‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Is A Decent Blockbuster, And Excellent Autobiography
By almost any measure, Terminator: Dark Fate was a flop. While the film did receive better reviews than its immediate predecessor, 2015’s Terminator Genisys, Dark Fate only grossed about $260 million worldwide. That’s a little more than half of what Genisys made ($440 million worldwide); barely enough to cover its reported $185 million budget. Factor in the return of series star Linda Hamilton and series creator James Cameron in meaningful roles for the first time since in almost 30 years, and you have a major disappointment.
Regardless of what the box-office receipts said last fall, I liked Terminator: Dark Fate. And I like it even more after working my way through its Blu-ray, which comes with bonus features like deleted and extended scenes, a making-of featurette, and a commentary track from director Tim Miller and editor Julian Clarke that is refreshingly candid about the various hiccups the production encountered. Those issues include numerous reshoots and Miller’s own late-night rewrites of scenes hours before cameras rolled because Dark Fate rushed into production without time for an additional screenplay draft.
Miller also reveals that while Dark Fate’s story and script are credited to six different writers, James Cameron himself was primarily responsible for writing its best sequence, the introduction of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newer, older Terminator. Cameron has been close with Schwarzenegger ever since they made the first Terminator together, and he understands Schwarzenegger’s onscreen skills — and his off-screen life, which becomes important to understanding this sequence — better than any of the actor’s other collaborators.
Schwarzenegger’s “Carl” doesn’t show up until Dark Fate’s midway point, when Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and her young allies track down the source of encrypted messages that Sarah’s been receiving. It turns out the sender of these clues was Carl, a Terminator trying to make amends for the murder of John Connor years earlier. Since then, Carl met a woman named Alicia and became a father to her son, Mateo. They all live together in Laredo, Texas, where Carl owns his own drapery business.
That leads to a long confrontation between Carl and Sarah, where he explains what he has been up to since he killed John Connor. “When my mission was completed,” Schwarzenegger drones in his classic robot monotone “ there were no further orders. So for 20 years, I kept learning. How to become more human.” This new family, he says, gave him “purpose. Because without purpose, we are nothing.”
Carl’s emotional awakening builds off concepts Cameron introduced in Terminator 2, which revealed that the more contact Terminators have with humans, the more human they become. In Dark Fate, decades of contact have made Carl as close to human as an artificial intelligence built to resemble a champion Austrian bodybuilder can get. In a subsequent scene, Carl lounges in his chair with his legs crossed, casually peppering his speech with contractions and jokes. (Explaining why Alicia finds him to be a suitable partner, he says “I’m reliable, I’m a very good listener, and I’m extremely funny.”) Carl even pets the family dog. In Cameron’s previous Terminators, dogs always warned the humans when Terminators were in their midst. That’s the clearest clue that this T-800 is a changed man(borg).
On his commentary track, Tim Miller says this scene was one “that Jim [Cameron] wanted to write himself” and that he ultimately wrote “11 pages in the draft” which then ballooned to “about 19 pages.” Miller also reveals Carl’s family became a point of contention between he and Cameron. Miller wanted Alicia and Mateo to know Carl was a Terminator, while Cameron felt they should not. Miller says he took issue with “a character who starts on his arc of redemption and he hasn’t been truthful with the people closest to him.” Cameron felt otherwise. In Miller���s words, Cameron argued that “Carl would keep that secret to protect his family.”
From a pure logic perspective, Miller was probably right: How could someone be married to a woman for decades without her catching wind of the fact that he’s a remorseless cybernetic murderer? It seems implausible, which is probably why Miller has Sarah make an incredulous joke about Alicia not noticing that her partner was a 400-pound deathbot that never sleeps. Within the context of Schwarzenegger’s career and life, though, Cameron’s perspective made more sense — because keeping enormous secrets for decades is precisely what Schwarzenegger did in a similar scenario in his own life.
In the chapter of his autobiography called “The Secret,” Schwarzenegger writes about the dissolution of his real-life marriage to Maria Shriver. At a counseling session shortly after the end of his term as the Governor of California, Shriver got Schwarzenegger to admit that he was the biological father of their housekeeper’s son — who, according to the book, was already 14 years old.
In other words, Schwarzenegger had successfully kept this Carl-sized secret for years. He says in his autobiography that the deception came very naturally. “Secrecy is just part of me,” he writes in that same chapter. “I keep things to myself no matter what.” Those words could have come out of Carl’s metal mouth, and they contribute to the fascinating subtext running through the scenes with Carl’s adopted son — who, it’s worth noting, is Latino like the son Schwarzenegger fathered with his housekeeper.
Filmmaking this nakedly confessional might seem out of place in a different big-budget sequel to a ’90s blockbuster, but Schwarzenegger has been transforming his personal story into fodder for his characters for most of his career. The autobiographical threads have only grown more pronounced and more interesting since the end of his marriage and his return to Hollywood in the last decade. In recent years, he’s played one broken family man after another. In 2017’s Aftermath, his wife and daughter die in a plane accident. In 2015’s Maggie, he tries and fails to protect his daughter from a zombie virus. In 2014’s Sabotage, his family is murdered by a drug cartel, sending his character down a very dark path.
And now here is Carl in Dark Fate, who has committed unspeakable acts and finds that he must leave a family he loves to atone for them. After he says goodbye to Alicia and Mateo for the last time, Carl heads back into his house and grabs a jacket. He spots a pair of the sunglasses like the one the Terminator wore to immensely badass effect in every other Terminator movie. He picks them up, considers them, and puts them back. As Carl reveals to Dani (Natalia Reyes), the future savior of humanity, he used to believe that his robotic lack of emotions was “an advantage” in life. Now he realizes, “it isn’t.”
The contradictions in this character — the emotionless robot who finds what he calls “the equivalent” of a conscience, the preternal killer with an interior decorating side hustle — could have been enough to make him the center of Dark Fate’s story. In fact, it’s a little surprising how minor Carl’s role is in the film outside of this sequence. Wouldn’t you love to see a prequel about Carl, the kindly Terminator with a passion for curtains?
Given Dark Fate’s box office totals, such a project seems highly unlikely. In hindsight, maybe Dark Fate’s title was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Terminator franchise has always been full of those. At least we’ll always have this: The phone number on the side of Carl’s van is real. Here’s what happens if you call it:
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