Linda Hamilton is still exactly the hero we need

Editor’s Note: Ximena Larkin is a communication specialist and writer based in Chicago. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN. Please note spoilers below for “Terminator: Dark Fate.”

CNN  — 

Growing up in the 1990s, I always wanted to rent “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” at Blockbuster. I didn’t know it then, but I was reacting to Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor character in the franchise. Her character was a woman who defied gender norms and kept up with the men around her by being unapologetically herself — but Connor didn’t start off that way.

Ximena Larkin

Connor starts her trajectory in the franchise as a helpless victim. When Schwarzenegger’s Terminator comes to kill her in the first film, she’s seated and staring at the barrel of his gun, seemingly accepting her fate.

By the start of the next film, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Connor looks menacing. She is locked up in a psychiatric ward cell and has used the time to turn her soft body into muscle. Connor is ready to go to war with anyone who threatens her son and doesn’t recoil from the use of firearms. From the beginning, the audience is told she is important because she is to give birth to the leader of the resistance. However, Hamilton’s character goes on to prove she isn’t just a mom along for the ride.

This summer, decades later, as I was sitting in a dark movie theater waiting for a movie to begin, all that came back to me. I’m always in my seat for the trailers so I can make a mental note of upcoming films that I need to see. This time, I sat stunned as I realized one of the first previews I was watching was for a new Terminator movie.

The trailer began as a long sequence taken from the new film titled “Terminator: Dark Fate.” Two women are cornered by two killer Terminators and seem ready to face defeat when a mysterious SUV appears in between them. The camera frames the ground and captures a person wearing black combat boots stepping out from the car and hitting the asphalt. The attire is reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator garb, but instead of the bulky bodybuilder saving the day, the camera reveals an aging Sarah Connor — still played by Linda Hamilton.

The sight of her shooting heavy artillery with a calm, unflinching look on her face, is shocking. Her hair is gray and wispy. The lines on her face are apparent and deep. She reminds me of my 60-year-old mom who openly questions whether her best years are behind her. And yet, there’s Hamilton, right in your face, saying “I’m still in this fight.”

In the new film, the 63-year-old actress’ character doesn’t rely on protection from others. She’s not issuing orders for someone else to execute like Anjelica Huston in “John Wick 3: Parabellum” (neither is she an age-defying beauty like 50-year-old Halle Berry — who is impressive in combat scenes in the same film). Hamilton is not in the film for laughs playing someone’s wacky mother or granny the way Helen Mirren was in “The Fate of the Furious.”

Make no mistake, these women and their characters are very much needed and celebrated when they first appeared on-screen. But it wasn’t until seeing Hamilton in “Terminator: Dark Fate” that I realized just how much we’ve been deprived of the badass older woman whose experience isn’t minimized or brushed off because of her age. Now, that experience has found a place among her younger and male counterparts without jokes or irony. Hamilton takes and gives beatings. She gets hurt, but no one would confuse her as frail. The film seems to subtly acknowledge her age and then say, “So what? We still need her.”

At one point, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator covers her from a spray of bullets. She responds by pushing him away and saying, “Don’t touch me.” The camera cuts to another scene and returns to show the two from behind, standing shoulder to shoulder as equals as they fight against their common enemy.

To see Hamilton front and center with a calm sense of control gave me a sense of power and hope that the rules for women — especially as they age — are changing. But that’s not the only surprise turn “Terminator: Dark Fate” takes.

At the climax of the film — spoiler alert — the person named “the future” of this billion-dollar franchise will leave underrepresented communities cheering.

I know because she looks a lot like me. She’s a Mexican immigrant woman.

Diana Williams, executive vice president of creative for MWM Universe — the intellectual property division of the entertainment company behind “Hell or High Water” and the upcoming “Motherless Brooklyn” and “21 Bridges” — says “Terminator: Dark Fate” is the movie she’s most excited to see this year. Williams, who previously oversaw the world-building for Lucasfilm’s Star Wars universe, says going to see Terminator on opening weekend in 1984 played a pivotal role in helping her appreciate the power of storytelling.

“I looked around at all the different types of people in rapt attention as the images flickered on screen and the words penetrated our brains. It was a moment,” Williams told me via email. “And then with T2, we had the same force of story but also really saw ourselves — older women, POC — on screen. Powerful. But you can’t have all that (representation) if you don’t make a good film that people see.”

The greatest feat of the newest installment in the franchise is to fuel an insatiable urge to find out what happened to Sarah and John Connor which will drive its immense fan base to theaters and have them rooting for unlikely heroes. This makes me optimistic about the future because it means Hollywood is creating room for a new narrative where mass audiences are seeing marginalized communities through a different lens — as their counterparts rather than props.

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    The story has evolved the same way Hamilton’s character did. Hopefully, its audience can too.