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Terminator: Dark Fate
(2019)

(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

I’m not even that convinced Miller does a better job than the much derided McG did on Terminator: Salvation. That’s not a great movie, but visually, it’s more coherent and – not insignificant since they’ve increasingly become the be all and end all of the series – furnishes much better special effects. That side is especially curious, since Jimbo (who gets both story and producer credits here, the much-heralded return of the creator to the franchise, by which I don’t mean Harlan Ellison) has always been such a stickler for verisimilitude, even where blue cat people are concerned. Plus, Tim Miller is a visual effects guy turned director, so he should be all for the seamless. If this had been directed by, say, Neill Blomkamp (but letting him nowhere near the screenplay, not that it’s anything approximating some kind of prize parchment), you can bet it would have looked a lot better.

Instead, we get sub-par effects shot after sub-par effects shot of the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, looking like he’s just walked off a daytime soap, and with all the presence of Kristanna Loken – yeah, I had to look her name up too – or Byung-Hun Lee – yeah, I’d forgotten he was even in Terminator Genisys). In both its endo-skeleton and poly-alloy forms – it is basically Loken’s T-X, but with a “cool new feature… he can split” – the effects are never sufficiently integrated, never feel like they’re “there”, the way Cameron’s near-thirty-year-old T-1000 does.

On the one hand, Miller punctuates the action with enough edits that you don’t have time to dwell on such obvious imperfections. On the other, perhaps if there’d been fewer shots there’d have been more time to get the renders right. I don’t think it helps that cinematographer Ken Seng does little to establish a look for the movie; it just sits there, fortunately not at the TV movie end of the scale of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines but entirely absent the oppressive agoraphobia of Judgment Day, let alone the aggressive claustrophobia of the original. What’s extra curious is that there’s shoddy set-piece imagery such as a host of Terminators coming out of the oceans, or a sub-Skynet future battle with various CG models tearing humans to shreds, but then there’s the sequence with 1997 Sarah, John and a T-800, and the CGI doubles all look highly impressive. Go figure.

I am talking a lot about the look of the movie rather than the plot, because, well. What is there to say? You might think Cameron coming back to his (rather than Harlan Ellison’s) baby would be a signpost of quality, but then you’d be forgetting how opportunistic Judgment Day was in reopening a closed Grandfather Paradox loop for the sake of manufacturing a big bankable hit post-The Abyss and experimenting with new tech. There are six other credited writers on board Dark Fate (although some of that at least relates to hashing out a trilogy, one that, like Alita, is unlikely to see the light of day) including Josh Friedman (of The Sarah Connor Chronicles) but the material is derivative at best. Yes, Jimbo sticks to his Judgment Day guns of having rescued the world from Skynet-ageddon, but he’s left pulling a cheap Alien 3 tactic by killing off young John Connor in the first scene (the irony of this decision drips glutinously, considering Alien 3 so rudely disposed of the family unit Cameron so carefully fashioned for Ripley in Aliens). So what is he left with? Introducing Skynet Mk II in the form of Legion (an AI created to combat cyberwarfare – yawn). And Sarah Connor Mk II, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Except that, in a twist that isn’t nearly inventive enough to be called that, she’s really John Connor Mk II, and Sarah was wrong to assume she’ll be giving birth to a man-saviour. Because this is, like, a progressive text.

Grace: No, you’re not an augment super soldier from the future, are you?

That “twist” makes “augment” super-soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) – if Rev-9 is a rip-off of Loken in Rise of the Machines, Grace is the same of Sam Worthington in SalvationDark Fate’s Kyle Rees, sent back in time by the leader of the Resistance with the knowledge said lieutenant will die. Such developments don’t so much suggest a new spin as creative stagnation. One might argue it doesn’t so much matter how uninventive the plot is; it’s the execution of the chase that counts. I might agree if the result were a relentlessly edge-of-the-seat affair like the first movie, but Dark Fate falls down on that score, adopting the bigger-better-faster-boom approach of all Hollywood blockbusters, confusing spectacle with pixels. Miller’s action is engrossing… to a point.

Part of that point is the problem that he and the writers have failed to create a facsimile to invest in. It’s the major failing it shares with the now-swept-under-the-carpet post-T2 sequels. Dani isn’t a character in her own right, she’s a cypher – much as older John Connor is in his Terminator and T2 cameos but given vastly more screen-time – offered no more substance than the sketchy “female, Latina, leader of the resistance”. The previous protagonists – Sarah and young John – were defined by their relationships, be they with Kyle Reese or mom and a friendly T-800. Dani serves only to define her co-protectors. As a consequence, her growth into a kick-ass decision maker is laughable (particularly with growly pugilistic Sarah the Elder alongside her) and the future tense scenes, in which the leader of the resistance is unveiled as a three-foot kid in combats, is risible.

Grace: If you’re Mother Mary, why do I so want to beat the shit out of you?

Dani merely suffers the most obviously out of the generally undernourished roles in Dark Fate, though. Grace seems built upon how Davis looks on screen, so even with flashbacks/forwards to tell us how she became who she is, there’s little else there. I’ve generally liked Davis as a performer, but her presence here is entirely bland. Luna, I’ve mentioned, and while he has a nice line in congeniality before he goes kill-crazy, he doesn’t bring anything menacing to the part when he does go kill-crazy.

Sarah Connor: When I’m ready to kill that thing, then I’ll let it know where we are.

Which brings us to the old hands. It’s good to have Hamilton back aboard, but in much the same way as Jamie Lee Curtis’ return in Halloween last year (having already returned twenty years before), one doesn’t feel they’ve made the most of her. The degree to which Sarah Connor is effective is entirely down to Hamilton’s conviction, not because of anything the team of writers have brought to the character. Indeed, some of those attributes are on the fatuous side, not least the means of integrating both her and Arnie into the story. She doesn’t know it’s the robot that killed her son, but Arnie’s Carl has been sending her the co-ordinates of returning Terminators to sort out “For John”, which leaves something to be desired in a Looper kind of way. Her underlying motivation then, once she does know, is to destroy the T-800 that killed her son. But this is never as affecting as it should be, perhaps because we’ve already been down the distrust-a-Terminator-that-means-well route with Judgment Day. Add to that sparring with Grace and playing surrogate granny to Dani, and there’s a feeling of putting her in the story just “because”. Sarah Connor’s no longer essential, and she really needs to be to justify her presence.

And Arnie. I wonder what the thinking was here, since it essentially doubles down on the T2 good Terminator but in ways that are borderline comical (and I don’t mean comical where Arnie is genuinely being funny). I mean, writing a Terminator with a family and a job is the kind of daftness you’d get in a SNL sketch. And I know The Sarah Connor Chronicles went there with Shirley Manson, but there was an edge to that. Essentially, Cameron doesn’t want to admit his good guy machine conceit was at best misguided, so he takes it further. When in T2 the paranoid Sarah suggests a Terminator would make the perfect father, that’s supposed to reflect on her mental state… except that now, she was right! The idea that, with his mission accomplished, he is free to learn and grow “as a person” isn’t, fortunately, taken to Data in Star Trek: Generations levels, but it’s still bewildering and kind of toothless. 

Talking of bewildering, Carl’s explanation for how he knew in advance that Terminators were coming reminded me of the scene in Army of Darkness where Bruce Campbell has forgotten the magic words and tries to bluff his way through them by coughing. Something something time fissure in his basement? Carl may as well have had magic beans.

I shouldn’t have been disappointed that Terminator: Dark Fate makes zero effort to discuss the paradox of Arnie existing when the future he comes from has gone puff. But I was, a bit. Presumably it’s become such a Hollywood standard that time-travel scenarios never make sense, writers feel that they can be as lazy as the audiences accepting whatever gibberish is thrown at them. Or maybe it will be addressed in the sequels we’re never going to get unless Terminator: Dark Fate does phenomenal business in China. On the one hand, this is very serviceable action spectacle (on a freeway, at the Mexican border, in a plane, at a dam). On the other, it does less interesting things with the series than either of the last two outings, for all their myriad failings. 


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