Is there free will? It’s an idea that’s been tormenting humanity since we came down from the trees.
It’s also a question that rattles around throughout the time-travel thriller Terminator: Dark Fate, opening Friday (November 1).
“I don’t think fate works any differently in the Terminator universe than it does in real life,” says director Tim Miller, on the line to the Straight during a media blitz in Toronto.
“Personally, I believe that there’s no such thing as destiny, and the choices we make have ramifications down the road. The future was changed in the last movie, so clearly it can be done, but now the characters are becoming aware of the ourobouros, and they can make the choice to break out of the cycle.“
The cycle, of course, is the idea that a high-tech killer robot—a Terminator—has been sent back from the future to alter our timeline, paving the way for an artificial intelligence to subjugate humanity. It’s a story that’s been told before, but this time Miller has upped the ante by bringing back the stars of the franchise’s beginnings, with Linda Hamilton reprising the role of Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as a T-800 model Terminator.
“You can't keep Arnold away from a Terminator movie,” Miller says, laughing. “I think if he was in a car accident and lost all of his limbs, he would find a way to roll onto the Terminator set. But Linda was a different matter. She’d resisted coming back before, and I think she felt like she’d said everything she needed to say about that character. But now so much time has passed she believed she could make this character something different from what it was. And she did.”
Dark Fate—which acts as a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day— also introduces a trio of newcomers: Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young Mexican woman who can save the future; the Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna), who is deadly, fearsome, and oddly charming; and Grace (Vancouver native Mackenzie Davis), a bio-engineered human from the future on a mission to save humanity.
Although the numerous action sequences made it a strenuous shoot for everyone involved, Miller admits that Davis may have got the worst of it.
“She had to be in peak physical condition, and she had all the action, with stunt training on top of it, and then she's acting in every scene. It was pretty hard for her, but she was completely committed to doing whatever it took. And, bizarrely, she really wanted the role. She was very excited about doing something different.”
Miller pauses, then chuckles.
“The really weird thing is that if I were her, or her agent, I would have said, ‘Really, Terminator? The sixth Terminator movie with Tim Miller, who really could be, like, a one-hit wonder?’ It wouldn't be a choice I would make for my career, but I’m glad she did.”
Along with the action—and there’s a lot of action—Dark Fate intersects with some current sociopolitical themes along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Once you pick a Mexican citizen to be the new saviour of humanity, and you want to end the movie in America, well, it kind of just writes itself in terms of having to cross the border. It's going to be a tense sequence—a horrifyingly frightening thing for an immigrant, much less an immigrant being chased by a killer robot from the future.”
Still—and despite a clever visual joke aimed at U.S. president Donald Trump’s border wall—Miller says he was not out to make any huge political statements.
“I really did try and walk a line of not vilifying the border-patrol folks who are, for the most part, trying to do a job,” he says. “I'm pretty far left in my politics, but I didn't want to make them out to be bad guys. It's politics that are fucked up—on the ground, it's shitty for everybody.”
But, as Miller reminds, the franchise has long had an anti-authoritarian stance, dating back to creator James Cameron’s first two Terminator films.
“You know, there’s always police getting whacked, and a real fear of the surveillance state in Jim’s stuff,” he says.
With Cameron now back in the Terminator fold after an almost 30-year absence—he produced Dark Fate—it raises the question: what’s it like to fill his shoes as director?
“You know, I have a surfeit of courage and stupidity, so I always feel like I'm going to do a good job because my heart's in the right place. And I’ve learned that there's such a huge group of really talented people around you that if you if you ask for help, they will not let you fail.”
For the most part, Cameron gave Miller free rein in reinterpreting his creation.
“When we originally broke the story,” Miller recalls, “Jim was around to help guide the process and the structure, and he was very keen on the dialogue about fate. He would give us notes sporadically while he was working on Avatar.”
Sometimes, it seems, discussions would really get down in the weeds.
“We even had a few conversations about, you know, the Terminator—does it have a functional penis or not? Jim was very adamant about it. He's like, “You see his junk in Terminator 1. So why wouldn't he have a working penis?’ And I'm like, uh, ‘Let's just move on to the next topic. Please.’”
Fully functional or not, a real-life robot uprising doesn’t seem to be much of a worry for Miller. When asked about the theme of technology versus humanity, he laughs.
“I think it's going to be a soft apocalypse.”
Turning serious, he continues:
“I think the real danger is not a government machine launching nuclear weapons. I think the danger is more insidious, in that we’ll gradually give up more of our free will. I mean, how much time do you see people absorbed in their screens? And I think that eventually humans will find that AI can make decisions better than they can themselves, and we’ll stop trying. We’ll become a world full of sheep, and the gradual erosion of autonomy will lead us to something that could be worse than nuclear fire. That’s what I fear.”