisys not playing as well as expected, he didn’t want to give up,” says Miller. “He still wanted to take another bite of the apple and he thought I might be a good candidate to help because The Terminator was a very formative movie for me. I have a great affection for the franchise and really wanted to see it come back in a big way.”
It was Hamilton’s return as Sarah Connor—who in the original movie was the target of the first Terminator played by Schwarzenegger—that most drew Miller toward Dark Fate. “For me, it was never the story of John Connor, it was always the story of Sarah Connor, and nobody could play that character like Linda could,” he says. “So if Linda would ever come back to check on her again, that would be the best of all possible worlds. And that is, of course, what happened.”
Hamilton explains why she decided to once again return to the Terminator universe and Sarah Connor’s seemingly endless battle to stop the onslaught of an ominous future.
“The fact that so many years have passed for the character of Sarah Connor intrigued me,” Hamilton says via email. “Certainly, events have marked her. I wanted to explore that… who is she NOW?”
The actress says that she was “extremely hesitant” to return at first. “The first two films had such a complete arc for the character, and I only wanted to participate in this project if there was something new and challenging to play,” she says, adding that Sarah is in a dark place when we meet her in the new film. “She is a wild thing still, but her mission has changed. The years have not treated her kindly. She is bitter, near-broken, and very much alone.”
Regarding Hamilton’s absence from the saga for all these years, Miller muses, “I think that she felt like she said what she needed to say about that character and revisiting the well in some lesser form was not of interest to her. I wouldn’t say it took a little convincing because I honestly think that she wouldn’t have engaged in the conversation if she didn’t want to or didn’t have some hope that it would work out. Linda is very decisive, and all the factors aligned for her that now was the time to do it.”
For Schwarzenegger, it seemed like no time had passed at all when he reunited with his old sparring partner. “[Linda]’s always fun to work with and she’s just as intense now as she was when we did Terminator 2. She’s very adamant about the way she handles the weapons, the action, and all that.”
The legendary actor adds, “She’s a very strong woman and I think that one thing that always comes up is that, in all of these movies, the women are always kind of the leaders and they have the strong upper hand and are very heroic. Cameron writes that very well. Feminine but also hard, it’s a great combination.”
If Schwarzenegger was impressed by Hamilton even after working with her before, the newcomers to the cast were even more awed. “She really resonates a type of cool toughness and is incredible to be around,” says Mackenzie Davis. “But she’s also the sweetest woman and so full of love. She does have this warrior’s exterior, and I imagine being in these movies has really shaped part of her. She’s tough and cool and she does seem like she could survive in the apocalypse but she’s also extremely loving. I got to work with her pretty much every single day for six months, and it was such a lovely experience.”
While plot details remain as secretive as Cyberdyne’s research and development wing, the story revolves around a woman named Dani Ramos (Reyes), who becomes the target of a new liquid metal Terminator (Luna) sent from the future to kill her for reasons yet to be revealed. Dani falls under the protection of an android/human hybrid known as Grace (Davis) and ultimately is aided by both Sarah and the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) in her quest to stay alive.
Davis says her enigmatic character is a noble warrior. “It was intimidating to play her. It’s a very athletic role and one I never really thought I would play or, if I did play it, not execute. I think she’s an interesting addition to the Terminator canon. She is working in service of the future and that’s a cool sort of mantle to carry.”
Davis’ character is described by Miller as an “augment”—a human who has been “enhanced” to fight the machines more effectively. “Mackenzie is a revelation and what a badass she is,” says Miller. “She’s faster than normal. She’s stronger than normal. You give her a set of futuristic weapons, and she is a force to be reckoned with. [Augments] are the shock troops in the future war. But they feel pain. They feel emotion. It’s a messy process; it’s imperfect; it’s not shiny and clean, but she’s fucking tough as nails.”
As for Dani, the woman that Grace and Sarah are determined to protect, Miller says, “Natalia is just wonderful all around. She brings a lot of emotion to this movie. The idea with Dani is you want to have this person, like with Sarah Connor, who comes from a background you would never expect someone to come from to then become one of the most important people in the future. I don’t want to tell you what Dani becomes, but I will tell you that she’s very much akin to the way Linda handled [the first movie].”
From what we can ascertain of the story based on the relatively small amount of footage we’ve seen, Davis, Hamilton, Reyes, and Schwarzenegger must square off against Luna’s Rev-9, an advanced Terminator that consists of a traditional solid endoskeleton surrounded by a “skin” of mimetic poly-alloy. What makes this machine especially dangerous is its ability to separate these two components into two fully autonomous Terminator units.
“It’s essentially a T-800 and a T-1000 together,” says Miller, who notes that he wanted to keep the film’s action and visual effects on the same gritty level as the first two films. “I think that the DNA of Terminator is very grounded. It’s not space battles… I didn’t want to make a Terminator that was so powerful that you can’t fight it off with guns. I didn’t want to make a Terminator that could shoot ray blasts out of its hands or turn things into molten lava. All of that stuff, while visually spectacular, just doesn’t feel like a Terminator movie. We tried very hard to make Gabriel as formidable as possible while also keeping him and the action grounded.”
While much of that is no doubt achieved through CG, Luna says he marveled at the amount of work done on the set in-camera, and tells us that he had to get himself into top shape for the physical action scenes that are still part of the framework of any Terminator film: “Arnold laid the template and then Robert [Patrick] was this other version,” says the actor. “I wanted to be the perfect hybrid of that. The powers of the character kind of lent itself to that anyway—to be the perfect hybrid between the T-800 and the T-1000. So I gained 14 pounds of muscle and I had never done that before.”
Luna also earned the respect and approval of the man who laid the groundwork for every Terminator since 1984. “He’s a hard-working guy and takes the role seriously because he’s young and very agile and in good physical condition,” Schwarzenegger says about the new cyborg on the scene. “He was willing to train really hard to build his body and do all the stuff that he needed to do.” Schwarzenegger adds that he pushed himself in the gym as well to get back into T-800 form: “I trained my ass off for the film. When you get to my age, you have to train twice as much to get the same result as you did 20 years ago.”
Even though Luna is literally half Schwarzenegger’s age, he said he had to up his own workout game once the celebrated action star showed up on the set. “If I wasn’t inspired already, which I already was, his encouragement, his knowledge, and everything he could share with me just left a super strong imprint and became part of my life,” says Luna. “Now it’s just what it’s all about. The training hurts in the beginning, but you keep on going and eventually it stops hurting.”
As for the T-800 himself, Schwarzenegger suggests the cyborg is pretty much the same T-800 you saw in the other movies, but Miller hints at something a little different: “This version of Arnold is something that Jim has been thinking about for a long time,” teases the director. “I think it’s a really great way for him to come back to the franchise. I understood the other movies and the way they handled him, but I didn’t want to do that again. I really thought that the way to do something unique for this film was to have Arnold’s backstory and the way he interacts with the rest of the characters be something we hadn’t seen from that character before… but I also think it has the expected amount of Arnold kicking ass.”
“Arnold kicking ass” was a cornerstone of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day with the latter film in particular setting a benchmark for action, stunts, and spectacular set-pieces that almost every high-stakes action movie since has aimed to match or exceed. “I would say [this movie] is huge action-wise,” says Schwarzenegger, who certainly knows his way around the genre. “I was very satisfied with the ideas and the big action that this movie has. It’s really wild.”
But Miller maintains that the standard set by the franchise itself did not put any undue pressure on Terminator: Dark Fate. “It’s pretty hard to raise the bar on things like Avengers: Endgame or Avatar, or things like that,” he explains. “Everybody likes a good spectacle but I think it doesn’t have quite the same impact as it did when you saw that first liquid metal man in Terminator 2. I like action and I like spectacle, but I’m not like, ‘Oh my God, I have to do something I’ve never seen before.’”
It was not about staging the biggest, most over-the-top action scenes possible for the filmmaker, but creating sequences that advanced the characters and story: “That is one of the big things I learned about working with Jim Cameron. Here’s a guy who approaches it from character first and then does an action scene, and the action scenes always seem to support the character so well. That’s one of the things I love best about his movies.”
Although Terminator: Dark Fate essentially plays out as if the three films after Terminator 2 don’t exist, Miller insists that the new movie stays true to the continuity and canon established in the first two movies.
“I don’t feel like I’m changing the mythology,” he says. “I think it’s a continuation of the cause and effect that [James Cameron] set up in the other Terminator movies—which is simply if you make a change in the past, it will change the future. So you have to expect that what happened before, or the history that Sarah had been told of the future, was going to change. I don’t look at it as changing mythology. I look at it as the natural outcome of the set of rules that Jim established in the first two movies.”
As for how this movie picks up the story where it left off at the end of Terminator 2, one of the stars of both is clear about it. It was Hamilton whose Sarah Connor memorably said, “the unknown future rolls toward us” at the end of the second film. Now Hamilton explains, “This film is a direct sequel to Judgment Day, but many years have passed. The story and timeline track very well.”
Perhaps the most exciting thing, however, is the anticipation of seeing Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger once again fighting together for that unknown future. “One day I had them both looking down the sights of long guns aimed at me,” says Gabriel Luna. “And I’m looking at both of them, thinking, ‘Holy fuck, this is a Terminator movie you’re in right now.’ To be part of the continuation of that story that I watched with my jaw on the floor when I was 12 years old is just indescribable.”
Terminator: Dark Fate is out November 1.
Listen to highlights from the Terminator: Dark Fate panel at San Diego Comic Con 2019 on The Den of Geek Podcast:
This story comes from the Den of Geek Special Edition Magazine.