It is interesting to me to consider the new movie as part of two bookends to James Cameron’s strange career, while providing some comment on the evolving image that Linda Hamilton has presented in media and the almost unchanging one of Arnold.
When he made The Terminator, James Cameron had not done any of the films that built the industry position he holds today. He was a special effects guy that wrote a typical sci-fi screenplay about a murderous robot. But “The Terminator” somehow had a strangely enduring effect on American culture. The screenplay had all the stock components, with a few slight twists that would become Cameron trademarks like transforming female characters into alternate heroes. Otherwise it included the typical murderous, apocalyptic future so common, perhaps even central, to all science fiction, the obligatory arrested love interest, and a commendable combination of live action and classic stop motion animation right out of Jason and the Argonauts.
But this movie resonated with all kinds of segments, many without much taste for either conventional action or science fiction. And Cameron made both Schwarzenegger and Hamilton actual cultural icons. It’s easy to argue that neither of them surpassed their roles in the film, with Arnold literally milking it for billions in ticket sales and a governorship and Hamilton clearly chewed up by hers. How do we account for this? Can we see something in the two stars’ comparative destinies and did Dark Fate provide any clues?
The character of Sarah and the actress Linda Hamilton were perfectly matched to project the most innocuous presence, never rising above cute, until the cyborg is blasting a shotgun at her. We meet Linda working an adolescent fast food job and then going to a movie. In parallel a housewife mistaken for her is executed in her home and her roommate and boyfriend, beaten to death in her apartment. This balancing of extremes continues as her protector, Reese, and the cyborg finally meet shooting at each other in a bar over Linda’ head. The scene in a new wave disco called New Noir is one of the few that warrants the otherwise overused slow motion. While the “new wave” music plays and the young yuppies sway, the cyberpunk uncoils again from behind the bar, laser and machine guns in hand. Thus, begins the carnage. We see Sarah innocently look blandly at the camera with a red laser site on her head, about to be terminated when Reese uncorks his own assault, ending the scene by blasting the cyborg through a plate glass window.
When he rises, Michael Myers-like, Reese and Sarah alternately flee and shoot at the bot in every possible venue until Sarah/Linda is told that she is the mother of the future resistance, a legendary warrior whose son will defeat the future. She cries out for us all, “What”? The chase scene ends when the terminator drives straight into a brick wall with the cops chasing both of them. Suddenly, Linda finally becoming partially aware of her surroundings and knows to grab Reese as he reaches for his shotgun to confront the cops. She yells, “No Reese, No, they’ll kill you”, in a voice we don’t hear again until she is does some terminating of her own.
Arnold gets the opposite treatment. We meet him emerging in a spherical electric storm naked in a crouch and watch him straighten up into the Hulk. He then walks through the park to murder and kill some punk rockers for their clothes, thus, cyberpunk. He is a comic figure We see his ass; he reads visual algorithms to select pre-coded responses like, “Fuck You, Asshole” in what became America’s definition of a slightly fascistic cyber/Germanic voice. His hair gets cropped and he wears cool ray bands to hide the eyeball he plucks out. He looks like Brando on his bike. Best of all, because he is a robot, he is not morally responsible for any of this, so we can enjoy his antics. This is no trivial accomplishment; Cameron creates a character Arnold will play for the next three or four decades. Remorseless, brutally violent, but cool and funny.
So, by the movie’s end, when Sarah punches the steel press on his steel skull, and he takes a last look straight into the camera, as if winking, with his laser red eye shining as the press crushes it dark, Sarah has gone from cute to terminator, and Arnold, the reverse. Society, however, won’t let Linda be a terminator, but Arnold can be anything. He’s a protector, then he’s Danny DeVito’s genetically perfect twin, JL Curtis’ lucky husband, Sharon Stone’s even luckier boyfriend, a predator’s predator, a Kennedy, a Governor, even an expendable, and finally a terminator husband/father in Dark Fate. In the subsequent films, she will become a Rambet, permanently.
But a Rambet is denied even the righteous orgies of violence Stallone formulated for John Rambo. Sarah must become the separatist feminist, gaunt, cut, unsmiling, long suffering, ideologically pure. Most importantly, she is always angry. She invented the Hollywood version of the resting bitch face. She’s pissed about the apocalypse and having to bear the messiah and she’s going to do something about it. This may make for good doctrine, but it’s a bad career choice. It’s a classic Hollywood scam, make a “feminist” sci-fi cyberpunk movie that destroys the female lead’s career. Message, stick to cute.
That’s why The Terminator was so memorable and the rest, I don’t remember. Because at the end of the film with Linda Hamilton driving off into the stormy Mexican desert with her revolver, dog and headband, Sarah is still cute. There was still a Soviet Union. The apocalypse was coming, as it really is for all of us, but she came through the realization, as we all can. Later all this is revised as her ideology requires. We can’t be left with our faith, only her ideology. And therein lies the rub for Linda and even Arnold when it comes to the rest of their lives till Dark Fate.
I read that James Cameron, after years without contact, reached out to Linda Hamilton, his former wife, to ask her to make a new sequel. She claims that it took her years away from the industry living in Louisiana to finally build a stable life in a community away from Hollywood with real connections. But, for some reason, could it be money, she agreed to play Sarah again. The results are exactly as you would expect; it’s a disaster. Arnold’s body is gone, and his face looks like a parkinsonian mask. Linda’s voice sounds like she speaking through a tracheotomy. Now, with the right screenplay and if there had been no other sequels, these physical transformations could have made for interesting material. But given their respective ideological “careers” there was no way out. They went through the joyless, soulless motions until time, thankfully, ran out and Arnold was dead and burned next to the latest, multicultural terminator.
We had to suffer it all in Dark Fate. A tanned wrinkled, aging second wave feminist Sarah croaking out lines like “they want your womb”. A dumpy, younger, millennial feminist protector constantly signaling her sacrificial virtue. A Mexican virgin 2.0 screaming about her right to choose. Finally, a constantly transitioning multicultural killer cyborg. An identity maelstrom. I came to the conclusion that both Arnold and Linda got screwed by their roles, although Arnold a little more lucratively. They are left having lived out the superficial script written for them by Cameron. His hollow successes after The Terminator, with the exception of Aliens, have condemned him to the same lucrative irrelevance. It’s fitting that the Avengers franchise, sourced from dime store children’s comic books, is eclipsing his pretentious achievements, Titanic and Avatar. Stan Lee must be rolling in his grave.
So, looking at two films separated by 35 years, and two actors with seemingly opposite careers that ended in the same place, and the director responsible for the whole mess, what can we say about any of this. Only that the tenuous string that used to barely connect what passes as popular culture to at least a modicum of genuine craft has, over the course of one director’s career, entirely disappeared, leaving in its wake a trail of cultural victim/collaborators in various states of wealth and debasement. And nothing whatsoever for us.