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Read This Before You See Terminator: Dark Fate

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The long-running Terminator franchise continues its decades-long tradition of refusing to die with Terminator: Dark Fate. Directed by Deadpool's Tim Miller and written by Justin Rhodes (Grassroots), Billy Ray (Gemini Man), and David S. Goyer (everything from the Dark Knight trilogy to the Dark City... not trilogy) Dark Fate marks the sixth movie in a series of films so iconic and beloved that most of its fans are willing to just pretend that multiple installments simply didn't happen.

Going into Terminator: Dark Fate, you might have some questions, either as a Terminator enthusiast who's looking for a refresher or a curious party looking to dip your toes into robot genocide for the first time. In either case, we've prepared a crash course, running you through what's coming up, what to expect from Dark Fate, and the work that went into making it. All set? Good. Come with us if you want to live.

Before Dark Fate, there was Terminator

Let's open with a reminder of what's gone down so far, starting with The Terminator, the movie that got the ball rolling. In 1984, a young waitress named Sarah Connor is targeted by a hulking cyborg and rescued by a squirrelly-looking young buck named Kyle, who explains that both he and her would-be assassin are from the year 2029. In this far-flung future, Sarah's unborn son, John, is a messianic warlord in the fight against an army of killer robots, known as the Machines. He further explains that he has been sent to protect Sarah, while the robotic beefcake has been sent to kill her.

Over the course of the film, Sarah learns that humanity is on its way to screwing the nuclear pooch in the near future. A computer system called Skynet, tasked with autonomously controlling the United States defense network, was headed toward that old artificial intelligence chestnut of gaining self-awareness and destroying humanity. According to Kyle, it was destined to set off a string of nuclear attacks across the world that would decimate most of life on Earth, further producing killer robots called Terminators to pick off the survivors. John, Sarah is told, is to be the human race's last great hope.

From Terminator to Judgment Day

By the end of The Terminator, Kyle has left Sarah with child after a night of steamy motel passion and then been murdered by the Terminator. Sarah kills the offending machine in a pneumatic press then drives off into the horizon, newly dripping with badass. 

Which brings us to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Released in 1991 but set in 1995, T2 sees Sarah locked up in a psychiatric ward on account of her unconventional parenting and her insistence that future robots are coming to kill the love child she had with a soldier from the 21st century. Her son John bounces between foster homes until one day, a guy in a leather jacket saves him from a police officer who can morph into liquid metal. The leather guy is a reprogrammed Terminator sent back in time by future John to save present John from another robot, sent back in time by Skynet to kill present John. Time travel is a hoot.

Together, John and the Terminator rescue Sarah, form an unlikely friendship, go on a cross-country road trip, and slaughter the gloopy metal bad guy with a combination of liquid nitrogen, molten steel, and camaraderie. The good guy Terminator quasi-reenacts the ending of Shane, riding off into a vat of thousand-degree metal instead of the sunset. The day is saved. The end.

Or is it?

What not to expect when you're expecting a new Terminator

Anyone who's tried to keep up with the last seven or eight X-Men movies can tell you that fictional timelines, when not regularly groomed, get really hairy and gross. The minds behind Terminator: Dark Fate elected to take the shears to their franchise's messy past. Director Tim Miller has said in interviews that this movie serves as a direct sequel to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Ditching the last 28 years of series entries might seem like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but let's take a look at what we're ditching.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is now toast, meaning that Judgment Day still hasn't taken place. Terminator: Salvation also hits the bricks, meaning that in this timeline, Christian Bale never lost his mind on that crew member for walking too much. Terminator: Genisys too goes by the wayside, taking with it the audience's thinly stretched extension of disbelief that Michael Biehn and Jai Courtney look even passingly similar. And The Sarah Connor Chronicles? Kaput, at least in this universe, but still fun to revisit if you ever want to see Cersei Lannister with guns.

Sarah Connor

Let's take a deep dive into the characters of Terminator: Dark Fate, beginning with Sarah Connor. Sarah's had a hard row to hoe for the last three and a half decades, starting with the revelation at the age of 19 that she was destined not only to give birth, which is probably frightening enough in its own right, but to bring forth the savior of humanity. At the phase in life when most people's biggest problem is convincing their parents that they can take a gap year and everything will be chill, Sarah was doomsday prepping and turning her body into a machine-killing machine. A stint in intensive psychiatric care didn't do anything for her outlook on life, but she made her way out of custody and managed to avert a doomsday scenario by destroying the time-displaced robotic components that would otherwise have been used to build the Skynet AI.

Initially said to have died of cancer in 2003's (no longer canon) Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Sarah is now back and ready shatter some robots like they're the vases in a Jackie Chan fight scene. Returning to the role is Linda Hamilton, who played the character in the first two Terminator films. According to Tim Miller, she'll be dealing with the consequences of having destroyed Cyberdyne Industries at the end of T2 and in so doing, creating a broken timeline.

John Connor

Growing up as John Connor couldn't have been easy. Think your parents messed you up? His dad was a time-traveling robot hunter and his mom kept him out of school to learn how to explode things more effectively while instilling in him the knowledge that he was the prophesied savior of the world. So right off the bat, he was going to have a hard time coming off as relatable in a job interview. 

John Connor has the distinction of being the Terminator character who's been portrayed by the largest number of actors in the series, starting with Edward Furlong as a young JC in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and later being played by Nick Stahl, Christian Bale, and Jason Clarke. Furlong returns in Terminator: Dark Fate, but the details of his part have been kept pretty mum. Did a Judgment Day-free John Connor grow up to be a regular Joe, or did he take his bullet-heavy upbringing and leverage it into, say, a job hosting hatchet-throwing parties? Furlong himself has said that "it's a small role," but that he's excited to be back.

The T-800

No matter how advanced technology gets, you never abandon a classic. You wouldn't junk your '66 Mustang just because you got a SmartCar in the same way that it'd be lunacy to ditch the classic metal skeleton Terminator whenever a nanotech upgrade came out. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as "Carl" in his sixth (fifth and a half? Did the CGI Arnold from Terminator: Salvation count?) appearance as an 800 series Terminator, the line tied with every other model for "most likely to die dramatically with their face torn up by the end of any given Terminator movie." What do we know about his part in the film? Not much so far. We know that he's not the same machine we came to fear in The Terminator and want a hug from in T2, with Tim Miller confirming in an interview that this was an all-new, all-different Arnold. 

Miller also, somewhat cryptically, brought up that Terminators are "learning machines," and that the longer one sticks around, the more it's going to pick up on humanity. Could we be looking at a Westworld-esque development of an artificial soul? Will the barriers between mechanical and biological consciousness be brought crashing to the unforgiving ground? And most importantly, at 72, will Schwarzenegger ever stop making every other man on the planet feel self-conscious about their bodies? Stay tuned to find out.

The new kids

Along with the characters that fans are already familiar with, Terminator: Dark Fate touts a line of newbies to whom the filmmakers hope to pass the proverbial torch. Details on the fresh faces are slim, but here's what we know so far.

Mackenzie Davis of Blade Runner 2049 returns to the world of questionable robot ethics, this time as Grace, a cybernetically enhanced super soldier from the future. Grace is sent back in time to protect Dani Ramos, played by Natalia Reyes, the latest in a line of unsuspecting civilians in the machines' timey-wimey crosshairs. 

And it wouldn't be a Terminator movie without a new model of murderbot. This time around, it's the Rev-9, played by Gabriel Luna, a.k.a. Ghost Rider from ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Rev-9 model is a Terminator with that new car smell, featuring a classic metal endoskeleton surrounded by a mimetic polyalloy casing which enables it to function as two separate entities at once, one hard and steely, the other gooey and shapeshifting. Will it finally break the curse of "nobody's ever going to come up with a cooler Terminator than T2's T-1000?" Only time will tell.

A return to grit

Returning familiar faces aside, Terminator: Dark Fate features another factor from the original James Cameron movies that's been sorely missing for some time: it's rated R, the first in the franchise with that honor in more than 15 years.

It's been a long road getting back to the hard-living, ultra-violent, potty-mouthed world of Skynet. In 2009, Terminator Salvation broke ground as the first film in the franchise to receive a PG-13 rating, with Terminator Genisys following suit in 2015. It can be difficult to remember in a post-Deadpool world, but there was a period of time when common wisdom pointed to PG-13 as the safe box office bet, offering a cushy middle ground between a family-friendly PG and the potentially alienating branding of an R. Why the folks at the top felt like there were better killer robot stories to be told without gore or swearing is a question historians will wrestle with for eons.

If the fans are excited for a more adult return to form, they're in good company. Arnold himself stated in a Reddit AMA that he was "so sick" of the PG-13 attitude, saying of Dark Fate, "There's blood, there's gore, there's guts, you can see the heart being ripped out." So, you know. The kids are gonna love it.

James Cameron's return

It's like the old saying goes: "you can't make an omelette without having someone around who's made a decent omelette before," and James Cameron is arguably the only guy who ever got the eggs to cheese ratio right in a Terminator movie.

After breaking onto the blockbuster scene writing and directing The Terminator and then carving his name into the pop culture landscape with T2, Cameron largely kept his fingers out of the Connor family cookie jar for nearly 30 years. He was busy, it seems, making enough money off of Titanic and Avatar to be able to afford his own line of doomed ocean liners on a planet full of blue cat men.

Cameron offered feedback and suggestions on the making of Dark Fate, contributing to the story without actually being on set. What does this mean? Does Cameron's involvement herald of a new age of better, smarter Terminator decisions? Not necessarily. He's not right about everything. A couple of years ago he called Terminator Genisys "a renaissance" and said that "the franchise has been reinvigorated."

And that's not all

If you're hungry for some of that sweet, sweet cross-promotional action as a warmup for Terminator: Dark Fate, you can pregame with a little actual gaming. 

As a tie-in to this installment, the Windows and XBox game Gears 5 included pre-order bonus content that added a Linda Hamilton-voiced Sarah Connor and a T-800 model Terminator as playable characters, finally answering the question "what would a Terminator look like with a chainsaw gun?" with a resounding "pretty cool." Grace and the Rev-9 were also released as part of the game's first DLC bundle.

Or if beating somebody to death with malicious button combos is more your speed, you'll be happy to know that the T-800 from Dark Fate has also crossed over into the Mortal Kombat universe in a Mortal Kombat 11 DLC pack. As has become the norm in Netherrealm fighters, he's highly customizable, and his portrayal includes plenty of rad callbacks like a brutal fatality animation that includes the classic T2 thumbs up and skin that melts off when he's low on health. 

It being 2019, there's also the option of the free-to-play mobile tie-in game arriving the same day as the movie, giving you something to do with your popcorn butter-battered thumbs while you wait for the lights in the theater to go down.

In case of emergency

Let's say all that isn't enough, and you're still jonesing for more chances to watch Arnold go Schwarzenn-agro. There's still a deep well of in-universe offerings to cling to during the lead up to the new movie.

Fans of nerdy, unlikely character team-ups will know that in the years before the MCU started pumping out crossovers like a franchise factory farm, the best game in town was the comic book industry. The choicest of offerings for Skynet fans came with 1992's Terminator vs. Robocop by Frank Miller. If you've ever wanted to watch Officer Alex Murphy going ape on our evil mechanical overlords in a post-apocalyptic future, this four-issue miniseries is the place to be. They even made a SNES game out of it if you feel like finding out where your mom put your old system.

And of course, we'd be remiss if we failed to bring up Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Chess Wars, a Battle Chess knockoff from the early '90s featuring franchise characters as the pieces and zany animations whenever a piece was captured. Don't miss that one. Or maybe do: It was apparently so poorly put together as to be unplayable.