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The Ending of ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Explained

Is there another storm coming in? Or has the final battle been fought here, in our present?
Terminator Dark Fate ending
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on November 1st, 2019

Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. In this entry, we discuss the ending of Terminator: Dark Fate. 

Not since the first movie has an installment of the Terminator franchise seemed so perfectly concluded. Maybe it’s because the latest sequel, Terminator: Dark Fate, is also something of a remake of the 1984 original. A young working-class woman is targeted for termination by a robot from the future, and a human also sent back to the present succeeds in protecting her. And once again, both the good and bad time-traveling characters have to die. You can’t have one of these displaced figures continuing on through a past timeline, right?

Actually, now that we’ve seen how one character from the future could survive out of time, why not others? Well, the T-800 known as Carl (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a special circumstance. He had no other version of himself to run into. And somehow, despite not being a human being, he was able to last 20 years without anyone being the wiser. Not just live but also work. And sort of love and be loved. Unlike him, the new Terminator (Gabriel Luna) would not stop and reconsider the meaning of life. That guy had to be disintegrated. Did Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) remember to leave no trace of the machine this time? I can’t recall. I hope so (or not…)

As for Grace (Mackenzie Davis), the augmented human, she’d now reside in a time in which there’s another of her. That’s not good. It’s not impossible by the rules of this property, though it might as well be. Killing off Grace is a shame, though, because Dark Fate is her story. That’s one thing that’s different about this version compared to the original. Kyle Reese isn’t the protagonist of The Terminator. Sarah is. And while she’s still the main protagonist of the newly configured trilogy, Grace is arguably the protagonist of Dark Fate. Like Rey taking over from Luke in the Skywalker Saga of the Star Wars franchise.

But narratively for this movie and for her journey to work, Grace has to close the loop on her story. In the present day, she’s a kid about to be orphaned by a new Judgment Day, after which she’s taken in and raised by Dani (Natalia Reyes), leader of a resistance against the AI known as Legion and its robotic minions. In about 20 years, she’s injured during a battle and is surgically enhanced so she’s also part machine. Sometime after that, Grace is sent by Dani into the past with a mission to protect the leader’s younger self from a time-traveling assassin. The mission is successful, thanks to her sacrificing herself — something Dani would have known was going to happen — and now we’re back to Grace as a young girl.

The final scene of Dark Fate, in which Sarah and Dani, the dual final girls, pay a visit to see the young Grace, reminds us of the circular nature of the plot and this universe. We loop-de-loop from Sarah’s story in The Terminator to Dani’s parallel arc while also entering the closed-loop of Grace’s story. And then Sarah and Dani repeat the conclusion of The Terminator by getting into a jeep and driving off into the distance. Where they’re going is less of a mystery than it is for Sarah at the end of The Terminator. We’ve seen what happens to Dani in the future thanks to flashback/flashforward sequences. We can assume Sarah is dead in 20 years, though, since we don’t see her in any of those sequences. But what until then?

Who knows and who cares? Do we need to see Sarah and Dani now repeat the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in order to thwart the apocalypse and shutter Legion as Sarah did with Skynet? We’ve already got enough of T2 DNA in Dark Fate that there’s no use of a full repeat of that sequel. Besides, now that we know humans will just keep creating other AIs that will take over in Skynet and Legion’s absence, we’ve got the gist of this continued looping of the story. Just as we don’t need prequels to most movies, we also don’t need sequels to show us what happens in the spaces leading up to the future sequences we’ve seen. Dani’s destiny is there. We’ve seen what she becomes. The End.

Of course, there’s no such thing as The End in cinema anymore. The Terminator franchise will keep on keeping on, and Terminator creator and Dark Fate producer and co-writer James Cameron even confirmed that plans are in place for at least two more installments. “We rolled up our sleeves and started to break out the story, and when we got a handle on something we looked at it as a three-film arc, so there is a greater story there to be told,” he revealed to Deadline months ago. “If we get fortunate enough to make some money with Dark Fate, we know exactly where we can go with the subsequent films.”

Cameron does believe Dark Fate “stands alone as a pretty good one-time story,” as he said during a roundtable interview (via Cinema Blend). However, he also doubled down on promising that he knows the direction of the potential subsequent films. He says: “I feel like one of my major motivations on this film, or coming back to the franchise, was to explore the human relationship with artificial intelligence. I don’t feel we did that in Dark Fate. I feel that we set the stage, or we set the table, for that exploration, and that exploration would take place in a second film and a third film. And we know exactly where we’re going to take that idea. What we wanted to get in the first movie was this idea that it’s just going to keep happening. The names will change, but the basic conflict is going to continue to take place until it gets resolved one way or the other.”

Got it: repeating loops and the fate of the future established. What more is there to say? “I think you start simple and then you elaborate, and you can elaborate over a series of films,” Cameron continued. “If they’re made by the same people with the same intentions and the same philosophy, then there can be a kind of a story arc across multiple films.” So it sounds like Cameron is eager to take the Terminator movies towards fresh territory that the other movies haven’t gone to. It’d be like what Ridley Scott started to attempt with the Alien franchise (interestingly enough one that Cameron once dipped his directorial toe into), with the prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

So Dark Fate might be something of a rehash but only to refamiliarize and reposition us before pivoting to a completely new story (albeit with the same characters probably) involving the inevitability of AI and maybe why humans are heading there no matter what. T2 touches on that, maybe, but not much. The only problem with Cameron’s intentions could be that Dark Fate director Tim Miller doesn’t seem to care if he never works on another Terminator movie again, and also he and Cameron apparently didn’t see eye to eye on the story anyway, which is probably why Miller isn’t too eager to return. So much for “if they’re made by the same people.”

And one thing is even for sure: Schwarzenegger can’t be back for more. Sure, the franchise is lacking when he’s not around, but where would he fit in? As another good T-800 to parallel his role in T2? That’s already part of the fabric of Dark Fate. And nothing, no explanation for his appearance, will top what the writers did for Dark Fate and the creation of Carl, the former Terminator who murdered a child and then grew something of a conscience, settled down with a wife and son, started a drapes business, and began secretly assisting the mother of the boy he killed. That’s plot and character development is insane and barely works as it is. And really, that’s another reason why Dark Fate should be the end. No Arnie, no point.

Now here’s how Dark Fate should have truly ended (and how the whole Terminator franchise should have been put to bed) in a post-credits scene: similar to Dani observing young Grace with her family, Sarah should have located and paid a visit to young Kyle Reese. Never mind Miller claiming Kyle no longer exists (I believe he’s only thinking of him having died in the past), the truth is that he’d be out there somewhere, maybe not fated to join a resistance against the machines — though why wouldn’t he be? perhaps he’s just some random Dani follower in 2042 — but in 2020 he’d be around 20 years old. Perhaps living carefree by the beach like the non-famous John Lennon in Yesterday (yes, I’m talking about the what if there was no Beatles movie). The only reason why it wouldn’t be a good idea is that Anton Yelchin couldn’t have played him.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.