Terminator: Sarah Connor, Laurie Strode and Becoming Unstoppable

Terminator: Dark Fate follows the Halloween franchise in recentering the story around the women who started it all.

Terminator Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Halloween's Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)

This article contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate and Halloween (2018).

What do a 19-year-old waitress and a 16-year-old babysitter have in common? Neither got any warning that her life was about to be shattered. In the space of one fateful night and a violent attack that neither could have predicted or prevented, their idyllic existences—dates and daydreams, service shifts and National Honor Society—are transformed into desperate fights for survival. Sarah Connor of the Terminator movies and Laurie Strode of Halloween become final girls, but more than that, they are remade as mothers of franchises. Each woman’s first showdown, with the Terminator and with Michael Myers, respectively, spawns an entire fictional world that largely grows up without them.

Until now with the release of Terminator: Dark Fate and last year’s Halloween. For the first time in 28 years, Linda Hamilton has returned to the franchise that began with 1984’s The Terminator, with her reprisal of Sarah Connor erasing the past three sequels’ continuity. But while Dark Fate is a direct sequel to T2: Judgment Day, its Sarah Connor is clearly set apart from the young women she is protecting from a new, vicious Terminator; she’s unable to level with either naïve target Dani (Natalia Reyes) or augmented future-human Grace (Mackenzie Davis). The only person who could possibly understand an older, embittered Sarah Connor is her peer Laurie Strode, portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis in the latest Halloween—another clean-slate franchise reinvention drawing a direct line from its original to the continuation of its heroine’s story.

It’s an incredibly savvy move for both franchises, crafting reboots that don’t start entirely from scratch but that are also a clear-eyed assessment of where each franchise began to see diminishing returns. It’s not as if either character was entirely shelved in the intervening decades, either: Curtis steered more than one Halloween sequel, though her work as Laurie was diminished by increasingly bonkers explanations for why Michael Myers was drawn to attack her. And as recently as 2015’s Terminator Genisys, audiences met Sarah again, albeit a retconned version played by Emilia Clarke who had been raised by a Terminator from childhood—not quite the innocent Hamilton first portrayed, nor the hard fighter from Judgment Day, but an odd mash-up.

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In both cases, these attempts to grow both characters suffered from too much worldbuilding or a trigger-happy finger on the reboot button. The only way to truly tell Sarah and Laurie’s stories is to cut out the static and go back to their original traumas, then jump forward in time and examine how they irreparably molded them into the bitter, broken, resilient women they are today.

In the 2019 of Dark Fate, Sarah Connor is a legend only in her own mind—not due to megalomania, but because she did exactly what she set out to do. She stopped Judgment Day, prevented Skynet from ever being created, and saved the billions of lives she’d already watched perish in endless nightmarish visions for over a decade. Yet in doing so, she changed the future in which she was a war hero, in which a mere candid photograph of her compelled Kyle Reese to fall in love with the idea of her in 2029… leading him to die protecting a comparatively soft, helpless version of her in 1984.

In the world that Sarah Connor has shaped for herself, the only reputation she has is as a crazy and violent woman due to her asylum stint in Judgment Day (videos from which open this new film), and star of her own America’s Most Wanted Episode. And despite all that, she was forced to bury her son anyway, because before Skynet winked out of existence, it sent one more T-800 to finish the job. She is a mother without a son, a hero without a war… a soldier whose only orders are enigmatic text messages with dates, times, and coordinates for hunting Terminators, and the sign-off For John. “I hunt Terminators and I drink ‘til I black out,” is how she introduces herself to Dani and Grace. “Enough of a resume for you?”

Sarah Connor follows someone else’s predictions because she’s tired of issuing them herself. Laurie Strode, meanwhile, retreated from all human contact, even the normal life she attempted to build, because she too was treated as a chattering Cassandra: challenged and ultimately ignored despite the dismissal only spurring her desperation to make others believe her.

Instead all Laurie got in 2018’s Halloween was an alienated daughter Karen (Judy Greer), whom she raised to be as paranoid as young Laurie was naive. “All this hiding, all this preparation, was for nothing,” Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) tries to explain to her early on in the new movie. “It took over your family. It cost you your family.” With even her granddaughter losing patience with her inability to “get over it,” agoraphobic, alcoholic, ever-alert Laurie remains unapologetic for her choices: “If the way I raised your mother means that she hates me but that she’s prepared for the horrors of this world, then I can live with that.”

read more: Halloween (2018) – The Feminist Slasher Movie

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Both movies establish a one-woman-against-the-world divide that shames these survivors for still making a big deal out of what happened to them decades prior. When discussing the events of that Halloween night in 1978, most of which has faded into urban legend, Allyson’s friend hesitantly suggests that there is “so much worse stuff happening in the world today” than one person’s suffering. And that might be the case… if these women had ever been allowed to properly process their trauma. Instead they must build on whatever shells they have been reduced to, reopen old wounds before they’ve properly scarred over, and ultimately strip away their humanity in order to become killers; in order to enter the latest fight and come out alive.

Both franchises are obsessed with this paring-down of compassion and empathy, and then covering it back up. The Terminator’s iconic sunglasses have become a signifier not just for the title character but for anyone who wears them, signaling a gradual loss of humanity. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original T-800 in 1984 dons them out of necessity, to cover his glowing robotic eye that has been exposed in a fight. Eleven years later in Judgment Day, a similar pair has become part of Sarah’s uniform, along with the tank top showing off her incredible biceps as they methodically load a rifle. Yet the shades come and go over the course of the sequel, as Sarah’s militaristic side wars with the maternal, and we can see the wavering hope in her eyes.

There is no such ambiguity in Dark Fate: Sarah’s wearing aviators in her first introduction—during which she also utters Arnold’s famous “I’ll be back”—and they rarely come off. When they do, her ears are frankly uncomfortable to look at: sharp, flinty, laser-focused, a hint of that misogynistic brush-off of crazy eyes. As director Tim Miller told Polygon, “She’s [basically] a Terminator when we come into the movie. Grief has made her want to be an emotionless killing machine.” The sunglasses actually provide a brief respite for the audience, an excuse to look away from what is not actually crazy eyes but an unsettlingly wide-eyed, direct gaze.

By contrast, when “Carl,” a.k.a. the T-800 who killed John and then subsequently developed a conscience, is suiting up to join the Sarah and the past that has caught up with him, he has the chance to throw the shades back on. After a nostalgic beat of consideration, he instead puts them back down, because he doesn’t need them anymore. He has become a partner and father figure in the way that his predecessor seemed primed to be in Judgment Day, except he wasn’t required to selflessly sacrifice himself. He got to live and age, and grow.

What makes this bit of character development especially interesting for Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is how that very first sunglasses scene was shot in 1984. With the era’s special effects limitations, in order to show the T-800’s first under-the-skin glimpse, Schwarzenegger had to wear what to a modern eye clearly looks like a prosthesis of some sort. It’s clear, from one shot to the next, when it’s Arnold with the shades versus a moment prior, when it looked like an Arnold mask.

In fact, that mask looks not unlike the iconic visage that a certain serial killer donned less than a decade prior: pale, stiff, frozen into a neutral yet menacing expression. Michael Myers’ mask—immediately recognizable to the select few who know it, meaningless to everyone else—is a point of near-obsession in the 2018 film. It’s the foundation for a debate over whether Michael is the soulless Bogeyman of Laurie Strode’s mythology or a human being whose motives can be deduced if just the right person can suss it out.

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read more: Aliens and Terminator 2 – How Cameron Crafts Perfect Sequels

And while Michael celebrates his return to Haddonfield with a rather grisly and indiscriminate stroll through the neighborhood—popping into houses to bludgeon and knife to death the poor folks who have just seen their kids off to trick-or-treating—it’s all a warm-up for his eventual showdown with Laurie. By the time he is in her tricked-out fortress of a home, he has her tracking him through empty bedrooms, following a literal blood trail to a closet nearly identical to the one in which she hid from him in the original. He plans that detail. In that moment, he’s no Bogeyman—he’s a sick fuck, to be sure, but he’s a person all the same.

Carl and Michael will never be one hundred percent human, but with enough time and opportunity, they have become close enough to pass. In that same period, Sarah and Laurie have lost their every signifier: they have failed as mothers, as mentors, and as people just trying to move through the world.

The filmmakers behind both movies have given their varying answers as to why they decided now to bring back the women who were there at the start of these franchises—namely, a belated recognition that they had left Sarah and Laurie’s stories unfinished. However, it is worth noting that in 2017, a viral tweet from @Maigheach declared that “I’ve lived to see my childhood princesses become generals:” Robin Wright, best known as Princess Buttercup, kicking ass in Wonder Woman as Queen Hippolyta; and Carrie Fisher aging from Princess Leia to General Organa in Star Wars. In our era of reboots tapping into nostalgia or just trying to get the story right, there is a parallel yearning to witness the transformations from soft yet strong youths into hardened women who did not disappear after a certain age, who still take up as much space, if not more.

During a lull in the action in Dark Fate, Sarah brutally lays out what she imagines must make Dani so important: She will give birth to the man who will command the resistance against Legion. After all, that’s why Kyle Reese dropped into Sarah’s life decades ago. But their impact on the future is limited to this single act. Because once Dani gives birth, Sarah sneers, she’s outlived her usefulness, and it’s her son’s story now. And that’s what makes it so satisfying to learn the truth about Dani’s significance as Commander Ramos—to discover that she’s not this present’s Sarah Connor, she’s the future’s John Connor. Not because Sarah is wrong, but because the burden is no longer on her to predict the future. She only has to look far enough ahead to end this.

It is no coincidence that both Halloween and Dark Fate revolve around women leading their attackers to a kill box. Sarah’s location is less vital than her weapon itself—enough electrical force to fry the Rev-9’s neural net—but Laurie’s is specially designed: an underground bunker beneath her kitchen island. For the entirety of Halloween, Laurie and Karen play out a narrative they rehearsed for the latter’s entire childhood: treating the space like it is a cage until Michael finally steps in and they reveal that it’s not a cage—it’s a trap. No fate but what we make.

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In typical 2010s fashion, at the very end of the Halloween credits, you can hear Michael breathing—a signifier that he did not actually perish in the Strode women’s trap. Director David Gordon Green will helm two more sequels, Halloween Kills (out 2020) and Halloween Ends (2021). And even though Carl’s neural net got fried when he took the Rev-9 down with him, who’s to say there’s not another T-800 out in the world that learned to love? Terminators and serial killers get infinite chances to start fresh, to reboot themselves. Women have only the one life.

But they’re still alive. And so we have lived to see our final girls become the terminators.

Natalie Zutter can only hope to be as badass as Laurie or Sarah when she grows up. Talk franchise reinventions with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!