One Reason 'Terminator: Dark Fate' Didn't Connect With Sci-Fi Audiences

Perhaps the poor reception has to do with how humans relate to machines in 2019.

[This story contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate]

In theory, Terminator: Dark Fate had a pedigree for success. The 35-year-old franchise had faltered in recent years, but series creator James Cameron and star Linda Hamilton were back for the first time in decades for the latest installment, which opened Friday. But over the weekend, the film bombed at the box office and put the franchise on ice. What happened? It's possible part of the problem was that audiences' relationship with technology has changed dramatically since Cameron first introduced the world to the notion of a killer cyborg sent from the future by a killer AI.

The Terminator franchise has always been about what it means to be human and what makes us different than machines. It's a question that harks back to early human myths, which sought to explain how humanity differed from the animal world. On the religious side, it often boiled down to a privileged connection to higher powers, one almighty god or many gods. On the philosophical side, it was our consciousness. We think, therefore we are special. 

Then came machines. Dark Fate and the previous installments in the Terminator franchise revolve around artificial intelligence posing a major threat to the future of humanity, and they are far from alone. Authors have written about dangerous, intelligent machines at least as far back as the 1870s. But whether you are discussing Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon, in which machines develop consciousness, or Dark Fate, the threat posed by AI isn’t just physical, but metaphysical. The concept of a computer possessing intelligence that rivals or surpasses our own threatens our sense of possessing unique, intelligence-based personhood that we have held on to for centuries. Machines have made us ask, once again, the question, “What makes humans special?” But the traditional answer no longer works — at least, not for long.

Instead, stories like Dark Fate emphasize physiological differences between human and machine. Humans are uniquely alive compared to artificially intelligent beings because we are fated to death and decay in ways machines are not. Machines can be upgraded, rebooted, broken and fixed as good as new. But people can’t. We scar, we age, we forget things. We inevitably die.

Dark Fate covets this fragility. The film begins with an adolescent John Connor getting gunned down by a Terminator a few years after the events of T2, much to the despair of his mother, who is present but unable to save him. As an older Sarah Connor (Hamilton) later remarks, while she has dedicated the rest of her life to killing Terminators in John’s memory, that she has begun to forget the look of his face, as she never took any pictures of him as a safety precaution. The way this revelation unfolds, it frames her human imperfections in contrast to the faultless mechanics of her robotic conversation partner.

In comparison to previous Terminator films, the new installment directed by Tim Miller creates a full human-to-machine spectrum. On the fully human end are Sarah Connor and Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), and on the fully machine side is the unnamed Rev-9 model Terminator (Gabriel Luna), who only mimics humanity to the extent that it will help him reach his goal of killing his target. And then, in between, there is the augmented super-soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human enhanced with mechanical components, and Carl (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the aged T-800 Terminator who has spent the past few decades learning about humanity and seeking to emulate it. Though it may show a spectrum, the pic ultimately draws the line firmly in the sand at the halfway point — if you’re on one side of it, you’re an actual human person; on the other, you’re mere machine.

Carl has spent enough time among people to get married and raise his wife’s son from a previous relationship as his own, but when Sarah Connor asks him if he loves his family, he says that he does not have the capacity to feel that deeply, “not like a human can.” He appreciates humanity and strives toward personhood, but can’t fully achieve it.

By contrast, after giving Grace an ambiguous introduction, Dark Fate consistently places her on the human side of the equation. She was born human. We see her as a child in flashbacks, which in this franchise is uniquely human, as Terminators are “born” already in their adult forms. Grace may have superhuman strength, but she also shows a number of weaknesses. It is only when they see her weaknesses — the way she scars and bleeds and requires medical aid due to a metabolism issue stemming from her mechanical enhancements — that Sarah and Dani seem to fully accept Grace’s insistence that she is a person and not a machine. In this world, you can be a person augmented by machinery or a machine who strives to emulate something resembling personhood, but at the end of the day, you are either a human person or a machine thing.

Dark Fate is not the first story to make this argument about the specialness of humanity, and it will certainly not be the last. But the fact that this argument remains relatively popular does not mean that you ought to be convinced by it — and, indeed, the belief in human superiority over machines is one that, particularly in the past few years, does not permeate our culture quite the way it once did. Looking at Dark Fate’s underwhelming box office performance, it’s fair to wonder if perhaps one of the reasons why the pic might not be connecting all that well with audiences is its insistence on maintaining a strict human-machine dichotomy that privileges humankind alone with personhood.

While the news may be full of stories questioning the safety of AI, fictional media on the whole is not as technophobic as it used to be. With films like Ex Machina that maintain an ambiguous stance on the personhood of cyborgs, and others like Blade Runner 2049 and Alita: Battle Angel embracing cyborg protagonists, perhaps it’s not surprising that the generation raised on Wall-E is entering adulthood just as regarding robots as people becomes the onscreen norm. Dark Fate might be the best of the Terminator reboots that have been attempted in the past few years, but perhaps the nature of its humans vs. robots premise has aged out of fashion past the point of repair.