Terminator: Dark Fate

Here is how I imagine it went down: James Cameron was cocooned away in a massive Mexico City soundstage obsessively working on Avatar 2, cut off from the world, surrounded by 365 degree green screens, wire rigs and water tanks. One day he overhears an assistant talk about how great it is that they’re making Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, that “finally” a women is going to head up an action movie. Cameron rips off his headset and barks “I’ve been doing that since the 80s”. He is told “Nobody remembers that.” Cameron promptly leaves the studio, flies back to Hollywood and kicks in the door of the studio suit who has spent the last 20 year begging him to come back and make another Terminator movie and to the delighted squeals of this suit commands “we need to make a sequel to Terminator 2“. “But we’ve already made 3!” the suit offers a mild protest. “So what, they’ll forget about those”.

Terminator: Dark Fate | 2019 | rated R | starring Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, Natalie Reyes, Diego Luna & Arnold Schwarzenegger | directed by Tim Miller | 2 hrs 8 mins |

As much as I often criticize movies for relying on audience nostalgia to get people in the seats, I hate to admit that I was totally taken by the moments in Terminator: Dark Fate when director Tim Miller faithfully recreates the very 90s action movie style of Terminator 2: Judgement Day – or deploys that movie’s incredible musical score. Dark Fate, the 6th sequel in a franchise that never should have gone past 2, is a movie loaded with baggage both from the sequels that came before it (that we’re supposed to forget) and all the misbegotten ideas that conjured this movie into existence. I enjoyed Dark Fate a lot more than all of the post-T2 sequels, but it’s also a deeply unnecessary movie that never gets out from under it’s influences to establish its own identity.

Dark Fate rose from the ashes of a dead franchise inspired by multiple Hollywood trends. In the formula used to success with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and mocked in the very prescient Scream 4, it basically remakes the second film’s structure, bringing in the old guard characters to pass the torch to the newer characters with hopes of jumpstarting the franchise for a new generation. Following in every Spider-Man movie and last year’s Halloween sequel, it chooses to ignore every sequel past the one that everyone likes, building a direct sequel after Terminator 2 and assuming the audience will just go with it. Why not? When you can just wipe away all your mistakes and keep rebooting franchises you’ve got no incentive not to just throw trash out there. Lastly, producer James Cameron returns and brings back Linda Hamilton in the arch-typical female action hero role of Sarah Connor, stacks the movie with very trendy female empowerment (“they only want you for your womb”) as a way to remind everyone that he was doing this before it was trendy. Like everything else in Dark Fate it’s inconsistent, with moments of clever series tweaking standing next to moments tired and forced. You can almost see the film’s creative and studio arms fighting it out on screen.

As a simple action movie, Dark Fate actually works very well. The first half in particular is really great. We get a few self-referential acknowledgements (the terminator time travel pods that usually land perfectly in on the road, now land in the air or cut through a freeway, which makes more sense). We get new characters living in Mexico where factory workers are loosing their jobs to robots to remind us that despite all the movie warnings over the years, the real world is becoming closer to a Terminator future then ever. Most importantly, we get a knockout freeway chase sequence where two super-strong cyborgs from the future treat our modern technology like playthings to be run over and tossed aside in their epic battle for the future. Action sequences aren’t made like this anymore, for the first half of the film Miller dispenses with the all-too-common tendency to have two CGI characters beat on each other and call that a fight scene, instead giving the film a tangible, visceral quality where metal crashes against metal, cars are tossed in the air and crunched into messy frames. The second half gets more cartoonish (we get a zero-G plane fight) but all of the action scenes in the film are uncommonly elaborate where one peril leads to another, dropping cars out of planes and hanging them by cables, and including a great little sequence in a border detention center.

Miller also does a great job of bringing a sense of fear back to the terminator. A robot with glowing red eyes that cannot be reasoned with and won’t stop until it hunts you down is a frightening thing, an angle all of the sequels forgot, but that Miller using the original music and menacing shots of the T-800 skull, brings back. Dark Fate also, finally brings back the R-rating, letting the cyborgs slice through people with bloody ruthlessness.

The movie’s biggest asset isn’t the return of Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger (forcing them into the movie is actually more of a detriment, but we’ll get to that), but Mackenzie Davis. The always reliable actress (Halt and Catch Fire and Black Mirror) is great as Grace, a soldier from the future going back in time to fight the terminator. She isn’t a cyborg herself but a Dues Ex-style human enhanced with cyborg parts, which gives her super-human speed and strength for bursts of time and then requires her to recharge. A more interesting character with a weakness to be overcome, what a concept! Davis brings complexity to the usually stoic role, giving both determination and human warmth to Grace. This is one of those cases that shouldn’t rile up those internet kids who don’t like gender-flipped movies, Davis proves to be just the best actor for the role, period. Any sequel to Dark Fate would have to bring back Grace.

The problem with Dark Fate is that while it works as a stand-alone action film, it doesn’t work as a rebooted 3rd (6th?) Terminator film. While its better than the McG vanity project of Terminator: Salvation and the terrible, convoluted Terminator: Genesys. it is still following the beats of T2 slavishly. Because Terminator is built around time travel, when you extend Terminator 2‘s logic (perfectly encapsulated in that film as is) further in either direction it starts to fall apart. The plot involves a young factory worker named Dani (Natalie Reyes, bland) targeted by a new Rev-9 terminator (Diego Luna), whose abilities to separate from his liquid metal self and the exo-skeleton underneath is wisely not explained, left outside of our 2019 understanding. Grace (Davis) arrives from the future to stop him and away we go. Along the way they pair up with Sarah Connor (who has spend the decades since hunting terminators that pop back in time and “drinking until she passes out”) and another T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to form a motley crew of survivalists.

The film’s insistence to bring back Hamilton and Schwarzenegger only clutters the whole affair and creates a very bloated, busy final act that tries to give everyone their hero moment when it should be slimming down and focusing on Dani’s character turn. All of the twists are obvious from the jump, The flashbacks over-explain their points but only lead to more questions. The sequence that a credited 6 writers (including Cameron and comic book scribe David S. Goyer) come up with to bring back Schwarzenegger after dying in T2 (and not explaining why a robot is aging and growing a grey beard) is absolutely wacky. It’s borderline idiotic from a story standpoint, damn near rescued by Schwarzenegger’s dead-pan commitment to the bit.

{Spoiler Warning}

What’s really going to irk fans of the modern classic is how Dark Fate goes back and revises the events of Terminator 2 to make that film’s struggle and sacrifice irrelevant. In the Dark Fate retcon, many T-800 Terminators were sent back in time when the T-1000 was (even though by T2 they had advanced to liquid metal, but ignore that because the movie wants Schwarzenegger back) and a random one kills John Connor in the first two minutes of Dark Fate. It changes the fundamental philosophy of the first two films, that presented John Connor as a unique figure in history who became the right person at the right time. Like George Washington being the general he was and president that he was shaped American history in a way that another founder would not have. In the revised world of Dark Fate, a future without John Connor simply leads to the rise of a new leader and a future without SkyNet (prevented by T2) simply leads to the rise of a new AI, now called Legion. This opens up a fatalistic pandora’s box where saving leaders and killing terminators doesn’t matter because it will just re-write a future that is predestined to exist in some form or another. Terminator: Dark Fate wants to have that setup to make a nostalgic action movie, but doesn’t want to explore the consequences.

Terminator Dark Fate is an often very entertaining, but wildly inconsistent movie. It has great action scenes in the first half and messy ones in the 2nd. It has a great performance from Mackenzie Davis and a forgettable one from Reyes. It offers clever little twists on the franchise mythos along with turns that completely undermine it. It’s a lot better than all of the sequels that came after T2, but that requires you to remember the sequels this movie wants you to forget. I liked it. It will probably make a heck of a good watch on cable.

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