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Non-Review Review: Terminator – Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate is perhaps the second-best of the four attempts to make a third Terminator movie.

To be fair, the previous three efforts have all been exercises in figuring out how close or how far to hew to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There has been a sense of watching various chefs trying awkwardly to replicate a signature dish. Does a Terminator sequel need Sarah Connor? Does Sarah Connor have to be played by Linda Hamilton? Is Arnold Schwarzenegger essential, and to what degree? James Cameron isn’t going to direct because he has his own projects, but what level of involvement is “just right”? Is it enough for him to do some press, to be a producer, or does he need a story credit?

Fight and flight.

The results have been as interesting as they have been frustrating. Few film franchises has branched quite as dramatically as the Terminator franchise, perhaps reflecting the series’ own preoccupation with time travel. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys have all tried to figure out a way to make a sequel to Judgment Day, and have only really managed to agree that each of the others adopted the wrong approach. Dark Fate at least seems like the right Terminator sequel for its own time and place, tapping into a wave of nineties anxiety and franchise dominance.

Dark Fate is only moderately successful as a film in its own right, and as a follow on to one of the most beloved blockbusters of all-time. It says much more about the larger Terminator franchise than about Dark Fate that it counts as one of the best sequels to Judgment Day.

Hes back.

All sequels are inherently nostalgic. After all, the entire point of a sequel is to lure back in an audience that was drawn to the earlier films in the series. Sequels are built around the promise of “more of the same”, so it seems churlish to critique them on these grounds. Even then, it is telling that the biggest advantage that Dark Fate has over the previous three attempts to make a sequel to Judgment Day is sheer overwhelming nostalgia. Of course, nostalgia is baked into any Terminator sequel, but it is especially obvious here.

All of the sequels to Judgment Day have tried to turn the film’s memorable shots of the open road into a roundabout. Any sequel to Judgment Day inherently invalidating the happy ending earned by John and Sarah Connor. The basic premise of the Terminator franchise is time-traveling killer robots from a dystopian future, so the starting point of any Terminator sequel automatically reverses John and Sarah Connor’s defeat of Skynet. There is something incredibly pessimistic in all of this, which cuts against the entire thematic point of Judgment Day. Fate cannot be escaped or altered. The future is always waiting.

Parting shots.

Dark Fate is notable for being the first sequel to Judgment Day to include both Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong, as if assuring audience members that they can forget about Emilia Clarke or Jason Clarke or Christian Bale or Nick Stahl. The title is an allusion to the line It leans into Judgment Day about how there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves. That line gets a direct quote towards the climax of the film, albeit in a slightly unexpected context. The poster welcomes the audience to “the day after Judgment Day”, another very clear erasure of everything between the two films.

To be fair to Dark Fate, the film is quite open about its grim nihilism. The film’s first scene is one of the most mean-spirited opening sequences to a blockbuster sequel since Alien 3. It is rendered all the more ironic give how Cameron himself has complained about the way in which the opening scenes of that sequel wiped away a lot of the work that he did on Aliens. It is interesting to wonder how fans will react to that bleak opening beat, but it is an admirably frank piece of film making. Dark Fate understands that its mere existence wipes out the happy ending of Judgment Day, and so it commits.

He will have his Rev-enge.

However, Dark Fate does more than just erase everything between 1992 and 2019. It very actively coopts Judgment Day. It leans into the film’s imagery and iconography, becoming something of a facsimile. The corporate logos that open the film are intercut with footage of Sarah Connor’s recorded testimony from Judgment Day. These transition into an opening scene of killer cyborgs storming an apocalyptic future, crushing human skulls beneath their feet. The closing scenes offer a replay of Sarah Connor’s memorable nightmare about atomic horror.

There are times when the film feels like a checklist of familiar Terminator story elements, assembled like an IKEA cabinet. Characters offer riffs on the memorable “I’ll be back…”, with knowing and winking humour. “Come with me if you want to live” becomes “come with me if you don’t want to die in the next thirty seconds.” The first big action set piece is a showdown in a populated space that gives way to a car chase involving a gigantic truck. The climax of the film involves a large industrial setting. There is a sense in which Dark Fate is not so much a sequel to Judgment Day as a reskinning of it.

The Connors.

In a sense, this feels like the logical culmination of efforts to produce a functional and successful sequel to Judgment Day. Following on from Rise of the Machines and Salvation, it seems like trying to continue the story is pointless. Instead Dark Fate attempts to remake it. Asked why she is risking everything to protect the latest target of time-travelling machine assassins, Sarah responds, “Because I was her.” Confronted with the revelation that her charge is to be the chosen one of a new mythology, Sarah gasps, “She is John.”

Of course, there are superficial differences. The villainous artificial intelligence in Dark Fate is not “Skynet”, but “Legion.” The time-travelling killing machine is not a “T-800” or a “T-1000”, but instead a “Rev-9.” The time-travelling body guard sent back to prevent this rewrite of history is neither human nor machine, but a combination of both. Mackenzie Davis is Grace, an “enhanced” human soldier whose body is a map of scars and who depends on her “meds” to keep fighting. Still, the basic structure of the film is highly familiar.

An unstoppable killing machine.

This isn’t entirely a bad thing. After all, there is a reason that Judgment Day was one of the defining blockbusters of the nineties, even if any attempt to escalate the spectacle from that film is bound to numb rather than enthrall the audience. More than that, there is a sense that Dark Fate at least understands some of why Judgment Day worked as well as it did. There was something very subtly effective and pointed in placing the villainous T-1000 in the uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department as he wrought unchecked violence in 1992. Dark Fate replicates that in 2019 by casting its Rev-9 as a border patrol agent.

Of course, any attempt at political commentary in Dark Fate is superficial at best. It is no more a condemnation of United States border policy than Judgment Day was a biting look at the institutional racism within the Los Angeles Police Department. However, it is still a film that recognises horror and brutality, and there is something to be said for even passively acknowledging these horrors within the framework of popular entertainment. There is something to be said for the way in which the Rev-9 feigns pleasure in its grim work, as likely to meet potential victims with a smile as with a blank look.

A (time-)javelin heroine.

Similarly, Dark Fate builds on the franchise’s feminist bona fides and doubles down. James Cameron is one of the more influential blockbuster directors of the past thirty-five years, and is responsible for defining the modern idea of feminine cinematic heroism through the characters of Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. Dark Fate takes stock of the modern landscape, and serves up three prominent female action heroes, to the point that Edward Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger are both relegated to relatively minor roles. This is welcome, and speaks to the shifting blockbuster landscape.

That said, neither Mackenzie Davis’ Grace nor Natalia Reyes as Dani feel like actual characters. They don’t pop off the screen in the way that Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley did. Even by modern cinematic standards, they are eclipsed by the female protagonists of Hustlers. In terms of modern blockbusters, they are even underdeveloped relative to the women of Captain Marvel. Of course, it seems likely that any new characters in Dark Fate would be underdeveloped regardless of gender, so it is at least something that this space is given over to women.

Handling this with Grace.

In one of the film’s shrewder and more effective moments, Dark Fate even pauses to acknowledge the inherent sexism baked into the original Terminator. When Dani learns that a machine from her future wants her dead, Sarah explains her frustration with being seen as “the mother of the messiah.” It’s not Dani, Sarah explains, “It’s your womb.” This underscores the cynicism of the approach that Terminator took by casting Sarah as a damsel in distress, which was arguably corrected by Cameron’s decision to turn Sarah into a hero in her own right in Judgment Day, but it is still nice to see Dark Fate explicitly call it out.

However, there are also very serious problems. Dark Fate brings back franchise veterans Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite the fact that the ending of Judgment Day rendered them all obsolete and they have no tangible connection to the dark future lurking over the horizon. Without any real sense of what to do with these characters, Dark Fate settles to effectively replay familiar character arcs, hoping that audiences who enjoyed the character dynamics of Judgment Day will enjoy seeing them play out again in Dark Fate.

Crashing out.

So, naturally, the film’s central T-800 has a character arc that centres on the machine learning to become human. “You grew a conscience?” Grace asks in disbelief when she hears the robot’s life story. “The equivalent,” he acknowledges. This is familiar territory. After all, so much of the appeal of Judgment Day lay in watching John Connor teach his own T-800 to become a fully realised person. Although the machines in the two films are technically different versions of the same model, they are treated as equivalent, their arcs moving in the same direction. (Dark Fate does stop short of putting this one in sun glasses.)

This is a bigger issue with the character of Sarah Connor. So much of the tension in Judgment Day arose from Sarah Connor’s mistrust of the repurposed robot killing machine, based on her own traumatic experiences with it. However, over the course of the film, Sarah came to trust and respect the time-travelling assassin. Dark Fate rather cynically resets that arc in order to replay the highlight reel. Once again, Sarah is antagonistic to the T-800. Once again, Sarah threatens to destroy it once the current threat has passed. It is all very familiar.

Up against the wall.

In hindsight, there is almost something more honest in the way that Genisys coopted and rewrote the franchise’s history, choosing to go back over Terminator and Judgment Day as a sort of cinematic highlight reel for its own delectation. In its own way, this felt like an acknowledgement of the realities of modern franchise film making, a desperate and futile attempt to recreate and reproduce past successes by offering audiences lifeless imitations in the place of innovation. It was one of the worst blockbusters of the past decade, but at least it was candid in what it was doing.

Dark Fate is just as cynical an exercise, but one executed with considerably more grace. There are still too many stray elements; Grace’s flashbacks to the dystopian future feel unnecessary, whereas Sarah and the T-800 feel like uninvited guests crashing another character’s story. Some of the humour is a little too broad and goofy, in line with the ironic tone of modern franchises films rather than the more grounded approach of earlier blockbusters. The practical effects of Judgment Day are sorely missed, with Dark Fate lost in a sea of computer-generated imagery.

Are you Sarah Connor?

However, the film is mostly executed in a clean and unfussy way, which is enough to elevate it above its more messy alternatives. It is good to see Linda Hamilton again, even if the character feels largely superfluous. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a lot of fun playing a domesticated cyborg, even if the film has some tonal difficulties reconciling itself with his history as a unstoppable killing machine. Mackenzie Davis brings a compelling urgency to her role the keeps pushing the narrative forward. Director Tim Miller never gets in his own way, even if his direction feels weirdly anonymous.

Dark Fate speaks to the modern franchise landscape. It is a Terminator film for the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a blockbuster built around serving an audience another helping of a meal that they have eaten many times before. It is very much more of the same, delivered with just enough knowing irony to avoid seeming self-important. There is a sense watching the film that the target was always “competence” more than “brilliance”, and that the film was inherently wary of even the idea of “ambition”, because that could lead to the spectacle of humiliation.

Dark Fate aims to be a good, clean Terminator film. It succeeds by that measure, even if that prevents it from being anything more.

2 Responses

  1. This is a crap movie that will lose hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office and won’t be followed by a sequel … the best any real fan of the franchise can hope for is a future war series on a streaming service in a couple of years if not longer.

  2. I’m disappointed in the box office returns. Especially in Europe. They often love US action movies.

    I really liked Mackenzie Davis in “Halt and Catch Fire”.

    I’ll see it.

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