After my second viewing of Terminator: Dark Fate, I had a conversation that went like this:
Me: “I’m just a huge sucker for sci-fi with main characters who are all badass women.”
Relative: “Huh, I didn’t even realize that from the previews!”
I wasn’t surprised—prior to seeing the movie, I also didn’t realize the story in this movie focused squarely on three women characters for most of its runtime. The few trailers I caught were all explosions and ~ooh, Arnold is back~ nostalgia, which is not this movie’s actual strong point … or even its main hook.
That hook, of course, is Mackenzie Davis’s biceps. Sitting down for my first viewing, I was looking forward to seeing this warrior goddess kick lots of ass — which does happen and is glorious! But oh my god, everything else happens so much, too! I was not remotely prepared for how much I’d love Terminator: Dark Fate for the narrative.
This movie’s STRONG POINT is that it has a compelling female-driven story to tell, which still feels blessedly rare in mainstream sci-fi/action movies. So, I want to dive into what makes the three characters at the heart of this movie so great.
**Every possible spoiler is ahead. See the movie.**
Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes)
At the center of this story is Dani Ramos, a young woman who works at a car manufacturing plant in Mexico City. From the start, we see that she’s a natural leader: Dani’s the head of her household, keeping her father and brother organized. She’s also fearless, marching into her boss’s office to challenge her brother’s upcoming layoff. Dani even threatens to unionize her fellow employees by warning them that their jobs could soon be replaced by machines — a great segue into the reveal that a robot from the future is hunting her, while an augmented supersoldier also turns up to protect her.
In the blink of an eye, Dani’s whole world is turned upside down and she’s on the run with this mysterious woman named Grace.
I really appreciate that the movie gives Dani the space and time to mourn the deaths of her father and brother. Her relatives’ deaths are not brushed aside like obvious action movie fodder—Dani’s grief is clear, present, and an important part of her story. In her first real conversation with Sarah Connor, Dani laments that she won’t be able to have funerals for them, and Sarah listens and understands. Later, Dani is also able to share their loss with her uncle, which feels refreshingly realistic and human.
What’s more, Dani demonstrates over and over again that she has the most compassion of any character in this movie—which is a crucial part of her strength. Dani feels clear sympathy for Sarah when she describes losing her son, and later for Grace when she shares details about the war-torn future and the loss of her father. Dani even feels kinship with “Carl,” the former Terminator who grew a conscience and raised a family because he had no more programmed instructions to follow.
When we learn that Dani will become the leader of the future human resistance, Grace among them, motivating others to rise up against the Terminators, it’s not only a great reveal; it makes perfect sense. The original films in this franchise imply that John Connor became a great leader because his mother prepared him for that future. But with Dani, all of her strength, compassion, and will to fight are already there. By Act III, she’s tired of running and ready to do whatever it takes to face down the Terminator pursuing her once and for all.
Thanks to Natalia Reyes’s breakout performance and Dani’s powerful story arc, this film gave us one of the most fascinating, well-rounded, and cool sci-fi protagonists I’ve ever seen in an action movie, and I wish more people were celebrating her.
Grace (Mackenzie Davis)
Having traveled back in time from the year 2042, Grace is
the light of my life an augmented human soldier in the resistance against Legion, which is basically the modern militaristic version of Skynet. (Cue Sarah Connor saying, “Those fucking assholes.”)
In a flashback (to the future!), we see Grace in a post-apocalyptic battlefield, fighting to ensure the safety of her injured commander—who is unconscious with her face bandaged, so we don’t realize it’s Dani until later. It was on this same day that Grace volunteered to become “an augment,” or to have an extensive surgery that replaced her skeleton with metal parts and gave her super strength/metabolism (#goals). In battle, Grace has the ability to go 300% in short bursts before she crashes (quite literally) and needs to refuel—which feels deliciously sci-fi and makes it clear that Grace is still a human being with biological limits.
One of many extremely cool things about Mackenzie Davis’s performance is that Grace gets to make really unflattering faces while fighting. I genuinely can’t think of another action movie where a heroic woman gets to bare her teeth and glare and grimace at this level while exerting herself. Like Dani, Grace also has a fully fleshed-out backstory, sharing that the post-apocalyptic future she knows started without warning and descended into widespread human casualties at a rapid rate, drastically reducing the population and leaving the few survivors scavenging for food and shelter while being hunted by machines.
At the movie’s climax, Grace reveals that as a teenager she was rescued and raised by Future Dani, who became a leader of the human resistance and the commander of their Terminator-slaying army. It was Dani who sent Grace back to the past to protect her from the very advanced and scary Rev-9 Terminator, and we understand why she lives and breathes this mission: She is defending her leader and mentor at all costs. Something Grace never seems to connect, though, is that Future Dani clearly remembers being rescued by Adult Warrior Grace in the past. In the flashback to Grace’s initial rescue, Dani hears her name and smiles in recognition before kneeling and warmly introducing herself. At the end of the film, Dani vows to not let Grace die for her again, and I think one of the future-flashbacks subtly reveals why she fails to change Grace’s story: Dani has no way of predicting that she’ll be unconscious the day Grace volunteers to become an augment. Therefore, she misses the window to prevent the procedure from happening—or to insist on a backup powersource. (Listen, this movie doesn’t make less sense than any of the others in this franchise, okay?)
Now, let me address the elephant in the fandom: It pains me a little to say this, but I do not ship these two. I completely understand the appeal of having a great F/F ship in an action movie (sigh), and I know how starved we all are for representation, so I’m not calling out anyone is onboard for this ship. Personally, though, I read their relationship as very much in the mentor/mentee dynamic—I think it’s pretty clear that Grace sees Dani as a “big sister” role model. Grace is fearlessly determined to save Dani at any cost, but a few times, we get little glimpses of how she would normally behave around the Dani she remembers. When she’s tired and thirsty, she complains, “Dani, I need some water” in a vaguely whiny sibling voice. Later on, when Dani is ready to take control of her own fate, Grace immediately relents and goes along with the plan to face down the Rev-9. Because she’s used to seeing her as a superior! So, as excited as I would have been to see a pair of girlfriends at the center of this story, I also thoroughly enjoyed this refreshingly deep female friendship.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)
My nerdy mom started applauding when Sarah showed up to get shit done. And she was right! Sarah kicks exactly as much ass as you’d hope, while also taking zero bullshit from anyone.
Her entrance into the story is befitting someone of her level of badassery: In the midst of what’s starting to look like an unwinnable battle for Grace, Sarah shows up with a Very Large Gun and temporarily disables the Rev-9 by blowing it apart. She later reveals that she gets mysterious texts with the location coordinates for Terminator arrivals, and shows up to blow them to dust. (Sure!)
One of my favorite reveals in the movie comes when Grace tells Dani, “You taught me there was no fate but what we make for ourselves.” And it hits both the viewer and Sarah at the same time that Dani was trained by Sarah. She’s in the future quoting Sarah’s old mantra (“No fate but what we make”), and time is a circle. Indeed, the movie closes with the two of them off to prepare for the coming judgement day.
Linda Hamilton’s approach to portraying an older Sarah Connor is also worth applause—as reported in the New York Times, she underwent a grueling training regimen and was committed to doing her own stunts. She also had no interest in disguising her age: “I don’t think there’s going to be one person who comes up to me who says, ‘You look so great for your age.’ I threw that into the Mississippi River, because that’s not what this is about. I want people to see me and go, ‘Oh my God, she got so old!’”
The film’s narrative takes these three women from being strangers to unlikely allies, and they become something of a found family. Grace and Sarah initially butt heads, but protecting Dani unites them. In the midst of suspense and some surprisingly fresh humor, the film also finds time to shed light on the harsh realities faced by Mexican immigrants, as Act II focuses squarely on the trio’s journey across the border into Texas.
One thing worth noting is that even with awesome ladies at the center of this fun story, it’s unfortunate that no women appear in the list of writers for the film. As pumped as I am about this movie and its characters, it’s important to continue to highlight these areas of disconnect. It’s also interesting to consider how different this movie could have been without apparent micromanaging from James Cameron—the Arnold-Terminator storyline comes to mind as something obviously necessary and shoehorned in.
All that said, the movie we ended up with wildly exceeded my expectations, and it’s no coincidence that there are three badass women at the heart of its story. The lackluster performance at the box office SUCKS, because I really want to see more sci-fi/action like this in general, and my nerd heart is broken to think that we’re highly unlikely to see these characters again.
For now, though, I’ll stick with being extremely happy that we got to meet them at all. And even if Dark Fate goes down in movie history as a “flop,” it will still go down in Alicia history as an underrated triumph.