Last summer, when photos from the set of Terminator: Dark Fate showed Mackenzie Davis sporting a fashion bowl cut, grimy tank top, and massive deltoids, lesbian Twitter lost its mind. Praise rained down from the internet’s thirsty queers, and I’m pretty sure some actual drool rained from my mouth. Davis was already beloved for her turn exploring queer desire while mentally traveling through time in the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror. In the Terminator shots, she’d become a full-on sex symbol.
The funny part is, Davis’ character, a mechanically enhanced human from the future named Grace, wasn’t supposed to be sexy at all. Davis told Vulture that she was involved in discussions about her character’s appearance, and director Tim Miller “didn’t want it to be sexy, and he didn’t want it to be a sweaty male version of a warrior. He was like, ‘I don’t want it to be filtered in that way.’ ” Speaking for myself and the vast majority of my queer friends: He failed!
Lucky for us, no one is forced to view Grace’s bulging arms, alternative-lifestyle haircut, and rangy androgyny through the straight-guy lens of traditional action movies, in which those qualities don’t often feature in characters coded as sexy. Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t really give its characters sexualities, and there’s no overt romantic plot to speak of. But it’s begging to be read—and a lot more fun to watch—as a queer text.
Terminator: Dark Fate is the story of three women who band together to save the future world, which has been ravaged by a genocidal artificial intelligence, by protecting a future resistance leader from a robot that’s been sent back in time to kill her. The triad includes Grace, Dani (Natalia Reyes), and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, star of the first two Terminator films). Hamilton, a queer icon in her own right, brings a gravelly voice and mega-butch energy to the role. With her aviators and swept-back silver hair, she almost resembles an aging Kara Swisher. So far, so gay!
At first, the group dynamic is tense. When Connor and Grace meet, they have a little scuffle over who can better defend Dani from the Terminator that’s tracking her. The vibe is part divorced parents, part butches fighting over a femme on the sidewalk outside a dyke bar. The phrasing Connor uses to explain their argument to Dani—“sometimes mommies and daddies have to have grown-up discussions”—supports both interpretations. It also raises the crucial question of whether Sarah Connor identifies as a daddy. (Spoilers ahead, though sadly none that answer this question.)
Viewers eventually learn that Grace and Dani have a bit more history (or future? I dunno, time travel!) together than Grace initially let on. Their relationship reads as more than platonic, but not explicitly sexual. On one hand, it’s always nice to see women in action movies outside the context of romantic storylines; on the other, it’s a bit annoying to hear so much queer dog-whistling without a single note of acknowledgment. How, Tim Miller, are you going to have Grace embrace Dani from behind to correct her gun stance—just as men in movies have done to women holding golf clubs, baseball bats, and archery equipment since time immemorial—without that classic moment where they lock eyes and realize they’re spooning standing up?
At least we get a good queer role-reversal motif. There’s a moment early in the film when Grace, injured and in need of a booster shot, lies in the back seat of a car with her head in Dani’s lap. A few scenes later, Dani sleeps with her head in Grace’s lap in the back of a truck. These moments are wonderfully gentle and intimate, and they reminded me of one of the best parts about being in a queer relationship: No one party has a monopoly on social expectations of vulnerability. In Terminator: Dark Fate, everyone gets a shot at being the comforter, and everyone gets their turn to be comforted.
The other great thing about the film is that there are barely any cis men in it—the only ones have bit parts, and most of them die. I’m not counting the two seemingly man-identified Terminators, one of whom can adopt the physical form of any human—male, female, or otherwise—and neither of whom seem too attached to the human construct of gender. But the contrast between those two Terminators, the only major man-adjacent characters in the story, suggests that Terminator: Dark Fate is, at its core, a meditation on contemporary masculinity, divorced from gender. The film villainizes the wooden, mindlessly belligerent masculinity of the new Terminator (Gabriel Luna) while suggesting a better mode of acting like a human man: the reformed, diaper-changing masculinity of Carl (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an older-model Terminator who’s learning to perform emotional labor, decorate a cozy home, and provide refreshments when company comes calling. Carl has also established a nontraditional family unit—he and his partner, a human woman, are romantically involved and co-parent a child, but they don’t have sex. He self-destructs in the end, but only after finishing off the toxic-masculinity robot first. Show me a better ally!
Once the two masculine-of-center women lay their macho posturing aside, the trio at the center of the film leans on camaraderie, trust in women, and mutual skill-sharing to ensure a future for humanity. The only conceivable takeaway from the film is that queer aesthetics and queer family-making are potent antidotes to pressing injustices (including, in another unexpected twist, the mass detention of immigrant asylum-seekers), modern-day economic stressors (robots taking people’s jobs), and dystopian likelihoods (an artificial general intelligence prevailing over humankind). In the future Terminator: Dark Fate envisions, rigid gender norms and compulsory heterosexuality do not keep order—they entrap. Only queers in muscle shirts can save us.