Forget John Connor. Terminator: Dark Fate, now streaming on Neon, proves that Sarah Connor is humanity’s real saviour, writes Sam Brooks.
When you think of Sarah Connor, there’s one image that comes to mind immediately. It’s not from the first Terminator film, which presents Linda Hamilton as a waitress with bangs higher than heaven who flees from the Terminator until she’s finally able to lure him into a hydraulic press. No, it’s from the second film – the darker, leaner, meaner Judgment Day, where Hamilton’s Connor has just escaped from a psychiatric hospital, because in the 90s that’s where they put you when you screamed about humanity being doomed by the internet. She’s in the middle of the desert, shotgun in hand, ready to defend her son and humanity’s future. She’s essentially one big muscle in a tank top with sunglasses and a ponytail, looking all the world like the model for Lara Croft (the definitive video game heroine) from a few years later.
The reason it comes to mind isn’t just because James Cameron knew what the hell he was doing with a camera. It’s because T2’s Sarah Connor is the character stripped back to her purest form: a woman on a mission. In the first film, her mission is just staying alive. In the second she’s saving her son and, as it happens, the future of humanity. And in Dark Fate, which has recently dropped on Neon, she’s saving a different future. (There’s been other Sarah Connors, with varying levels of success, but if it ain’t Linda Hamilton, it ain’t Sarah Connor, as far as I’m concerned.)
While the mission is at the core of Connor’s character, it’s not all that makes her memorable. It’s hard to forget that Sarah Connor, especially the Connor that we see in Judgment Day, was revolutionary at the time. With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, women in Hollywood films weren’t action heroes. They were damsels in distress, final girls, or Bond Girls.
Sarah Connor was a rarity because she was a (western) action hero whose femininity was key to her character. The fact that she was a mother and the saviour of humanity, and both of those roles were inextricable from each other, was important. Hamilton recounted last year, in a look back at the character, that James Cameron had wanted Connor’s head shaved after she escaped from the asylum, but Hamilton had fought for the ponytail. It’s one of those aesthetic details that seems silly and shallow on the surface but speaks volumes; we’re not meant to see Connor as a man, or a woman aiming at masculinity, we’re meant to see her as a woman. Her femininity doesn’t change the fact she can knock you down and keep going.
An important part of what makes Sarah Connor special is, unsurprisingly, the woman who plays her. It’s nearly impossible to overstate how important Linda Hamilton is not just to the success of Sarah Connor, but to the entire Terminator franchise. Her performance is that thing that every actor should dream of: it’s lived in and full of life. That mental asylum escape scene is, for me, one of the best scenes in the whole franchise because of what Hamilton gives to it. The little skip after she escapes her locker, the silent terror on her face when she sees a pre-governorship Arnold Schwarzenegger walk through the door, and the scream when she realises what it actually is. Not only does she do the work of bringing the existential horror of the first film hurtling back to us, she makes us feel it.
The thrill of action films is not in seeing special effects run into each other on computer screens; they’re just annoying screensavers. No, the thrill is in seeing actual, blood-filled humans run, jump and do all the things we wouldn’t dream of doing. Connor does those things, and Hamilton makes us feel what it might be like to do them.
“Since then, I hunt Terminators and I drink until I black out. Enough of a resume for you?”
Terminator: Dark Fate brings us a new Sarah Connor, by bringing us an old Sarah Connor. It gives Sarah Connor a third act, and a proper third act at that, given that Dark Fate essentially renders the continuity of everything since Judgment Day null and void. It’s the rare chance to see an older woman in an action film, and indeed, Hamilton is the first woman in her 60s to headline an action movie of this scale. Judgment Day escalated Connor from waitress to militant, and Dark Fate takes that development even further: she’s not someone preparing to go to war, she’s someone who has been on more tours of duty than you can count, with no signs of retiring.
Hamilton wears this on her face, and shows it in every line reading. This is the logical endpoint of the sort of trauma that Connor has been through; she’s been fighting, or preparing to fight, all her life. That might make you the best shot in the west (as she shows, thrillingly, with a goddamned bazooka in one of the best moments in the film), but it doesn’t necessarily make you happy. Connor fights for a future, and carries the weight of potentially losing that future, so the rest of humanity doesn’t have to. She makes a mother’s sacrifice for the sake of the world, and she doesn’t pretend it isn’t hard. She just gets down to it and bloody does it.
And that boils down to what’s made Sarah Connor great all along: she’s real. She’s cinema’s biggest, best badass because she’s cinema’s most authentic badass. She screams, she bleeds, she knocks people down and she feels every damn moment of it. In a franchise that regularly defies the laws of space and time, and involves a lot of robots and, to be frank, annoying kids, she’s the human centre. Skynet might have destroyed humanity, but it’s never gonna get Sarah Connor.
Terminator: Dark Fate is streaming now on Neon.