Film Review: Terminator: Dark Fate

Film Review:

Terminator: Dark Fate

By Justin Waters

Oh Terminator franchise how you’ve lifted me beyond this physical plane and given me inspiration to dream beyond myself and how you’ve sent me crashing into the muck with the weight of disappointment yoked around my neck.

One of my earliest memories, if not my earliest, is of my sweet mom taking me to see Terminator 2: Judgement Day at our small local theater. I remember watching Sarah Connor lower the Terminator into molten metal; his hand, curling into a thumbs up in the final seconds of his destruction. I remember sobbing in that uninhibited way children can. I don’t think I watched the rest of the movie, I could not, I was inconsolable. My mom led me out of the theater by hand. I remember looking up at the adults towering over me like giants. Their faces smiling at this naked outpouring of emotion over a movie. It was in that moment I decided movies would be my life and it has never changed. In short, I know Terminator and it is very fucking important to me….and I have been so let down. I have no idea what has happened with this franchise

What is wrong with these movies? What makes them so difficult to do even moderately well? No other example of a film series comes to mind so slavishly dedicated to the minutiae of previous entries; I’m looking at you Terminator Salvation. No, I do not care where Reese learned to tie a shotgun around his shoulder and that after all this time John Connor still only listens to Appetite for Destruction on tape. The Terminator series has been dedicated to a single mission; wiping out the message and themes the first two Terminators were built on; all that “no fate but what you make” stuff? Fuck it, let us end every movie with a nuclear explosion because it was not the future that was inevitable, turns out it was the Hollywood money making machine. In a way it is the same as that first night I saw Terminator 2; I’m still leaving the theater with tears in my eyes.

So here comes Terminator: Dark Fate and my excitement is high. Linda Hamilton is back as Sarah Connor. She’s got a badass haircut and she is ready to right the wrongs of a franchise that decided its best character and emotional core could die off-screen from cancer–Sarah Connor dying from cancer is like Muhammad Ali losing his last fight from a stubbed toe. Sure, maybe Linda Hamilton’s absence in the previous films had more to do with the end of her marriage to James Cameron over an affair with a woman he later married–a sequence repeated so often that it should be called a Cameron Honeymoon, but still, cancer is a lame way of ending one of the greatest action heroes of all time.

No you don’t get it Sarah! If it kills you it won’t know what to do. It’ll start a loveless marriage with a woman. It’ll get a job and move into the middle class. It’ll spend weekends drinking beer and watching TV. It’ll grow a conscience! Its life will be boring Sarah! So very boring. We can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen.

More importantly the man himself has control of the franchise once again. That’s right, Deepsea Jim himself, James Cameron is back at the helm and ready to show everyone how you do a fucking Terminator movie.

I get why a lot of people do not like James Cameron. He is an arrogant asshole who does not give a shit what you think of him. But you know what? He has earned it and I defend him. I mean this is the director who not only made T1 and T2 but Aliens and True Lies as well. He perfected surround sound with Terminator 2 and forced theaters to adopt it leading to a revolution in sound quality championed by none other than Oliver Stone (heard in his commentary track for Platoon). He kick started the CGI craze with an entire character, the T-1000, made entirely with digital effects. An idea that everyone said he was crazy to adopt. David Lynch talks about the perfection of the T-1000’s morphing ability when discussing how he wanted to handle similar scenes in Lost Highway. When artists as diverse as Oliver Stone and David Lynch find inspiration in the work of someone it means something.

Cameron knows how to craft a powerful action story with heart and intelligence. Never count him out. No one has ever taken on projects so daunting and pulled them back from the brink of defeat to turn them into cultural hallmarks. He has won eleven Oscars with a weepy melodrama that everyone would have sworn was a career killer. He has gone to the bottom of the ocean just to dick around. I cannot think of a single thing that he cannot…what is that you say? He is…he is not directing? Well who is directing? Tim…Miller? Who? (checks IMDb) The guy who made Deadpool and…nothing. Just, just Deadpool. Hey, it is okay, a Cameron script is simple. That is the power of it really. Simple concepts, powerful ideas, strong characters, but all written out fluidly with a strong sense of structure and vision. Deadpool was good enough that I bet this Miller guy can take a Cameron script and–*checks the writing credits*–STORY BY!!! BASED ON THE CHARACTERS CREATED BY!!!!! No writing credit???? Who wrote this thing? Three listed writers, five listed story by credits. No! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! Not again. Not again. Do you know how much shit I have taken for you Jim? How many times I have stood up to my indie movie friends and said you should be taken seriously as an artist? How many blu-rays of yours I have purchased? How many posters? Toys? Do you know what it does to my reputation when I look people in the eye and tell them that I do not think Titanic is as bad as they remember? This is a big one. This one is important. Dont. Fuck. Me. On. This. Jim…….please!

My enthusiasm is tamped down but still Cameron is on board as well as Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger remains a personal idol of mine, so it cannot be all bad. Maybe it will not be on the level of Terminator 2 but few films are. This will be good. This will be a very solid entry in the Terminator franchise. Let’s do it. Let’s watch this thing.

The movie starts and I am in heaven. This brings me back to my youth. I have not felt this way about a Terminator movie since they rereleased Terminator 2 in theaters. This…this is just Terminator 2. I mean literally. It is that great scene where Sarah Connor is yelling at Dr. Silberman about her visions of the future. “They fly apart like leaves,” “anybody not wearing two million sunblock is going to have a real bad day get it?” God, what a great scene. This sets the bar pretty high, but it is a good idea; get the audience back in Sarah Connor mode; remind us how tortured and broken she was as a person. This is the best Sarah will be all movie.

Now we are in Mexico where Sarah and John have gone into hiding. It is a beautiful moment. Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong are CGI de-aged and–even though I am not a huge fan of this in general–it looks pretty good. There is a slight uncanny valley to Sarah’s eyes, other than that I feel as though we are really watching a Terminator 2 follow up. It is heartwarming. These characters we have seen suffer enjoying a peaceful moment together looking over the ocean. Suddenly a de-aged Scwarzenegger appears and…shotguns John Connor to death in front of Sarah!

So apparently SkyNet didn’t just send back a T-800 when Sarah was pregnant and a T-1000 when John was a kid, it also kept sending other Terminators to different points in the past in case any of those previous Terminators failed. Why would they send an obsolete T-800 when they have already sent back the much more advanced T-1000? Why not send back multiple Terminators to the same time to work together and kill John? Simple, because we need Arnold in this movie and the writers room is running high on writers and low on imagination. This is shoehorning at its most desperate. Didn’t SkyNet get wiped out at the end of T2? Yes, yes it did, but these Terminators are still free floating in time regardless of the future they came from. This series has never been very good about dealing with time travel discrepancies. Still this is absurd.

What a terrible decision. All the sacrifice, all the incredible action, all the blood and tears that Sarah and John have shed–meaningless. They go through all that just for John to be casually gunned down while grabbing a beer for his mom. Everything we went through as an audience is ripped away. We are not witnessing a triumph at the end of T2, just a very short delay of the inevitable.

Ironically, I clearly now remember Alien 3, the sequel to Aliens directed by David Fincher (se7en, Gone Girl, The Social Network). In Alien 3 we learn that both Hicks and Newt have died from cracked pods or some other bullshit off screen. A development so infuriating that James Cameron called it “dumb…a huge slap in the face to the fans” and Michael Biehn, who played Hicks, called David Fincher personally and told him to “go fuck himself.” Not the best career move in retrospect, but totally warranted in my opinion. Well, to quote James Cameron, this is pretty fucking “dumb” and “a huge slap in the face to the fans.”

My enthusiasm is low. The movie continues. We are approximately four minutes into Terminator:Dark Fate.

We move now to main character development. Grace (Mackenzie Davis), our Reese figure, is teleported midway through a raised highway. Her teleportation egg thing melts through the highway and sends her plummeting to the ground below where she interrupts some dude making out with his girlfriend who decides to save this strange woman. For what it is worth the teleportation eggs melting everything around them is a visually impressive continuation from the original movies. Good thinking Jim, another of your many ideas that has been completely unimproved from its original conception–I digress. Anyway, Grace needs clothes, per usual, steals them and goes on with her mission. Meanwhile Dani (Natalia Reyes), our new Sarah Connor figure, is a Hispanic woman living in Mexico with her brother whose name I cannot remember, it does not matter, he will not be around long. They work together at a car manufacturing plant where Dani’s brother is about to be replaced by automation. This whole factory is pretty reminiscent of the one from the end of the first Terminator. One of Cameron’s universal themes throughout his films is how humans use technology for good and for evil. In the Terminator movies; creating SkyNet, evil; crushing the Terminator in a hydraulic press, good; the T-1000, evil; the reprogrammed T-800, good. This carries through to even Titanic where total belief in the ships technological powers leads to disaster but hundreds of lives are saved by the newest form of communication, the telegraph. Even Avatar has tension between the modern military might of the human army against the Avatar program that allows Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington to become one with this new group of alien beings. My point being this is very important to James Cameron and I do not understand how this scene plays into it. On a micro level, I get it, machines are set up as the enemy at the outset. We see the way that machines are pushing us out and taking over our daily lives yet there is no counterpoint. Yes, I get that the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) villain represents machines as evil and Grace’s augmentations are good, but what about the flip side to this machine taking over Dani’s brother’s job? Maybe there is nothing wrong with it, but it feels weird. Like a swipe at the idea of automation in general without any deeper thought beyond “machines steal jobs.” Whatever, let us move on.

Soon the Rev-9 and Grace meet up to fight over Dani. The sequence occupies the same space as the first fight between the T-1000 and the T-800 in T2; the machines recognize each other, they fight hand to hand until the action moves outside. It becomes a chase scene. This part of the film is done very well. As the scene unfolds I am completely blown away. The action is incredible. Sure it is similar to the previous movies but there are certain hallmarks of the franchise that are fine to reincorporate; giant vehicles being driven by advanced machines versus small vehicles driven by less advanced machines or humans, working as a good visual metaphor for what our heroes must overcome. For a moment we have a fine example of action serving the story.

During the chase we see the Rev-9 in action. From the clips in the trailer I was concerned he would be just another version of the awful T-X from Terminator 3, in a way he is but the concept is much more improved. Like the T-X the Rev-9 is a metal T-800 body with a T-1000 liquid metal coating. Unlike the T-X it actually means something. The Rev-9 can split into two different machines; The T-1000 coating can slide off the endoskeleton and move independently. It works well at leading us to some cool visual. As the film closes we find ourselves feeling more could have been done with the concept of two machines working in tandem during fights and chases, in this moment though it works well.

We also learn that Grace is human given machine upgrades to make her a formidable fighter and give her some chance against the Rev-9. Another great idea as it gives the savior figure vulnerability while still allowing her to mix it up with the evil machines in a way that Reese never could.

During the chase sequence I feel my enthusiasm rebounding. It looks great, it is well paced, has well defined action beats and still it feels grounded. Nearing its end however I began feeling apprehensive. This is too much too early. Fear sets in of this might be the highlight of the entire movie. The great Mad Max: Fury Road had me feeling the same way after the first epic chase– Tim Miller is not George Miller, and no way in hell is this movie going to hold a candle to Fury Road.

At the end of the chase Sarah Connor shows up and it is a little weird. Having waited for this moment for years, it falls flat. She blows up both halves of the Rev-9, throws out a one-liner and then gets her car stolen. That is it for her introduction. The entire role for Sarah Connor is limited to being sassy and downbeat. She was beating the shit out of guards in the mental asylum and gunning down Miles Bennett Dyson’s house and now she has nothing to do but throw out negative asides that piss Grace off. Nothing is done with this antagonism between the two of them. It is a lazy way of having the characters interact with each other. Dani finds some affection for her, but it never feels earned–perhaps Dani is supposed to feel sympathetic with her after hearing how John died; as well it falls flat. Then there is the scene with Sarah laying back on a bed to show character vulnerability, describing the day in Mexico with her eyes glazing over with tears. That is not Sarah Connor. Sarah Connor would never show that level of vulnerability with strangers. After everything she has gone through she would give the story straight and tell anyone offering pity to go fuck themselves.

It is here where a key problem with the movie reveals itself. What we have is essentially two movies; One with Dani and Grace and the other with Sarah and Carl–Arnold’s name (more on this in a moment). These two halves never gel, the writers were trying to accomplish two things at once and fail at mixing them together. On one hand they want younger stars to propel the franchise foreword with a new crowd, on the other they want Arnold and Linda Hamilton involved to satisfy already established fans. What we get is our main movie–Dani and Grace–and a weird side movie–Linda and Arnold–with the characters never fully realized in either half; the two sides pull at each other the entire film. Sarah Connor washes vaguely around in the middle of the mess frequently becoming irrelevant within the scenes.

After meeting Sarah we learn there is no more SkyNet and the new machine A.I. is called Legion. This is a way to tell the audience that everything that happened in the previous movies mattered and SkyNet has been stopped! Unfortunately, it has merely been replaced by a new A.I. identical in every way except originality. How do we know it lacks originality? Because it is called Legion and all of its robot designs are based entirely off previous Terminator movies. So basically all Sarah and John accomplished was a mild rebranding of SkyNet. Awesome! I’m not disappointed in any way.

Let us move now to Arnold.

It turns out that throughout all this time Sarah has been receiving mysterious text messages telling her whenever a Terminator is going to appear–hence the other Terminators which keep arriving to kill an already dead John. Whenever a message arrives she gears up and hunts down these new Terminators. So what in the past took an entire movie, a combination of pipe bombs, a hydraulic press, liquid nitrogen, and molten metal now takes an elderly woman wielding, I don’t know, a rocket launcher and a few days of off-screen time–wait, didn’t Arnold have a grenade launcher in T2? Fuck it, doesn’t really matter–anyway, Grace figures out where the text messages are coming from and they immediately go to the source.

And the source is, of course, Arnold playing the same T-800 who killed John in Mexico at the opening of the movie. And he is…watching college football? He owns a drape business? He’s got a nice middle class home? Family photos on the wall? Wait, wait, wait, what is happening here?

Apparently, after killing John, the Terminator wandered around for a bit aimlessly until meeting a woman with a kid and starting a nonsexual relationship. He learned to raise this kid and began to feel guilty about killing John. He has been sending Sarah the texts to provide some meaning to her life. He goes by Karl to his friends. Uuuuhhhhh? Keep in mind this is not the Terminator from T2, the one who learned what it means to cry and became part of the Connor family. This is the cold killing machine of the first Terminator. I am reminded of that great scene when Reese tells Sarah what they are up against in the original. Any fan will remember this, but in case you have forgotten let me include, unedited, the script from that scene:

REESE: Listen and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop ever, until you are dead!
SARAH: Can you…
REESE: No you don’t get it Sarah! If it kills you it won’t know what to do. It’ll start a loveless marriage with a woman. It’ll get a job and move into the middle class. It’ll spend weekends drinking beer and watching TV. It’ll grow a conscience! Its life will be boring Sarah! So very boring. We can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen.

Don’t remember that scene? Yeah, neither do I because that is stupid.

Thing is, I kinda like Arnold’s scenes. Sure the setup is dumb and what it does to the mythology of the Terminator as a machine is ridiculous, but Arnold makes the most of it. He brings actual humor to the movie. I found myself laughing out loud twice from his dialogue. He still has the same star presence, the ability to deliver an enjoyable performance around his larger than life physique and every-man persona remains. Terminator: Dark Fate fails him. Same with Linda Hamilton. They give it their all yet with the whole two film issue mentioned earlier there is not enough there to make use of it.

Another element to Schwarzenegger’s role in Dark Fate is worth noting. A personal theory of mine others which has been going around for a while of Arnold using his star power to inject autobiography into his roles in the way that auterist directors are normally credited with doing. This is dealt with much more in depth my Matt Singer (Schwarzenegger-is-an-auteur) so I won’t go into it here but it is impossible to see this role without thinking of Arnold’s past. Here he plays a machine ruining two families out of mistakes made earlier in life. Most of Arnold’s characters of late have centered around men unable to rescue their loved ones. From End of Days on nearly every film has shared this theme. There is an overwhelming guilt coming from Schwarzenegger. The knowledge that he has let the people closest to him down; this is more apparent in works like Maggie and Aftermath than here but it still feels personal and enlightening about his state of mind. These sequences feel strange and out of place in the context of this movie but what they say about the actor at the center makes them the most engaging aspect of the film. I could listen to Arnold talk about appropriate drape colors all day long.

A lot happens in this movie, it feels more like noise. There is a pivotal action piece involving two 747s crashing into each other, it does not work, coming off more like a Marvel action scene completely void of the weight and punch of the earlier chase sequence. There are too many goals thrown too fast that do nothing at pushing the plot forward in a meaningful way. Gotta open the hangar doors, gotta deal with zero gravity, gotta blow up the thing to push the humvee out, gotta release the parachutes to fly the humvee, gotta avoid the crashing plane flying at the humvee, gotta…wait…playing chicken with a plane happened in Schwarzenegger’s Eraser didn’t it? Yeah, it did, and no one talks about that one either do they? I guess people should have been lining up to buy aged James Caan dolls so why not try it again. Where was I? Gotta get out of the Humvee before it plunges off the dam, nope, wait, gotta ride the humvee down the dam into the water, gotta hope the seat belts are enough protection for a 63 year old Sarah Connor to survive, gotta get out before we drown, and on and on and on. So many beats, so many goals, none of them lasting long enough to wring any dramatic tension out of the sequence. It is not bad, just monotonous CGI nonsense floating around while actors ACT. Look at that first chase sequence, the flow is great; each beat leads simply, organically, into the next. Here it is a race to get to the next big high concept moment. All is forgotten before it is even over. Yes the CGI is impressive but that is not why I go to movies.

We end at the dam where Dani tells all the other people who have been and are going to continue doing all of the fighting that this is where they will make their last stand. I haven’t said anything about Dani yet, but that nicely sums up this character and performance. Not much is there. Everyone else is more interesting than her, the out of place Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger even deliver more. When we find out that Dani isn’t the new mother of the future like Sarah, that instead she is actually the hero of the future like John, we care nothing for her character, it falls flat. Dani is a bland confused human surrounded by warrior badasses. I assume because she does not lead to a CGI action scene, nor is she backed by nostalgia, the writers simply forgot about her.

The final fight for humanity begins inside the dam’s control center. Is it the Hoover Dam? Am I stupid for not knowing? Whatever, it is a giant dam. We get the Cameron technology thing of a machine trying to destroy humanity being destroyed in part by a machine designed to save humanity. The thing gets stuck in the bigger wheel thing leading to a homage to the Terminator emerging from the wreckage near the end of the original Terminator only to be stopped by Arnold sacrificing himself by dragging it down a hole in homages to both the end of T2 overtly and Aliens covertly. Bing, bam, boom, future is not changed at all just maintained–after all changing the future means no more franchise. Modern box office formula 101: do not alter anything until the actors themselves are nearly dead from exhaustion then kill them off for profit. It’s a snap.

The movie ends at a playground, why not, because REMEMBER Terminator 2 had a playground as a metaphor for the future. A nuclear explosion went off in that version, in this one a little girl gets picked up by her parents. The writers are bored at this point, I am bored at this point. They drive off in a jeep, yes just like Sarah Connor at the end of Terminator, “He said there’s a storm coming,” it was a great moment, thank you for reminding me movie. If it was not for you and the four copies I own it might have been wiped from my memory forever. Credits. Awesome.

Terminator: Dark Fate is not a bad movie; 5 mehs out of a possible 10 mehs. It is just not a good Terminator film and we were really owed one here. It is clear from the publicity that everyone was painfully aware of how badly this franchise had let down its fans. Instead, we are given a movie inspired by other franchises–namely Star Wars and Marvel without the proper fan service or middling amount of originality the others have. It is functional and generic and that, sadly, makes it the best of the post T2 sequels. What a world….what a world.

Even before this movie we could have done without another Terminator movie ever. Just because there were two does not mean there needs to be three. What happened to a time when sequels were made because there was an interesting take, a hot director, or a passionate creative personality at the helm? When automatic serialization was just the province of James Bond and even those would take a several year hiatus to iron out problems? These movies feel like shoes or iphones. People talking endlessly about casting changes, advanced effects, high concept ideas. Movie lines these days sound like extensions of commercials. It is just brand loyalty. Movies made to sell sequels, toys, streaming services. Movies as commercials. It has been that way all the way back to Star Wars in 1977 but never so vacuously calculated as it is now.

Is this the world people want to live in? A world where the simple act of putting something on screen that you remember from your childhood is synonymous with that thing from your childhood. An endless amount of whispering to the person sitting next to you, “Oh it was so cool when…” or “do you remember when…” all the while the “new” film being played for you moves along like a math equation trying to draw in as many viewers as possible. It is depressing. It is painful. I know a lot of you are going to go out into the world of movie franchises branded so deeply into our culture that to avoid it would be akin to social death. That is a dark fate indeed. I go now to retreat to that sunny spot in my mind where I am holding my mom’s hand, my face wet with tears, a place where even a summer blockbuster can give us room to dream, room to hope. Sing it for me Sarah, one more time, like you used to:

No fate but what we make.

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