Terminator: Dark Fate is the latest sequel to Terminator to attempt to rekindle the franchise. We don’t need to talk about how it’s not taking, how it’s bombing at the box office and the franchise might be mothballed.
No, I’m more interested in talking about the long list of plot holes that yet another sequel has opened up. They make quite a mess in the established rules and continuity that are make it hard to recover from.
“The Terminator” Should Never Have Been a Franchise
The Terminator is a franchise that should never have been a franchise. It was never meant to have sequels. It started as a one-off B movie written and directed with inventive wit and verve by James Cameron and produced by his then-wife Gale Ann Hurd. Both Cameron and Hurd can be considered co-creators of the franchise. Both are adept at story and Hurd has a particular well-earned reputation for developing tight, solid stories.
The first Terminator movie was based on a closed loop. The future (unseen) John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother Sarah Connor from the Terminator. He also ensures he’s conceived, because Reese is his father. Skynet, facing defeat from John Connor’s forces, sends the Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor and prevent John Connor’s birth. The paradox is that this ends up ensuring that John Connor, the man who defeats them, is born. If Skynet didn’t send the Terminator back, John would not have sent Kyle Reese back to conceive him and John would not have existed.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a sequel that first retconned the fast movie. Here, John Connor sent a second Terminator back in time to protect his teenage self from the more advanced liquid metal T-1000 Terminator. Here, Sarah Connor decides to prevent the creation of Skynet altogether and succeeds by destroying the chip that Miles Dyson would reverse engineer to create Skynet. That means that Skynet never comes into existence after all and the story can pretty much end right there. Unfortunately, the companies that bought the rights to the property in the 2000s decided to make more sequels.
Let’s ignore Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation and Terminator: Genisys and skip straight to Terminator: Dark Fate, since James Cameron considers only that one canon.
Killing John Connor Sends the Whole Story Adrift
Dark Fate opens by having a T-800 show up shortly after the end of Judgment Day and kill off the teenage John Connor. This means he never grows up to become the leader of the Resistance. James Cameron decided to do this to open up the story to new possibilities. In principle, that’s fine, but it’s a retcon that creates a huge mess.
Firstly, it now says that Skynet sent a lot of Terminators back to kill John Connor. That contradicts the original idea that the defeated Skynet had limited power and resources left to send only two Terminators – one to kill Sarah Connor before she give birth and one to kill John Connor after his birth.
Carl the Reformed Terminator Messes Up the Ending of Terminator 2
At the end of Judgment Day, the T-800 sacrifices itself to prevent its processor chip from eventually used to reverse-engineer the creation of Skynet. Then the T-800 Later to Become Carl shows up and kills John Connor. This means they should have kept the T-800 around to keep protecting John in the first place and live off the grid.
Who’s Been Sending Terminators Back for the Last 30 Years?
Sarah Connor has been killing Terminators whenever they popped up after John died. Where were they coming from? Skynet no longer exists. Presumably, these were T-800s and T-1000s. Also, if Skynet had been defeated by John Connor and his forces and sending Terminators was its last ditch effort, where is all the power coming from to send them? Are they from alternate timelines or the same ones that sent Carl and the T-800 that protected John Connor. Carl, the surviving T-800 explains it away by saying this is a result of temporal disruption, ie contradictory, alternate timelines. That’s headache-inducing to think about.
Why Does Legion Need to Kill Daniella Ramos?
If Legion, Skynet’s replacement, needs to send a Rev9 back in time to kill the leader of the Resistance, does this mean she and her forces have defeated it? The first Terminator established that sending a killer machine back in time to kill the resistance leader before they take on the role is a last-ditch effort. But here, Dani doesn’t seem to have any links to the creation of Legion. She isn’t the mother of the future Resistance leader – she is the future Resistance leader. Then she has to find and raise Grace in order to send Grace back in time to protect her so she can become the future Savior of Humanity. Similar to John sending Carl Reese.
And whether Skynet or Legion, why does a killer AI of the future always resort to time travel to save itself when all other options are out anyway? It seems to be a pretty stupid tactic that just ensures the birth of the person who’s going to defeat them all along!
The more I think about Dark Fate, the more the entire canon collapses on itself.
See? Time paradoxes are limited and messy. Not a good foundation on which to build a whole franchise. The continuous retcons just don’t really work. From a storytelling point of view, maybe it’s just as well the franchise is good as dead. It could never hold up under the weight in the first place.