Quick note: I will not be covering Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, or Terminator: Genisys as the recently released Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t recognize the events of those films, essentially removing them from the official canon. Besides, in terms of how each movie handles the concept of time, Rise of the Machines sticks pretty close to Terminator and Terminator 2, Salvation avoids it altogether by telling a story of John Connor in his own time, and Genisys just completely screws it up – pasting timelines over each other, without regard to how the future comes about, and even walks back the delayed date of Judgment Day given in Rise of the Machines – and ends up a prime example of how bad writing can be when a writer ignores the previous set rules to tell his own story with his own rules in an attempt to subvert expectations or execute an idea that seems cool in concept but only proves to be nonsensical the more it’s drawn out.
With all that out of the way, get ready for some SPOILERS for Terminator: Dark Fate!
First, let me just get this out of the way. I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Fate. Though there are certain scenes I’d change, such as the build to the climax of the film that begins to thin the good Terminator herd, so to speak, then presses the reset button to bring Carl and Grace back, negating any tension that was being built toward the climax, I did have a good time with Dark Fate’s action and pacing. I would’ve appreciated an extended moment in which Dani is allowed to breathe and cry and mourn for the family she’s lost, but we can’t get everything we want, now can we? (Or, in the case of writing, maybe we should.)
Anyway, in the 1984 film The Terminator, the out-of-control war machine dubbed “Skynet” creates its own future – and ultimately, its own demise – by sending a Terminator into the past to kill the mother of its adversary, Sarah Connor, an action that triggers a response from Sarah’s future son, John, that has John sending a soldier into the past to stop the Terminator from completing its mission. Sarah and Kyle fall in love and conceive the child, John, who will become the person that leads humanity in the future war against Skynet and the machines.
This is a brilliant concept as the future relies on events in the past that were created by an action from the future. It’s an interesting, closed loop that could be based an idea that time doesn’t run in a straight line, from past to present to future, but runs relative to the person or machine experiencing it. In other words, time runs no matter what point in time you find yourself in. Since the past doesn’t first occur, Skynet’s decision in the future can affect the past and create the future without harming or changing the future. In short, the future wouldn’t happen without the past, and the past wouldn’t happen without the future. Skynet doesn’t understand this concept though, because Skynet is a machine that “thinks” in calculations and formulas such as Send Terminator into past + Kill Sarah Connor = John Connor will never be born to lead the human uprising.
We could attempt to look at time, in the film, working from a straight-line perspective, with the past occurring before the future, then a person from the future traveling into the past to change it and create a new future, but there’s a bit of problem. While it could be assumed that someone else fathered Sarah’s child originally, but the identity of the father was changed to Kyle Reese because of Skynet’s decision to alter the past, there’s a specific line in the film that brings about some questions if the past didn’t initially include Kyle Reese. In the film, Kyle says to Sarah that she and John were in hiding before the war and that, from when he was a kid, she taught him to fight and organize. If there were years between Skynet starting the war against humanity and Skynet unleashing its machine army to hunt down, round up, and kill the last surviving humans, then we could imagine Sarah and John being among them. If that was the scenario, before changes from the future occurred, then did Sarah learn to fight and organize from John’s original father? It’s a possibility. However, if Skynet launched its attack and sent the machine army out immediately, then Sarah might’ve known the war was coming and knew that she needed to prepare to teach John the skills he would need to bring humanity back from the brink of extinction. In that case, the past would’ve had to include Kyle Reese, which makes the concept of different time points running concurrently a stronger candidate for how to view time in the film.
The former makes a lot of sense when connected to the second film, released in 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. However, Sarah clearly sees time as running in a straight line, with the past occurring first. This is the only way she can believe that she can change the future. While Kyle, in the first film, did say to her, “The future is not set,” this was more about inspiring Sarah to fight for her survival. It was part of a message John had Kyle memorize and give to Sarah once he reached her. The idea is that if Sarah believed the future couldn’t be changed, then she would likely not have seen the Terminator as a threat, believing it couldn’t kill her because she survives long enough to have a child. Sarah must discover, however, that fate does not exist without action.
Sarah runs with this idea in Terminator 2, although the film’s director, James Cameron, makes a mistake by adding the words, “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves,” even though Kyle never said that in the first movie when relaying John’s message to Sarah. So, even with Sarah’s attempts to change the future, it’s likely she didn’t succeed. All she did was blow up one building, destroy some data and some backups, and melt away any evidence that Terminators were sent back into the past. It’s easy to conclude, though, that Cyberdyne, the company that created Skynet, backed up all their accumulated data in multiple places, not simply in one building.
However, in Terminator 2, it is still possible for time to run in a straight line before changes began occurring. From a straight-line perspective, it could be said that John’s original father (not Kyle) was perhaps a bad person who forced Sarah to feel that she had to get away from him and go into hiding from him. She learned to fight and taught John how to fight. At some point, for some reason, Sarah gave John to a foster family that kept him until he ran away, sometime before the war started. This all could’ve happened before Skynet started sending Terminators back in time to kill Sarah and John. There are a lot more holes that the audience must fill in on their own though; it’s messier compared to watching the movies with the idea that time runs relative to when someone is in it, like space is relative to where someone is in it. Whichever concept you choose to believe, what’s clear as day is that once we get to 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate, both concepts begin to break down. This is where Dark Fate, though an enjoyable film on its own, goes wrong.
The first mistake made in Dark Fate is the death of young John Connor before John has committed any act of revolution against Skynet. By having a Terminator kill John before he becomes an important figure to Skynet, the writers have removed the reason for Skynet to send Terminators back in time to kill John. In a relative timeline, John must exist to at least begin the battle against Skynet. In a straight timeline, John not existing in the future means that someone else will begin the revolution, which means that Skynet shouldn’t have any idea of who John is or why Terminators should be sent into the past to kill him, breaking the loop. This nullifies the first two films, rendering them pointless. So, the general story would now begin with Dark Fate, but neither Sarah nor the T-800, known as Carl in Dark Fate, should be participants in the story since both characters are connected to John.
This leads us to the second error in Dark Fate, changing “Skynet” to “Legion.” Even in a straight timeline, as the movie seems to want us to believe is followed, this change breaks the first two films, as a Skynet that doesn’t exist in the future is a Skynet that can’t send Terminators into the past. Not to mention, the film has us believe in a future that can be altered based on actions in the past, with actions from the future based on an altered past that formed the altered future. Now that’s really messy, and it doesn’t even account for the fact that Skynet succeeding in killing John in the past should’ve led to Skynet being built anyway and destroying humanity. That was the point of Skynet sending Terminators into the past to kill Sarah and John.
There’s also a third error in Dark Fate: bringing Sarah and Dani, the new protagonist in the John Connor role, together. With John dead, a young woman becomes the person who will spark humanity’s fight against the machines, and Grace, Dani’s future soldier who fills the Kyle Reese role, must be sure that Dani lives to do that. However, once Sarah gives young Dani the knowledge that Sarah’s son John was originally going to be the savior of humanity, before he was killed by a Terminator, it’s not a stretch to wonder why young Dani doesn’t take this information into the future with her and send Grace back further in time to protect John Connor from the T-800, restoring John as the savior of humanity and ensuring that both her father and brother aren’t murdered by a Terminator that was sent back in time to kill her because she would no longer be a major player in humanity’s war. Then again, maybe this is what the sequel would’ve been about had Dark Fate not lost money at the box office.
This is where changing the rules of how time works in the Terminator films simply derails the writing. Yes, I enjoy the story of young Dani having to survive to become humanity’s last hope for a continued existence, but the way this story is written doesn’t fit with the rules of time established in the first two Terminator films. I know someone might say that you just have to look at time in a way that allows the past to be changed so that it leads to an altered future or one of many altered timelines, but once in that mindset, rules are thrown out the window and we go from the beauty of a closed loop shown in Terminator to a completely nonsensical series of events that we see in Terminator: Genysis. I’m not saying that Genysis isn’t a fun movie or can’t be enjoyed, but it is an example of bad writing. Dark Fate, however, is an example of writing with clear flaws that can be fixed.
I’m unsure if it would be worth it to fix Dark Fate, though, within the Terminator franchise. What I would do is simply remove the characters we recognize along with the Terminator name. Why can’t this be a movie inspired by the Terminator franchise, with completely new characters? This would allow us to have a movie that establishes its own rules to follow, its own characters with their own struggles, and give us opportunity to explore new ideas and concepts in time travel rather than breaking a concept that has come before. Sometimes, I feel, the best thing to do is create something new rather than try to ride the name recognition of a once great franchise.
I hope you enjoyed this pretty long write-up. If I made any mistakes concerning time or timelines or anything else, and you’ll probably find some errors, please let me know in the comments below. Also, if you have your own interpretations of time you’d like to share, go for it! 🙂