The new Terminator: Dark Fate is a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which got a lot of ink back in 1991 for the pioneering digital animation that allowed its shape-shifting villain, the T-1000, to swap faces and bodies in real time. But the movie’s practical effects wizard—Stan Winston, who’d won his first Academy Award for his work on Termin-auteur James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens and would earn three more for T2 and Jurassic Park—advised his buddy Jim that the movie’s mercurial antagonist should have a default appearance. Dramatic imperative trumped narrative logic: While the T-1000 would surely be a more effective “infiltration unit” if it updated its disguise constantly, the audience needed a familiar figure to root against. Accepting Winston’s note, Cameron called his friend back later that evening with a flash of inspiration: Their liquid-metal boogeyman would be a cop. Though the T-1000 adopts several guises over the course of the movie, it inevitably morphs back to its most fearsome visage: Robert Patrick, cosplaying as an LAPD flatfoot.
In a movie full of shrewd choices, this was Cameron’s coup de grâce. Police drag made tactical sense, allowing the T-1000 to prowl the gunmetal-tinted streets of Cameron’s Los Angeles unchallenged. But the future King of the World’s antennae were also picking up something in the zeitgeist of 1990, when T2 went into production. Movies and TV shows had, with few exceptions, depicted police in general and the LAPD in particular as fundamentally honorable. But Cameron approached the character differently. “Cops think of all noncops as less than they are: stupid, weak, and evil,” he observed years later on the movie’s DVD commentary.
By the time T2 was released, current events had borne him out. The movie hit theaters in July of 1991, four months to the day after the March 3 beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers—an incident captured by bystander George Holliday on a videotape that also contained footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eddie Furlong shooting T2 in the San Fernando Valley a few weeks earlier. About 10 months after the film’s release, the four officers who’d struck the unarmed King 56 times with their batons were acquitted on excessive force charges, sparking six days of riots that killed 63 people.
The O.J. Simpson trial, which featured LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman being questioned on the stand about his use of racist epithets, followed in 1995, as did Strange Days, a flawed but fascinating near-future drama written by Cameron and directed by his former spouse Kathryn Bigelow, wherein two white LAPD officers murder a black hip-hop star and attempt to frame others for the crime. And before the end of the decade, the Rampart scandal would implicate more than 70 LAPD officers in crimes including drug dealing, bank robbery, and unprovoked shootings.
Cameron couldn’t have known these dark events were around the corner unless he’d built an actual time machine—which is obviously absurd; all he did was build a one-of-a-kind submarine that he piloted himself to become one of three people in history to have descended to the deepest part of the ocean. But the best genre storytellers are tuned in to the collective subconscious in a way that can make them seem like prophets.
Dark Fate, which retroactively aborts (to quote The Terminator) the three non-Cameron, non-Hamilton follow-ups released between 2003 and 2015, carries on this tradition. Its killer bot, the Rev-9, spends the most memorable section of the movie impersonating a type of lawman whose stock is even lower now than the LAPD’s was in 1990: a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent. Played by Gabriel Luna, the Rev-9 takes on that guise to hunt Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican factory worker who is effectively Dark Fate’s John Connor—an unsuspecting target whose existence is key to humanity’s future survival.
Dark Fate’s best set piece comes when Sarah (Linda Hamilton, back in the saddle), Dani, and cyborg-bodyguard-from-the-future Grace (Mackenzie Davis) are spotted by a surveillance drone the Rev-9 has hacked while the three women attempt to sneak across the Mexican border into Texas. (They’re aided by a relative of Dani’s who works as a mule.) The Rev-9 sees to it the trio is arrested, knowing they’ll be detained in a CBP facility, then infiltrates the prison in his CBP uniform to kill Dani. In the chaos that erupts, the cages are opened and hundreds of detainees are at least momentarily freed.
Like the T-1000, the Rev-9 can mimic the appearance of anyone it chooses; as with the T-1000, the filmmakers—a committee that includes Cameron for the first time since T2 —keep their villain in law enforcement garb even after the strategic value of the disguise has been expended. Albeit not all the way through the movie: For Dark Fate’s next (not nearly as absorbing) set piece, the Rev-9 must sneak onto an Air Force base and commandeer a plane, so it mimics a more appropriate military-issue camouflage.
By then the murder-bot has marshaled the infrastructure and personnel of the Border Patrol, drones and humans alike, as his collaborators. The T-1000 didn’t do that; it was a solo act, a wolf in cop’s clothing. The Rev-9 actually manipulates the CBP as an institution to accomplish his mission. Like Skynet in the prior movies—or Legion, the new malignant A.I. enemy in this one—the CBP is an entity meant to protect us that eventually decides there’s no reason to bother with the chore of discerning friendlies from hostiles. All it took to trigger this deadly shift was one malicious actor hijacking a national law enforcement agency to serve its own dark ends.
The Rev-9 stays in his CBP garb long enough for the image to lodge in memory, like the vision of the red-eyed, blown-apart chrome T-800 endoskeleton pulling itself across the floor with its one remaining arm that, the story goes, appeared to Cameron in a fever dream and compelled him to write The Terminator in the first place.
The makers of Dark Fate haven’t said anything that would suggest they want their movie read as some kind of allegory pleading for a more humane approach to immigration and border enforcement. Many critics have dismissed the notion that Dark Fate has any political worldview at all—but that’s the franchise fatigue talking. Admittedly, a simple reading is complicated in that both Luna, a Texan of Mexican descent, and Reyes, who is Colombian, are Latino. But just because the signal is somewhat scrambled doesn’t mean it isn’t there. When smart genre filmmakers are doing their best work, they build in this sort of plausible deniability. Playing coy is better than unambiguous moralizing, because that way lies, well, Avatar.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1991 about the coincidence of T2 footage preceding the Rodney King footage on the Holliday tape, Cameron said: “That, to me, is the most amazing irony considering that the LAPD are strongly represented in ‘Terminator 2’ as being a dehumanized force. What the film is about, on the symbolic level, is the dehumanization we do on a daily basis.” When it comes to systematic dehumanization, the LAPD is no longer the most advanced model.