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The way Terminator: Dark Fate uses John Connor was the only move, says director

Tim Miller explains a major choice in the film

terminator judgment day: john connor stands on his bike looking over his shoulder in the la aqueduct TriStar Pictures
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, director Tim Miller provoked thunderous applause when he announced that not only would Terminator: Dark Fate tout the R rating of James Cameron’s original two Terminator films, but that Edward Furlong would return to the role of John Connor.

What Miller didn’t say was in what capacity John would return. Subsequent trailers for Dark Fate were suspiciously lacking, and anyone who’s seen the movies know why. Connor plays a key role in the film, and a shocking one at that. In an interview with Polygon, Miller admitted that the decision to go in that direction was easy considering what he and his team of writers wanted to do with the movie.

[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate.]

The opening scene of Dark Fate finds Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her son John (Furlong) at a beachside cabana just a few years after destroying Skynet and preventing Judgment Day. The actors look like themselves from 30 years ago (thanks to the power of de-aging technology), and their in-world lives look as close to perfect as life for two on-the-run “criminals” can get.

But a few seconds later, Sarah’s existence comes crashing down. A new T-800 emerges from the ocean and pops a bullet in John’s head. A son dies in an instant, a mother falls to the floor, and the Terminator walks away from the job. The future that was averted is now in question. Every sacrifice feels worthless. This is failure at an unfathomable cost. Everything we thought we knew was wrong. Terminator: Dark Fate is not fucking around.

sarah connor roughed up holds her assault rifle in a bath of red light Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures

In a big chat on the making of the movie, Miller told us that everything about Dark Fate started with Hamilton and the Sarah Connor character. This was her franchise, and to push the story forward as dramatically as T2 did after The Terminator, a “third” movie had to jolt Sarah’s life in a new way. Killing John was dramatic logic.

“As you can imagine, it was a point of discussion in the writer’s room,” Miller said, “but oddly enough, none of us ever thought of it as some kind of sacred cow for the story. And it quickly became obvious that if you were going to start the franchise in a different direction, you had to wipe the slate clean a little bit.”

Miller and his team couldn’t see a way in which John post-Judgment Day even made sense. “How do you handle it? Is he an accountant in his mid-30s because the apocalypse didn’t happen? There’s not really a satisfying journey for John without Judgment Day happening. He would be a man who missed his moment.”

“I certainly was happy that they moved into a future where a woman could be the soldier that is saving the human race,” Linda Hamilton told Polygon about Miller’s decision to kill off her screen son. “I don’t get attached. I’m much more interested in a character’s evolution and the changes that happen ... because it just gives me that much more to work with. And man, this one was painful.”

John dies in the first minutes of Terminator: Dark Fate (and Furlong settles for a “John Connor reference” credit), but his presence is felt in every frame. In action set pieces where a shattered Sarah hunts down robots as if a Terminator herself, or more personal confessions of what it meant to be just “a womb” in the crosshairs of Skynet, the death of young John turns Sarah into more of a mother than in any previous installment.

“I wanted to lean into this a little heavier than we ended up doing in the movie,” Miller admitted, “but I thought, what a fucking tragedy for Sarah to have thought ‘I’m gonna do the right thing.’”

In early auditions with Mackenzie Davis, Miller had Hamilton perform a monologue where Sarah reminds Grace that she saved three billion lives. Grace snaps back with the hard truth: in the adjusted timeline, seven-and-a-half billion die instead. Dark Fate was full of razor-edged admissions that were tweaked for the final cut, but Miller hopes the spirit is still there.

“There’s a line in the middle where she says, ‘I’m tired of being Mother Mary.’ The alt for that, which I quite liked, was ‘The only thing you have in common with Mother Mary is a dead son.’ And so the choice that Sarah made is, not only did more people die but, but her son who would have been the savior of mankind is a footnote in history because he didn’t fulfill the destiny. She stopped it. She would have to live with the guilt of that. I think deep down she would think she made the right choice. But it’s more price to pay for a mother.”

Then, just to pour salt on the wound, Dark Fate teams Sarah up with the T-800 that killed her son. Chewing on the implications was mentally strenuous for Hamilton.

“Just working on grief and sorrow and disappointment and guilt every day, and being inflamed with rage, and inflamed with revenge, and then wanting revenge — it’s definitely the hardest one I’ve done yet. She’s lost everything and she’s a woman without a country.”

Hamilton was up for the endurance trial because of the second twist in Terminator: Dark Fate: that Dani (Natalia Reyes), the target of the Legion A.I.’s Rev-9 Terminator, isn’t the movie’s “new Sarah,” but really, the new John. In the future, she will lead the resistance, and raise Grace as her own.

”’The woman that gives birth to the man that saves the future’ — that’s Sarah’s only experience,” Hamilton said. “I’m so pleased that they didn’t use Natalia that way, that the Dani character is not giving birth to the savior of mankind, but is actually the savior and that strategists that’s going to save mankind. We’ve come quite far in our thinking and assigning women roles that don’t just have to do with giving birth and bringing life into this world. We have grown beyond that.”

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