I went to see Terminator: Dark Fate this evening and have thoughts.
TL;DR: I thought it was really interesting. As an action blockbuster, I enjoyed it, but as the latest offering in a franchise so tied up with theoretical readings, it raises a lot of questions — questions that both strengthen the film as entertainment and undermine it as politicised media.
I don’t think there’s a way to say why I think this exactly without spoiling just about all of it so come back later if you’ve got plans to check it out.
NOTHING BUT SPOILERS AHEAD.
“There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” is one of the most famous lines from the Terminator franchise but it’s also the least effective and discussed. It’s meant to be a hopeful motto for most of the franchise’s characters but it betrays a weird templexity that is as integral to the franchise’s continuing existence as to that of the universe in which it takes place.
Individual fate may be fluid but repeatedly it falls foul of a much bigger plan.
This is driven home in Dark Fate in a scene where the saviour-from-the-future character, Grace, explains that Sarah Connor may have stopped Skynet from taking over but humans ended up building something else instead: Legion — yet another rogue AI that has its Oedipal and military-industrial complexes murderously entangled, threatening the entire human race after it decides to hunt it for sport. This is not just history repeating itself but the future too.
But there’s still hope. Dani, this film’s “John Connor”, future leader of the resistance — or “militia” (because she’s Mexican I guess?) — is keen to point out that we made these things so we can take them down.
It’s a hopeful line that is uttered within minutes of the iconic “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” and it left me feeling pretty jarred. A Terminator-dominated world is not our fate because our fate is what we make for ourselves… But it seems our fate is also to keep making rogue AI…?
Individual survival supposedly trumps any sense of collective responsibility. It has never been this franchise’s strongest message.
Terminator: Dark Fate at first feels like it has taken heavy notes from the reboot of the Star Wars franchise. The first 20 minutes or so of this film felt like they were just going to remake T2 but for today. In many respects, that is precisely what the filmmakers have done here, and it is what makes and breaks this film for me.
Initially, the updated settings and politics feel incredibly timely for a time-warped franchise such as this. The most interesting example for me is perhaps that Sarah Connor’s insane asylum sequence is changed up for a Texan detention centre for illegals who’ve crossed the US-Mexican border.
The journey into and out of this place is an interesting one and it reminded me of a lecture I went to a few months ago given by Daniel Rourke in which he gave the best analysis of T2 that I’ve ever heard. (I’m hoping one day that Daniel will publish this take for himself. I also hope he won’t mind me summarising it.)
Daniel’s focus is on Sarah Connor — “mother of the future, goddess, warrior”. She’s a “walking temporal disruption” trying to protect her son whose father was a man from the future sent back to protect her.
For Daniel, this makes her more cyborg than the Terminator. She is galvanised by her “temporal hybridity” and whilst the society in which she exists attempts to close in around her, deeming her to be insane because of her apocalyptic visions, she is nonetheless able to use the “rigidity of her own surroundings to her advantage.”
Daniel showed us her asylum escape sequence, describing her movement through the institutional space as an example of détournement — for the way that she uses the asylum against itself — but also as an act of “aphercotropism“. The latter is a term used to describe the routing around of obstacles by plants. Unable to access sunlight, plants will push through, in and around whatever lies in front of them.
Drawing up a diagram of the strategies and tactics deployed by each character in T2, Daniel explained that Sarah Connor is the “most aphercotropic being” of them all. She is “at one” with the system in which she’s contained. The Terminators, obviously, aren’t. The T-100 smashes through doors and walls like a bulldozer whilst the T-1000 just slides right through everything as if it was’t there. Without the brute force or liquidity of the Terminators in her midst, Sarah nonetheless comes out on top because she is able to adapt best to her environment without having to just destroy everything or be completely devoid of an identity like the T-1000 that mimics but is otherwise formless.
I liked this because — in DeleuzoGuattarian terms — it situated the T-100 as a striated being, the T-1000 as a smooth being, and Sarah Connor as a cyberfeminist patchwork nomad.
What is interesting about this reading in relation to Terminator: Dark Fate is that it completely falls apart. That’s not a comment on Rourke’s reading of T2 but rather a comment on the times in which we live.
In Dark Fate, Sarah Connor is back but she’s also a bit of a has-been. She’s no longer hunted and she’s no longer the most aphercotropic being in the girl gang. In fact, it’s hard to rank any of the characters in this present movie as being aphercotropic at all.
Sarah Connor hunts Terminators now. She gets sent mysterious texts, goes to the coordinates contained within and despatches Terminators as soon as they arrive. She’s not the mother of the future anymore. She’s basically a looper — a contract killer killing any remnant of the future the moment it reaches back into the past. The irony of her future-past existence is that she’s now totally behind on the present, keeping her phone in empty crisp packets because she thinks the foil lining will block tracking signals.
And yet Sarah is also the first to chide Grace, an augmented human sent back to protect Dani. Sarah notes that, yeah, she might be as fast and as strong as a Terminator with her cool future techno-skeleton, but she doesn’t know anything about the past she’s been sent back to. She has no idea how it all works.
Dani, although she is this film’s “John”, is in fact a lot more like the very first Terminator film’s Sarah. She might be destined to lead humanity to its salvation against Legion but she’s not that woman yet. She’s got a very long way to go. She’s a woman of the present but she’s clueless about the past and future forces no converging around her.
All of this is compounded by the ease with which the new Terminator is able to move through our contemporary world. Our contemporary surveillance state, in particular, means that this rogue AI has no trouble finding its prey anywhere. Every camera is an eye for it to spy through, whether that be CCTV, military drone or smart phone camera. It reminded me of that dark technology that Batman has been secretly developing in one of the Chris Nolan films — the technology that uses phone signals to listen in on calls and render 3D environments from phone data alone. In Terminator: Dark Fate, it feels like phone data is irrelevant. It’s the obvious technology to fear if you want to remain off grid but it quickly becomes apparent that, today, being “off-grid” is an outdated fantasy. Nowhere is out of sight of present day surveillance infrastructures.
The state’s role in this is made explicit. Just as the original T-1000 found itself easily overcoming obstacles by impersonating a police officer for most of the film’s duration, the new model built by Legion impersonates a border patrol officer and army personnel. It hacks networks way above the pay grade of T2‘s motorcycle cop and, as a result, it is never far behind the women’s trail, no matter whether they’re traipsing through the desert or laying low in a city. They are accessible.
One of the most interesting and troubling things, for me, about Terminator: Dark Fate is that if any character in this new film is aphercotropic it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, but not in a good way.
In his lecture, Daniel explained that he sees the Terminator itself as a feminist figuration for its capacity to highlight the very power dynamics that it moves through, specifically between a machinic and masculine dualism, and that is an aspect of Schwarzenegger’s character that is put into overdrive in this film.
Having eventually killed John Connor in 1998, a year after the events of T2 — depicted in an opening flashback that, it must be said, is fucking incredible in its realism: I wouldn’t have known it was CGI if I wasn’t well aware that those characters on screen were impossibly from 22 years ago — we later learn that the T-100 developed a “consciousness” (or, more accurately, a conscience) all of its own, later settling down and becoming a family man.
I found this back story very hard to swallow. Whereas T2‘s T-100 had been completely reprogrammed in the future and then sent back to the past to protect John Connor, this T-100 was successful in its mission but, a few years later, found itself a family and then felt guilt? The film’s internal reasoning was that, somewhat like Frankenstein’s monster, in an attempt to give itself purpose in its new existence as a seemingly immortal machine that has completed its one and only mission, unable to return to the time it came from, the T-100 sets out on a new mission to make amends and… It succeeds?
I call bullshit on that as a narrative device personally but, politically, and with Daniel’s reading in mind, it does weirdly make sense that this all-female reboot would reconfigure the machinic masculinity of the previous films into a responsible don’t-mess-with-Texas caring survivalist family man who plays Platonic husband and father figure for a lost mother and son who have escaped domestic abuse.
In relation to T2, this still makes no sense whatsoever to me but, being charitable, I suppose it nonetheless contains echoes of the original John Connor’s attempts to humanise the monster in his midst in the original film.
Just as all the comic relief in T2 came from Schwarzenegger’s robotic father figure vibe and his cold delivery of teenage slang, Terminator: Dark Fate gives his character the future existence that we might have imagined for the T-100 that sacrificed itself at the end of T2.
It’s ham-fisted and awkward but it did eventually win me over, betraying my inner bleeding heart liberal. My more critical head, however, did recongise Arnie’s new T-100 was a cybergothic embodiment of what Leslie Fieder called a “Higher Masculine Sentimentality” — a weird cross-pollination of white man and savage Native that American literature has been producing for centuries. T2 kept its HMS fast and loose. Here, it is woefully consolidated. It will resonate with many, as a result, but I’m left asking myself: “At what cost?”
This is partly why this film both benefits and is dragged down by its timeliness for me. I do not see much of the internal politics of this film ageing well in this regard. This isn’t a comment on the all-female cast. In fact, that development makes perfect sense. Dani isn’t the “mother of the future”. She is the future. It updates T2 with the “future is female” promise of today and of cyberfeminism more generally and it would be weird if it went any other way. But its internal crisis of masculinity echoes the embarrassing shifting mythologies that men hold onto in our own reality. The fact that the film can write three kick-ass female characters but completely fails to give its only leading man a believable backstory is telling of the present moment. I doubt many will mourn this failure but it bothers me if only for the fact that it did affect the film as a whole for me.
This disappointment with convoluted internal politics is not uncommon to a lot of recent sci-fi. For example, whilst the film initially holds off on revealing the fact that it isn’t Dani’s womb that the rogue AI is threatened by, it reminded me of all that I didn’t like about the recent Blade Runner sequel.
That film’s fall back on a harking after domesticity and familial lineage over considerations of the impact of a replicant’s xenogenesis felt really wrong to me. If there are two paths that could be taken following the original Blade Runner, that, for me, was the wrong one.
Terminator: Dark Fate thankfully takes a far more interesting path but still struggles to deal with xenogenesis in a way that doesn’t quickly fall back on the trad politics of the nuclear family.
On a more positive note, it is inspired that the film’s main chase takes place across the US-Mexican border and involves far more nefarious apparatuses of the state than its predecessors. None of these plot devices feel heavy handed — there is no woke message screaming at you in the face — but, again, with Daniel’s lecture in mind, its narrative arch is telling. Almost a quarter of a century after the first film hit cinemas, it is striking how much more difficult it is for these characters to move around. They fall victim to just about every example of state infrastructure they pass through, slowing them down whilst these same systems allow the Terminator to speed up.
This isn’t something that the film makes a big deal of, but I do wonder why that is. In fact, one of the other heavy-handed moments in Terminator: Dark Fate contrasts this observation in an odd way.
When Dani is first introduced, turning up for work at a Mexico City car manufacturer with her brother, she discovers her brother’s station has been replaced overnight by a new robotic arm on the production line. She complains to her manager, protesting about the precedent this sets for the rest of her colleagues who, she says defiantly, will not be reduced to “keeping stations warm until the machines come along.” It’s the sort of working class technophobia that has been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi for decades and it felt very much out of date here.
This is exacerbated by the extent to which the Legion Terminator is able to exploit the apparatus of the state. Humanity creating a slipstream for murderous AI is not a drama that plays out very well anymore on the factory floor. It is the state’s adoption of technologies that is far more worrying. It worried me that the film’s Fordist fury betrayed a complete ignorance of this far more pressing and insidious issue, despite it occupying these spaces for the majority of its story.
I would be remiss not to mention k-punk’s writings on the Terminator franchise here, particularly in relation to this weirdly outdated technophobia at the start of the film.
Writing on Terminator: Salvation on his blog, Mark comments: “Capitalist realism keeps attention on the ephemeral plenitude of wealth and social status, containing the nullity of ecological catastrophe as an anamorphic blot at the edge of vision.” In Terminator: Dark Fate, it is state surveillance over ecological catastrophe that capitalist realism keeps as a blot. The Fordist technophobia getting an on-screen protest whilst no comment is passed on the nature of their detention at the hands of the US border patrol feels like a weird act of misdirection that is never rectified with the same explicitness.
It doesn’t have to be, of course — subtlety is good — but Dark Fate eschews its subtlety in some very telling places and these are typically places that only reveal the limits of the filmmaker’s own vision of the world in which their story takes place.
In his most famous Accelerationist essay, Mark would use the Terminator as the best analogy for Nick Land’s (1990s) view of capitalism:
Deleuze-Guattari’s concept of capitalism as the virtual unnameable Thing that haunts all previous formations pulp-welded to the time-bending of the Terminator films: “what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources,” as [Land’s essay] “Machinic Desire” has it. Capital as megadeath-drive as Terminator: that which “can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, doesn’t show pity or remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop, ever”.
The fact that, in Dark Fate, Capital-as-Terminator did stop and became a stoic boomer is damningly continuous with this Landian vision and, similarly, it doesn’t make for good watching.
Most troubling of all is the way in which Dark Fate feels like a perfected instantiation of all that made Terminator: Genisys, for Mark Fisher at least, such a shitshow. (I think I skipped that film altogether.)
Reviewing the film for Sight & Sound, Mark writes:
Terminator 2’s already irritating combination of cutesy smart alecry (“Hasta la vista, baby”) and apocalyptic foreboding laid out the formula for the 1990s postmodern thriller in the way that the Bond films did for the thrillers of the 60s. The form was a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it mix of send-up and portentous melodrama (Linda Hamilton’s performance was so OTT that you wanted to say, “Chill out, it’s just a nuclear apocalypse”).
I wonder if he wouldn’t find Hamilton’s performance here similarly cringe. Her hard-nosed persona does frequently miss the mark in Dark Fate and feel painfully exaggerated.
Getting to the meat of his analysis, Mark continues:
The presiding metaphysic here — a vision of total plasticity, in which nothing is final, everything can be redone — is, like everything else in this film, completely familiar. If the Terminator in the first film — a musclebound humanoid with metallic-robotic skeleton – was an image of work and technology in the Fordist era, then the T1000 gave us our first taste of the forms of capital and labour which were then emerging. No doubt, the T100’s protean capacity to adopt any form whatsoever initially seemed exciting — reflecting the promises of a new digital technologies, and of an unleashed capitalism, recently freed up from conflict with the Soviet empire.
But by 2015 that excitement has long since flatlined. As with so much contemporary culture, Terminator Genisys feels simultaneously self-satisfied and desperate, frenzied and boring. It is at one and the same time a desecration and plundering of the series’ past that is also pathetically reverential towards it. […]
[A] film whose reality is this plastic, this recomposable, is simply impossible to care about on any level. As such, Terminator Genisys becomes a kind of dumb, unintentional parable about restructuring in late capitalism. Since anything can and will change soon, why bother to care about what is happening now? The whole film feels like a monument to pointless hard work. We’re left somewhat stupefied and perturbed by the vast amount of digital labour that has gone into something that is almost completely devoid of interest, and which it certainly feels like very hard work to watch.
Terminator: Dark Fate thankfully avoids this pratfall. Its explicit grounding within a very contemporary geopolitical battleground gives it real stakes and an undercurrent that is ripe for real-world consideration.
Sometimes it is confused about what exactly it wants to say but thankfully it leaves more than enough space for the viewer to consider the film on their own terms. However, Mark’s critique of this franchise’s previous outing still lingers.
It might successfully generate interest by hanging itself on the Trumpian geopolitics of contemporary America but is this film capable of telling us any more beyond that? Its spirals of templexity still drag it down.
There is no fate but what we make for ourselves and so far, according to the film’s own internal logics, that fate is more of the same. The Terminator in Dark Fate is no longer a idol to fill with Landian analyses of our collective technomic death drive but of the frenzied stasis of Fisher’s capitalist realism.
If this film cannot connect the dots between the T-100’s fallback on trad life to the futility of its own catchphrase that betrays a self-perpetuating capitalism, paradoxically fuelled by a fear of a future-present, hopefully its audiences can.