Maiden, Mother, Crone – The Evolution of Sarah Connor and the Terminator Franchise

This post contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate as well as all other Terminator franchise movies.

Sarah Connor was probably my first exposure to a female action heroine. I have clear memories of watching The Terminator on VHS with my dad as a young teen and being enthralled by a regular woman thrust into danger not for who she is or what she did, but what she will be. It’s a compelling story, and the character of Sarah Connor is largely what makes it so.

While the first movie sees her mostly in need of being protected, we see glimpses of the ‘mother of the future’ that she is destined to become. She bandages Kyle Reese’s gunshot wound expertly despite never having done it before and she thinks on her feet by stopping Reese from taking on several armed police. She also makes mistakes, giving her location to the Terminator impersonating her mother. In short she’s a well-rounded character that makes it easy for the audience to empathise with.

There’s a deleted scene from the first movie where Sarah suggests to Reese that they blow up Cyberdyne Systems to prevent Skynet from ever being invented. I can see why it was removed, as it changes the tone and the direction of the movie completely, but at the same time we see glimpses here of the woman Sarah becomes.

Terminator 2 was what really sealed me in as a fan of the franchise. It’s arguably one of the best movie sequels there is, and it surpasses the original in a lot of ways. Although the movie places more focus on John Connor, and the need to keep him safe, Sarah is still very much the central character although she has changed dramatically from the first movie.

In Terminator 2 the scared young woman of the first movie is gone. Sarah is now smart, resourceful, strong, and will do whatever it takes to keep her son safe. In the first movie she moves from innocence to warrior, in the second movie she learns that being a mother is more than just protecting her son from harm.

While the first movie has a fairly basic plot structure, the second one delves deeper. It’s not just about protecting the future leader of the resistance from a killing machine. The movie examines the notion of what it means to be human, and the concepts of predestination vs free will. “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” The ideas from the deleted scene in the first movie are made reality.

Unfortunately after Terminator 2 the franchise loses its way.

Terminator 3 is the first film in the franchise that I was able to see on release. Elements of it are good. The ending is fantastic, although it does reject the repeated message of the first two movies that ‘the future is not set’. Instead we are given the impression that Judgement Day is inevitable, and that all John Connor can do is prepare for it. It ends with him taking his place as leader of the resistance, which makes Sarah’s attempts to change John’s fate and the fate of humanity in Terminator 2 more or less meaningless.

Overall the rest of the movie is not good. I still have the distinct memory of feeling let down. Sarah Connor is dead, and in her place is a female terminator with inflating breasts. The T-X feels like something of an insult to the movies that came before it. The movie has nothing insightful or interesting to offer, and is probably the weakest in the franchise.

Just…why?

Terminator Salvation had the potential to be interesting. Sarah Connor is still dead, and the movie looks at John Connor as an adult in the war against the machines. It at least manages to go back to the heart of what these movies are about. What does it mean to be human? Marcus is a cyborg who doesn’t realise he is until he is injured. The movie ends with him sacrificing himself, just as the T-800 has done before, to ensure that John lives. Self-sacrifice is arguably a human characteristic yet we are shown machines making this decision repeatedly in previous movies.

Despite this, though, it still felt like something was missing. Theoretically the earlier movies are about John Connor too but, really, they’re Sarah’s story. She’s the character viewers are invested in and without her the movies just don’t quite work.

Terminator Genisys is an odd one. I feel like the studio realised they needed to go back to Sarah’s story, but what we are given is half a reboot of the first two movies and half a new story. It did poorly at the box office, which put to rest any plans for a sequel in this universe, but I have to say I did enjoy it at least more than Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation. Genisys does some clever things with the original two movies and, while she was no Linda Hamilton, I thought Emila Clarke did a decent enough job as Sarah Connor. It was at least good to have the character back on our screens even if it was a different incarnation.

Which brings us to Terminator Dark Fate. It’s no surprise that this movie has decided to ignore everything that came after Terminator 2. None of those movies had the impact or success that the first two did, and even an attempt to reimagine the character of Sarah Connor fell flat. The only way a new Terminator movie was going to work would be if it featured Sarah Connor, and if she was played by Linda Hamilton.

At 63 years old Linda Hamilton has stepped into a role she last played 28 years ago. And why shouldn’t she? I’ve been saying for years if a movie like The Expendables can have actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis in action roles in their 60s there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be allowed to the same.

Again there is a vast change in Sarah’s character from the last time we saw her. She’s still a fighter, but her role as mother has been taken from her and she fights because she doesn’t know what else to do. She’s world-weary and struggling to find a purpose until she’s directed to Dani and Grace.

Aside from the return of Sarah Connor there’s a lot to enjoy about Dark Fate, especially compared to some of the Terminator movies that came before it. Having all three protagonists be women of varying ages (I’d say Schwarzenegger is more of a support role given that he doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie) is a welcome move away from the typical white, male, action movies.

Dani is Mexican and the first half of the movie take place in Mexico, with a pivotal scene taking place in a border detention facility. Dark Fate touches, at least a little, on what it means to be human. It’s no coincidence that the Rev-9 Terminator uses the border forces as an extension of itself. Locking people in cages like animals isn’t exactly human behaviour, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, though, the movie falls short in one key area. While the action scenes pack a punch there’s little to no emotional resonance to go along with them.

In The Terminator we have quiet scenes with Sarah and Reese, where they talk and the audience gets to know them and feel for them. In Terminator 2 we have Sarah musing over the father/son relationship between John and the T-800. The horror Sarah feels when she realises that trying to kill Miles Dyson before he invents Skynet has essentially made her a Terminator herself is felt by the audience too.

Dark Fate needed scenes like that because, as it stands, I found it very hard to care for or relate to any of the new characters.

Killing John Connor at the start of the movie was a bold decision, and while it explains the lost and weary version of Sarah that we are presented with, there aren’t really any moments where she connects with the other characters. The closest thing we get to an emotional scene is a moment between Dani and Sarah, where Sarah admits she is starting to forget what John looked like. This could have been the perfect moment for Dani and Sarah to have a real conversation, for them to form a bond or at least start to. Unfortunately it cuts to the next scene before anything significant happens.

The same can be said for Schwartzenegger’s Carl. It feels like the movie wants us to care about him. We see his family, his stories about drapes, and he explains that over the years he has learned to become more human in the same way as the T-800 in Terminator 2 learned. But because all of his learning was done off screen, and because we aren’t given any real emotional scenes between the characters, there’s little to no emotional impact when Carl chooses to sacrifice himself at the end of the movie. In fact it feels like a rehash of the end of Terminator 2 only with less of an emotional connection.

The character of Grace is probably the most interesting. We are at least treated to flashbacks where we see what led her to want to come to the past to protect Dani. But, again, when the big (rather obvious) reveal comes that Dani is the resistance leader of the future now that John Connor is dead, there’s no time between there and the end of the movie for them to talk about it. Where Sarah and Kyle have the motel scene in The Terminator where he confesses he came back through time because he’s in love with her there is no such moment for Grace and Dani.

So, again, there’s less of an emotional impact when Grace sacrifices herself to save Dani. We understand it from Grace’s perspective but Dani is given so little to do or say other than to react to what’s happening around her that it’s hard to empathise with her.

Sarah’s role as mother of the future is restored to her when Dani asks Sarah to help her prepare, but without any meaningful scenes between the two of them prior to this it falls a little flat.

Overall Terminator Dark Fate is an adequate sequel to Terminator 2 and I imagine this will be packaged as a trilogy. These movies are Sarah Connor’s and the three distinct versions of the character we are presented with are almost perfectly neat representations of the three stages of womanhood.

Dark Fate may be lacking in some areas, but it was great to have Sarah Connor for the final part of her story.

One thought on “Maiden, Mother, Crone – The Evolution of Sarah Connor and the Terminator Franchise

  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not
    writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to
    say excellent blog!

    Like

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