Terminator: Dark Fate Director Tim Miller on Critics, Linda Hamilton and Those Inevitable T2 Comparisons

Spoiler alert: Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t as good as Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Take it from Tim Miller.

“I don’t feel like it’s better than Terminator 2 or anything like that,” says Miller, director of the latest installment in the long-running sci-fi/action franchise. “But it was never going to be better than Terminator 2. You can’t go back in time and relive the nostalgia of that moment when you watch those movies for the first time.”

Indeed, reviews for the forthcoming sequel–a direct continuation of the first two films that eschews the plots of subsequent follow-ups Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys–have been mixed, or as Miller likes to put it, “polarizing,” with some praising Dark Fate as a welcome return to form and others criticizing it as an uninspired rehash.

Critics aside, Dark Fate does boast at least one undeniable pleasure: the return of original franchise badass Linda Hamilton, who reprises her role as Sarah Connor for the first time in nearly three decades alongside a cast that also includes a returning Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis (as super-soldier Grace), Natalia Reyes (as future resistance leader Dani Ramos), and Gabriel Luna (as the formidable Terminator prototype Rev-9). Those who sparked to Hamilton’s portrayal in the first two films are in for a treat; her performance in Dark Fate is fierce and surprisingly funny, highlighting the drastic changes the character has gone through since the last time we saw her.

“I think the ‘Why now?’ of it is because enough time has passed that there’s something new to be said about the character,” said Miller of Hamilton’s return. “If you played it five years after T2, it wouldn’t be that interesting. She’d kind of be the same person. … I think the idea that she would be such a fucked-up person really appealed to her.”

For more from Miller, including his thoughts on James Cameron’s return to the franchise, Dark Fate’s unintended political subtext, and how Deadpool ultimately led to the film’s “R” rating, check out the full interview below.

Linda Hamilton is so funny in this, and you’d never seen that side of that character before. Can you talk about adding that humor to her character? Did you see that as a natural evolution of this woman who’s seen so much horror that she almost uses humor as a defense mechanism against what’s happening?

I’m kind of struck that you think that she’s very funny in this movie, because I feel like she—there’s certainly some dark humor, but I don’t know. Have you interviewed Linda?

I haven’t.

I was gonna say I wonder what she said to that.

The humor is very dry and dark.

Yeah, like, you know, [quoting a line from the movie] “a person who has her own episode of America’s Most Wanted.”

Yes, exactly.

There’s a few of those, but there are not many. This movie is a lot darker than the other Terminator movies, where if you look at T2, nobody really dies—I mean, maybe somebody in a car they ran over. But here we’ve got… let’s just say there’s a lot of death in the movie, and death is a hard thing to preface levity with, so it doesn’t feel right to crack a lot of jokes. We actually had more humor in the script. And then you go, “Okay, well we can’t make this joke because so and so just died five minutes before.” You can’t have the main character cracking wise.

But Linda does have a certain—she is funny, and her main goal in life as an actor is to do a comedy before she before she, quote, “hangs it up.” She really wants to do comedy. But yeah, I think there are some darkly humorous lines. Usually people are so happy when Arnold shows up later in the movie because they know it’s going to be a little lighter and fluffier, oddly enough. You can feel it in the audience when Arnold shows up. They’re like, “Okay, wow, this has been heavy. Now we’re going to get a little bit of relief from that.”

And he was really funny in it, too actually.

Also very dry.

Very dry, very dark humor. I guess maybe that’s my preferred humor. I like dark humor. To me it’s hilarious. But maybe not to everyone.

No, you can feel the audience is pretty desperate to laugh. I went to a couple screenings where I felt like, even stuff that I felt was marginally funny or just a humorous line was getting a laugh. Which I wrote down to the audience being so eager for some relief from the overall heaviness of the movie. Which is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. Mackenzie [Davis]’s character smiles once in the entire movie. There’s not a lot of jokes there.

Going back to Linda, though, I feel like it probably took her some convincing to return to this role, right? Because she hasn’t acted much in the last couple of decades. And the last time she played this character was over 25 years ago. So can you talk about, first of all, how you helped coax her back into this role, and also, was there an alternative plan if she decided not to sign on? Could there have been another actor that played Sarah Connor?

Yeah, well, that would never have happened. I’ll just say that if you knew Linda, you would say that nobody convinces Linda to do anything that Linda doesn’t want to do. Jim [Cameron] early on, like right at the beginning of the process of like—”What are we going to do? Is it going to be a blank slate? Is it going to be whatever?”—I and everyone else wanted Linda to come back. And so we said, “Jim, do you think she would?” He goes, “I don’t know. I’ll call her and ask. Who knows?” Because they were married, but they don’t talk that much anymore. She lives across the country. So he called her, and she was interested.

I think the “Why now?” of it is because enough time has passed that there’s something new to be said about the character. If you played it five years after T2 it wouldn’t be that interesting. She’d kind of be the same person. And by the time we talked to her, we had a general idea of the direction of the story. I think the idea that she would be such a fucked-up person really appealed to her, that her character would be so damaged. That really was interesting for her, in the same way that the distance in time made Arnold’s version of the T-800 really interesting. You know, Pinocchio needs time to become a real boy. And the structure of the storyline allowed us that time to have passed for both of them. So I feel like it’s a story you could only tell now, in a good way.

So James was involved in this one, obviously, and he wasn’t involved in the last few. Was his involvement part of the appeal in you coming on board and directing this?

Well, I was already on board. But one of the things maybe [that] would have changed my mind [is] if he hadn’t come back. Because one of the first things I said was, the first thing we need to do to make the fans feel like it’s not just going to be another of those sh–[pauses]–I’m not gonna say that. There’s not going to be another in the vein of the [last few] movies. Jim being there means a couple of things. It means that we can get his input on what’s the continuation of that story after T2, but it also is some sort of guarantee of verisimilitude, of accuracy, whatever you want to call it. Some sort of seal of quality that the franchise was going to be handled at least in a way that the original filmmaker would want.

So I thought that was really important, because people had, I think, lost hope. They still have. I mean, you see the reviews coming in are really mixed. I mean, I wouldn’t say mixed, maybe that’s not the right word. Polarized would be a better word. And I think that the people that hate it seem to be people that hate it for reasons that are beyond my control. They hate it because it’s the sixth movie, and Hollywood should be making original movies and not repeating franchises or beating a dead horse blah, blah, blah. It seems that they were, in many ways, pre-decided–

Predisposed to not like the film.

Yeah. and I can’t do anything about that.

So reading those bad reviews, it doesn’t bother you?

I expect–in fact, the ones that are great kind of make you feel good, because I feel that is a more accurate representation. All the cast and all the crew–even I don’t feel like it’s better than Terminator 2 or anything like that, but it was never going to be better than Terminator 2. You can’t go back in time and relive the nostalgia of that moment when you watch those movies for the first time. Even someone as young as yourself, you still probably watched the movie when you were young. And it had an effect on you.

So I knew I couldn’t compete with those movies, I just wanted to make a good movie and I wanted to continue Sarah’s story with Linda doing it, and those are all things that we did. I don’t feel like I left anything on the field. We all put our heart and soul into it. And if people are going to hate it, I feel like it’d be nice if they judged it for what it is instead of heaping their past disappointments onto it. But you know, I didn’t expect that not to happen. You know, I don’t give a fuck.

You go into it with a pretty healthy attitude, it sounds like.

Yeah. I mean look, you want people to like it, but there’s only so much you can control of people’s perception. I can’t change their past bitterness. But I knew it was there.

So this is set partially in Mexico, and in the American Southwest as well. I think inevitably people will take away a political subtext even if there’s none intended with all that stuff at the border, and then especially in the detainment center. What was your thinking going into this? Were you expecting that people were going to read more into that than maybe you even intended, and how do you feel about people doing that?

Well, it’s hard not to look at the news, and it’s such a polarizing topic, that to not feel like people are going to feel one way or another about it. I’m about as far left as you can get politically, but I wasn’t trying to make a political statement. It’s an environment which the characters must move through, and if you’re going to tell a story that starts in Mexico and ends in the U.S., to not have a scene like the detention center, when it revolves around an illegal alien coming across the border would be, I think, cheating in some ways.

But by the same token, it’s not a political movie. We’re making entertainment here. So what I tried to do was walk this path where I feel it’s an accurate representation of the terrible tragedy that is people in cages for whatever fucking reason. Putting people in cages is not a happy event. I also didn’t want to vilify the Border Patrol people, because they are many fine people doing a job the best they can. They’re not necessarily evil. What’s not great is the system and the problem that that is. But we’re not addressing those in the movie, so it really becomes a setting for the larger journey [of] Dani north, and I hope I walk that line where I’m not trying to vilify anybody in the immediate movie. I think we can all agree that it’s not an ideal situation. So I’m sure everybody thinks that and they don’t need me to tell them about it.

[SPOILERS BELOW]

I wonder if you consider this to be a feminist movie, because there’s the reveal that Dani is not giving birth to the savior of the human race, she is the savior of the human race. Is that something that you–

Well, I wouldn’t say–I think if you talk to Mackenzie, she would say–I’m not allowed to say it, but I feel the truth of what she’s saying, is that I hope that we soon get to a point where we don’t have to make the distinction. That it’s not a movie about strong female characters. It’s just a movie with female characters. And I don’t feel, like the immigration issue, I don’t feel qualified to make a statement about feminism. Nor did we set out to do that. It was always a story that had strong female protagonists in it with Linda.

The decision to make Dani the savior was really just because John had been done, and we wanted to start the story in such a way that you want to give your character the hardest hill to climb. It’s certainly not justified, but women certainly have a harder time being treated fairly in society, so that just makes the hill that much harder for her to climb.

So that was the decision [for] Dani, and then Grace could have gone either way, except for Joe Abercrombie, one of the writers, a novelist who invented Grace, the first words out of his mouth [are] like, “What if the protector came back, and she was really fucked up, and she had all these scars and she had to take these drugs because she’d been enhanced, but her body didn’t sit well with the enhancements and so she’s got to take these drugs and jack up her immune system?” He used the “she” pronoun, and it was always that. I think it’s more interesting to see a woman pick up a gun if for no other reason than it’s usually dudes.

I did want to ask you about the rating, because I think the last two maybe were PG-13. This one’s R, and the original two were R. I’d heard something about you guys initially starting to shoot scenes both ways, a PG-13 version and an R. Is that accurate?

Well, it was always PG-13 while we were shooting it, but it was undecided. At least maybe we’d do an R release later. It hadn’t been completely decided. Or maybe we’d just do an R-rated cut later. And then there was this idea of doing the first-ever PG-13 and R simultaneous release.

But the good thing about that is it allowed us to work at a PG-13 budget while the decision was pending. I feel partly responsible [for] it in a good way, but I think Logan was really the thing that [made] them [decide] ultimately that if you look at how much money Logan made as an R rated movie versus the PG 13 previous versions, it really says something that that character’s DNA is R-rated. Terminator‘s DNA is R-rated. And fans will punish you if you’re not true to the DNA of the franchise or the character or what have you.

Just like Deadpool. If we’d made that PG-13, I don’t think it would have been a hit. It was only by unleashing Ryan [Reynolds] that it was successful, and fans would have punished us for being a bunch of wussies if we had made a PG-13. So I’m so glad that we did it, but you know, Deadpool gave Fox the confidence to do Logan as an R. And Logan gave Paramount and Fox the confidence to say, “Yeah, [Terminator: Dark Fate] feels like an R rated movie.”

Terminator: Dark Fate opens in theaters tomorrow.

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