Warning: SPOILERS for Terminator: Dark Fate
Despite high hopes, Terminator: Dark Fate has once again been widely panned by audiences and critics, citing the same brand of formulaic story the series has tried, re-tried, and tried again. Many long-time fans criticize the movie for basically retelling the plots of The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day using younger, inherently less iconic actors. But what makes Dark Fate especially disappointing is that it does offer an intriguing story – and then ignores it.
The promising story lies in the decision to make Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous T-800 evolve, growing from an emotionless assassin to a peaceful family man, forming his own identity after decades of living among humanity. The 'domesticated' Terminator is seen primarily as a joke, but it reveals a fascinating direction the franchise could embrace on film, if the studio were willing. They're the same kind of risks already offering a new take on the Terminator lore in recent comic books. The same medium where the best, untold parts of Dark Fate's story will likely end up being explored.
The (Abandoned) Evolution of the T-800
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 is the soul of the Terminator franchise, and for good reason. The original two movies reveal the character has vast potential as both hero and villain. In The Terminator, he's a terrifying killing machine sent back in time to kill waitress Sarah Connor before she can create humanity's future leader. In T2: Judgement Day he's reprogrammed as the ultimate action hero, learning about the value of human life and finally sacrificing himself to prevent Skynet, his own creator from ever threatening humanity.
Despite that massive change from the first movie to the second, all additional T-800s in the films have been copies of T2’s Terminator: cybernetic soldiers reprogrammed and sent back to protect John Connor or his mother. Again, Dark Fate offers the possibility to change this pattern almost immediately, opening on a new T-800 arriving three years after the events of T2, approaching a young John Connor (resembling Edward Furlong), and killing him. But it’s what happens next that shows the amazing (and missed) opportunity the film could have taken.
With its mission completed, the T-800 sets down its gun and... walks away. Over the next twenty years, he takes a name ('Carl'), starts a drapery business, marries a human woman, and adopts her son. By assimilating into human society, Carl gains a sense of free will and the equivalent of a conscience, and even an understanding of human emotions. Realizing the pain he caused Sarah Connor by killing her son, Carl alerts her to the arrival of new Terminators, hoping that killing them will give her life some meaning. From this point the film resumes its formulaic plot of Carl defending the heroes, and predictably sacrificing himself – and yet it could have been much more.
'Carl' is The Next Step in The Terminator Story
At first glance, Carl seems like the same type of Terminator Schwarzenegger has played since T2 – a 'good' machine protecting humans while delivering one-liners (he even bluntly states that he is “extremely funny”). However, close examination shows Carl represents much more. For one thing, Carl was not reprogrammed to be a human protector by the Resistance. On the contrary, he is the only Terminator sent by Skynet to successfully assassinate John Connor in the past. That makes him the only Terminator audiences have witnessed fulfill his mission, and go on ticking. One would think he would continue to behave like the original T-800 from the original Terminator and ensure the survival of Skynet.
Yet Carl's "learning computer' allows him to study and adopt human behavior. By the time Sarah meets him again, Carl can smile, peacefully interact with dogs (remember dogs inherently hate Terminators), and even express passionate opinions about how the wrong drapes can ruin the look of an entire room. In many ways, Carl is living the life John Connor wanted his T-800 to have in T2. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, Carl begins as a programmed killer not able to comprehend the morality of murdering innocents .Seeing how he evolved by choice into a 'good' Machine without Resistance reprogramming may be the most important story in the franchise. And it's one the movie swerves away from for the sake of the usual Terminator formula.
By simply starting a human family Carl shows he clearly can be reasoned with and does feel pity, remorse, and fear, proving Kyle Reese is completely wrong about the very nature of the Machine War. But to truly tell that story, the march of the Terminator must continue from the villain, to the hero's protector... to ultimately becoming the hero. And a Terminator protagonist is the best idea the movies still refuse to explore.
Terminator Comics Have Taken The Step (Why Not Movies?)
This idea of inverting the human/machine dynamic, portraying aspects of Skynet as potentially benevolent and certain humans as potentially evil, is a familiar one to fans of the largely underrated Sarah Conner Chronicles. Showing humans betraying each other to side with the machines, the TV series is as close as live-action has gotten to shaking up the old notions of the Machine War, and offering a fresh vision for the Terminator franchise. But as unthinkable as it might seem on film, the idea of Skynet becoming a protagonist has already been explored in at least one Terminator comic book.
In the Dark Horse miniseries Terminator Salvation: The Final Battle, readers see what happens after the events of the fourth movie, Terminator: Salvation. In the comic series, Skynet revives the human/machine hybrid Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington in the movie) for another mission. Picking up on his own storyline from the film, Marcus is sent to stop Thomas Parnell, another hybrid Terminator that has gone rogue, taking control of Skynet’s arsenal and systems. Fittingly, Marcus straddles the line between human Resistance and Skynet to subvert the old ways of thinking. Eventually urging John Connor and humanity to work with the machines against their common enemy.
Eventually, John Connor moves from being the embodiment of 'man vs. machine' to the literal 'man and machine.' His true destiny? Merging his mind with the Terminators, and eventually forging a peace, realizing there is no 'good' or 'bad,' only the war for survival. The comic book makes John Connor the hero, but it's still dealing with the exact same idea embodied by Carl in Dark Fate. The idea the movies are determined to avoid for the sak of more of the same.
Unfortunately, the dismal box office reports of Terminator: Dark Fate mean it’s unlikely audiences will see any future movies for the movie’s new timeline (or any new live action Terminator films) anytime soon. Even so, the potential offered by Carl does showcase new possibilities for innovative Terminator stories. Perhaps if comic book writers and artists collaborated to produce a miniseries of Carl’s (thus unknown) journey, fans could experience at least one satisfying story out of an otherwise disappointing movie.