Aug 14, 2020
Terminator: Dark Fate’s trailer hints at a surprising twist
The teaser trailer for Terminator: Dark Fate, the sixth movie in the Terminator franchise, dropped last week, and uh… it’s pretty wild:
Before this dropped, we knew a total of two things about the movie: one, it was going to star both Arnold Schwarzenegger as yet another implausibly-aged Terminator, and Linda Hamilton reprising her iconic role as Sarah Connor after 28 years absent from the series. Second, the movie was going to go the Superman Returns route, i.e., serve as a direct sequel to the first two movies that everyone liked and ignore all the rest.
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The trailer starts up, and it looks like a classic Terminator story. You’ve got a Terminator…
…a resistance fighter who travels back in time…
…a helpless woman who’s the Terminator’s target…
…and then here comes Sarah Motherfuckin’ Connor. Still buff, still tough, and still with a major hate-boner for Terminators.
Here’s the thing, though. The good guys don’t seem to have any idea who Sarah is.
Every other guardian in every other Terminator movie has been fully briefed on all the other previous time missions. Even if they don’t know Sarah Connor by sight, they should be able to work forwards from the fact that there are only two humans alive in this time period who know about Terminators.
Which brings us to another thing: where’s John Connor? He’s nowhere to be found in the entire trailer. If you click on the IMDb page for Terminator: Dark Fate, they do have an actor credit for John Connor, but only as a young boy. Curiouser and curiouser.
Since you’re reading this, I’m assuming you have at least a little familiarity with the Terminator franchise’s continuity, but on the off chance you navigate the internet by closing your eyes and clicking on stuff, a short summary will suffice. Terminator (1984) is your classic boy-meets-girl-meets-time-traveling-murderbot story. There’s a race of robots led by a strong AI called Skynet, and they engineer a nuclear apocalypse and attempt to exterminate the human race, only to be beaten by the resistance forces of the heroic John Connor. In a last-ditch effort, Skynet sends a super-tough cyborg assassin called a Terminator (whom I’m going to refer to as “Punk Arnold”, to differentiate him from the other Arnolds, for reasons that will be clear later) back in time to 1984. Punk Arnold is trying to kill John’s mother before he’s even born, and John must send his trusted lieutenant Kyle Reese back in time to not only protect his mother, but also [SPOILER FOR A 34-YEAR-OLD MOVIE] to sleep with her and conceive John.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Skynet sends a Gooey Terminator to kill John as a preteen in 1995 (instead of just sending it to the same year as the last one, so they can work together?), and he has to fight it with the help of a reprogrammed Arnold (Moto Arnold) and his newly buff mom. The three manage to destroy Cyberdyne Systems, the company that’s building both Skynet and the Terminators, thereby averting Judgment Day, the nuclear holocaust that was supposed to happen in 1997. However, we find out in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) that he only hit the snooze button on Judgment Day, and 12 years later he and a second reprogrammed Terminator (Leather Daddy Arnold) must avoid a deadly new Lady Terminator and get to safety before the bombs fall.
There were other Terminator movies after that, and then a Terminator TV show and all sorts of non-canon novels and comics and video games, but they mostly don’t matter to this discussion, and according to James Cameron, they all happened in “alternate universes” anyway. But in a way, “alternate universes” are what this column is about.
Lots of time travel stories deal with paradoxes. One such paradox is the Bootstrap Paradox, so named for the Robert Heinlein short story “By His Bootstraps”. It has to do with someone or something that, thanks to time travel, gets trapped in a self-contained loop of causality where it has no origin anymore. For example, if you traveled back in time and gave a copy of Bleak House to Charles Dickens, and he copied it in his own handwriting and said he wrote it, and it gets published, reprinted, and passed down through the ages and lands in your local bookshop, ready for you to take back into the past, who wrote the book, really? Dickens sure didn’t. So where did it come from? Paradox achieved.
Both John Connor and Skynet itself owe their existence to Bootstrap Paradoxes. John Connor only exists because Kyle Reese got sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator, and he protected her so hard she got pregnant. Skynet only exists because after Sarah killed Punk Arnold, his wreckage got stolen by Cyberdyne Systems, who reverse-engineered the future technology. Had Sarah and John and Moto Arnold not blown up Cyberdyne, they would have eventually created both Skynet and the Terminators, and the world would have ended in 1997 as originally scheduled. In other words, both Skynet and its human opposition accidentally created themselves.
But what if Skynet had succeeded? What if it had killed John Connor before he could grow up to lead the resistance? Well, here’s where another well-known time travel paradox comes in: the Grandfather Paradox. In this paradox, you go back in time to kill your enemy’s grandfather, ensuring your enemy won’t ever be born. But since he was never born, there’s no reason to ever go back in time to kill his grandfather, so his grandfather lives and he is born, so you go back in time… ad infinitum.
With that in mind, here’s my theory:
JOHN CONNOR IS DEAD IN TERMINATOR: DARK FATE
There is no adult John Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate for the most straightforward possible reason: he died. At some point prior to Judgment Day happening, he got dead. Whether a Terminator finally kills him or he dies by more mundane means ultimately isn’t relevant. What’s relevant is that he never lives to become Skynet’s enemy, and thus Skynet never sends Punk Arnold back after his mom. Which means Punk Arnold is never killed in the past, pulled apart, and made into Skynet. Or from another perspective, this means that since John isn’t alive to send his father back in time to become his father, he’s never born in the first place. But since Skynet doesn’t exist either, it doesn’t matter.
Or does Skynet still exist, somehow? It did look like the apocalypse was called off for good after Terminator 2, but the bots just kept on comin’ in Terminator 3. “You only postponed it,” Leather Daddy Arnold tells John. “Judgment Day is inevitable.” It would seem that artificial life, uh, finds a way.
Here’s where “alternate universes” come into play. Bootstrap Paradoxes really only work when you’re dealing with one universe. What makes them paradoxical is that they have no origin within a certain timeline. In my Bleak House example, the fact that Bleak House exists only seems paradoxical from outside my original universe where Dickens really did write Bleak House. (Or did he?) By the same token, there might be a Terminator timeline free from time travel shenanigans, in which either Skynet, or John Connor, or both, had a natural origin that follows the normal sequence of cause and effect.
My theory is that after John died, everything defaulted back to this original reality. Skynet developed more slowly without Punk Arnold’s remains to work off of, but they got there eventually. Again, Skynet destroyed the world. Again they encountered resistance. Again they went back in time to try to eliminate the threat before it happened. What they didn’t count on was Sarah Connor.
“Why do you care what happens to her?” our new guardian asks Sarah. “Because I was her,” Sarah answers. It seems that Sarah has kept all her memories of the timeline where she was once the helpless target. Skynet, by contrast, has no reason to know who she is. And now Skynet has to deal with a battle-hardened old bitch who knows all their tricks.
The only monkey wrench in this theory is this new Arnold over here:
Which Arnold is this, and where did he come from? If the rest of my theory holds true, then no Arnolds should exist. Those were designed and built by a previous version of Skynet that had to rush to meet a 1997 deadline. This version of Skynet has the benefit of 20+ more years’ worth of R&D; enough to think, “hey, maybe our stealth infiltration unit shouldn’t be humongous, and speak with a thick accent, and constantly kill people in public without any regard for being quiet or leaving witnesses or trying to get away with it at all.”
Even once you think past the problem of his existence, I can’t come up with a circumstance that would justify an Arnold being left alive to grow old in a woodsy cabin someplace. At the end of Terminator 2, Moto Arnold died voluntarily so he couldn’t contaminate the timeline with anachronistic technology. Granted, they kind of threw that idea out the window with the elderly Arnold in Terminator: Genisys, but we don’t speak of that movie in polite company, and in any case, we’ve been assured it’s not canon anymore. (Of course, we all know the real reason Arnold is in Terminator: Dark Fate: his dick doesn’t work anymore thanks to all the steroids, and cranking out movies is the only way to keep him occupied.)
In any case, I think the absence of John Connor is a positive development, if only because he’s kind of a dud character. Only one actor has ever really wowed audiences as John Connor, and he’s… uh… too indisposed to return to the role anytime soon.
Sarah Connor, on the other hand, has been consistently played by awesome actors, and is just a more interesting character overall. The Terminator series has always had a surprisingly weighty undercurrent of thematic material about the struggles and responsibilities of parenthood. By dropping John from the storyline, they now get to explore what happens after the job of parenting is over. Sarah’s whole life, since we’ve known her, has been all about John. She’s poured everything she has into him. What sort of life is she looking at without him? What crises of identity, of purpose, must she be undergoing? Which mistakes will she learn from, and which will repeat themselves? I can’t wait to find out.