This article contains massive spoilers. Obviously.
Many films in recent years have digitally de-aged their actors for nostalgic purposes, but Terminator: Dark Fate uses the technology for an incredibly insidious goal. The opening sequence of the franchise’s best sequel since T2 reminds us that Sarah Connor and her son John prevented “Judgment Day” back in the 90s, before showing us an event from a few years later that alters the course of the franchise. Incredible digital wizardry puts T2-era John Connor and his mom on a beach in Guatemala, one year after the Judgment Day they prevented.
The sequence initially provides a sense of warm nostalgia – in particular, it’s quite special to see a young Edward Furlong back on the big screen – but the rug is quickly pulled out from under us with a shocker of a twist: another T-800 had been sent down to kill John Connor, and this particular cyborg succeeds in his mission. Looking like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, the T-800 guns down John Connor with ease, killing off the one character whose survival in the first two films was the single most important thing in the entire world.
Most films wouldn’t dare kill children – or their franchise’s main character, for that matter – but Terminator: Dark Fate goes one step further by killing one of the most beloved kids in franchise history, literally bringing John Connor back for the sole purpose of wiping him clean off the slate. As it turns out, that was producer/co-writer James Cameron’s idea.
Cameron explained to the Los Angeles Times, “I said, ‘Let’s take him out in the first 30 seconds. They’re sitting in a pizzeria, a Terminator walks in and blows him away. You’re one minute into the movie.’ Everybody went, ‘Really? You want to do this?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ You pull the rug out from underneath the entire construct that’s been going on for the last three decades.”
Not surprisingly, the decision has proven quite polarizing with Terminator fans, many of whom were excited to hear that Edward Furlong’s John Connor would be back but were ultimately left wishing the character hadn’t been brought back at all. The nihilism of Dark Fate‘s opening sequence is sitting about as well with many fans as Alien 3‘s total disregard for Newt and Hicks sat with fans of Aliens back in 1992, but at the very least you have to respect the sheer gall it took for Cameron and the team to kick-start a new era with such a shocker.
Thankfully, the cold-blooded murder of young John Connor serves more of a purpose than mere shock value in Dark Fate, as it horrifyingly exemplifies both the film’s title and the core theme of the franchise as a whole: “Judgment day is inevitable.” A “dark fate” has been looming over every character in the franchise since the very beginning, and though Sarah and John Connor were able to prevent Judgment Day back in the 1990s, the realization that they only prevented *one possible* form of the apocalypse is pitch-perfectly fatalistic for a franchise centered on the eventual fall of humanity. It’s inevitable that the machines are going to rise up and crush humanity, so the franchise’s heroes are only ever out-running their inevitable fate.
Ironically enough, it was because Sarah and John succeeded in their mission to prevent the Cyberdyne-caused version of Judgment Day back in 1995 that John was rendered disposable – now that’s a fascinating consequence of T2‘s triumph. Dark Fate introduces a brand new apocalypse in a brand new timeline, so it’s only natural that a new hero comes into play.
The murder of John Connor at the hands of a T-800 also allows for some really interesting character developments and dynamics. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays “Carl” in Terminator: Dark Fate, the T-800 who killed John in 1998 but has been adjusting to life as a “human” ever since. Carl’s tale of redemption is one of several hearts beating at the center of Dark Fate, and it’s fascinating to see how the machine has been reckoning with its sins in the wake of fulfilling the orders he was programmed to carry out – in many ways, Schwarzenegger’s Carl is the perfect completion of an arc for the T-800 model across the three films that belong in this particular continuity, from monster to man. Equally compelling in Terminator: Dark Fate is the dynamic between Sarah Connor and the T-800; Sarah is forced to work side-by-side with the machine who killed her son in yet another quest to save the world from annihilation.
All this great character material would simply not be possible if not for Dark Fate taking us back to the ’90s to kill John Connor, and the movie is honestly better because of it. While something special that was present in the previous two films is overall lost in a blizzard of messy CGI action here, the character work in Dark Fate is the best since T2. The movie catches us back up with both Sarah Connor and a classic T-800 at fascinating points in their lives – Sarah has become a full-on Terminator hunter in the years since Judgment Day was put on hold, low-key aided by the redemption-seeking Terminator who took her son’s life – and John’s death drives each of them forward in ways that make Dark Fate a rich, complex experience.
Sometimes the most interesting thing a franchise can do is kill its darlings and see what doors open up as a result, and I can’t help but admire James Cameron’s desire to take the single most important character from his two Terminator movies and casually wipe him from existence right out of the gate. To create something new, you sometimes have to obliterate the past. And at a time when franchises are desperately clinging to the past at every turn, it’s refreshing to see Terminator: Dark Fate come along and instantly change its own game.
Every sequel past T2 made John Connor one of the central characters, and if you’re asking me, it’s nice to see some new blood take up that heroic mantle for a change.
What do YOU think of Dark Fate‘s grim fate for John Connor? Sound off below.