dir: Tim Miller
And thus completes my recent trip down Nostalgia Lane. Of the two recent reiterations of venerable franchises, being the very dumb Predator movies and the slightly less dumb Terminator movies, the thing they have in common is Arnie. The Predator franchise felt no need to involve Arnie in any of its movies past the first one, and they were right, because he had better things to do, and they were only going to be shit (he must have known).
The Terminator flicks have always been indebted to him, because he is the Terminator of the title, after all, and only one of the flicks thus far didn’t have him in it (though it had a CGI version of him, because he was busy being Governor of California, after all). In a strange new trend, this is not a reboot or a continuation from the last flick Terminator: Genisys, but instead argues that everything after Terminator 2: Judgement Day never happened, so this is a direct sequel to T2.
It’s…a strange thing to do, isn’t it? It’s not unheard of, because different people work on stuff over years, and either new people want to go in other directions without being handcuffed, or the original people come back in, think everything they weren’t involved with is shit, so they revert the story back to where they’re comfortable with.
I can’t help but think that real world issues impacted on many choices in these movies over the years. I’m not going to use the words “artistic choices”, because let’s not pretend franchises are art. They’re product, and we know it. No, I mean stuff like Sarah Connor being written out after T2 mostly because James Cameron dumped her for someone he met making Titanic. And while the John Connor character kept popping up in T3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Genysis, they were never going to bring back Edward Furlong, considering his addiction and legal troubles over the last 20+ years.
In Dark Fate they decide to start from a place where their actions in T2 did change the future by stopping Skynet ever arising, but that a Terminator still kills John Connor a few years later when his hyper-vigilant mother’s guard is down. Sarah (Linda Hamilton) is deeply hurt after risking so much and sacrificing so many other people in order to keep her son safe, to no avail.
Still, Judgement Day was averted (like in the other post T2 flicks) but not stopped. Bad stuff is still happening in the future, presumably not to do with any virus alone, but it sure seems like something is still sending Terminators back in time to kill people.
Someone appears in the middle of a bridge in what we’re meant to believe is Mexico. This time it’s a woman, but not like the female-identifying Terminator in T3. She doesn’t appear that human, but she assures people that she is.
Just like what a real goddamn Terminator would say.
But no, she is human, just augmented, and she even has a name instead of a numerical designation, being Grace (Mackenzie Davis). Now, from my perspective, it helps if you really like an actor, and I already think the world of Mackenzie Davis, not least of which because of her great work on Halt and Catch Fire, as the best character in a little seen cable TV show full of great characters and performances. It also helps that she was so great in the Black Mirror episode San Junipero, being the loveliest episode they ever managed that didn’t make you want to slash your own wrists at the end.
She is from the future, but she is channeling pure Linda Hamilton / Sarah Connor energy right from the start – competent, fearless and utterly committed to protecting the person she’s there to protect. However, she hasn’t been sent to protect John Connor or Sarah Connor – she’s been sent back to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes).
Of course this means the baddies have also sent back an evil future robot, being the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), which has both a metal skeleton Terminator body and a liquid metal Terminator body that are usually together but can separate whenever they need to. There should have been more conversations between the two (amount of conversations between them stands at zero). Could have been an amusing Gollum / Smeagol kind of “crazy robot” and “less crazy robot” scenario, with them arguing as to whether to kill all humans or just kill most humans.
He kills everything and everyone he comes across, but then that’s just what Terminators do. Right from the start, Grace has very little of a plan. She’s come back to save Dani, but she doesn’t really know how to kill the Rev-9 with contemporary technology. So mostly they just run and run and run.
Out of nowhere appears Sarah Connor, unfazed and unblunted by time’s passage, but she still hates them Terminators, and she is very embittered by losing John so young. She and Grace immediately dislike each other, even as they both try to protect Dani, for completely different reasons.
It’s funny that this flick honours what came before in T2, and even in the first one, with Sarah transforming from mousy waitress to survivor (which is bullshit; most waitstaff and bar people I’ve ever known are tough as fuck) to warrior, but also points out the fundamental sexism that was always at play in designating John Connor as the messiah who would save humanity, and his mother as the Virgin Mary.
Well, let’s just say that’s not the dynamic going on here. Grace and Sarah clearly don’t like each other and have dumb arguments, but that’s okay. Crucial information is held back for no good reason, but I guess it makes for a startling revelation later on.
In the other now erased post-T2 flicks, the rise of Skynet anyway was seen as an inevitability that wasn’t only about never letting this franchise die so they could keep trying to make money from it, it was also a warning about humanity’s hubris, and the potential for us to create the systems that would destroy us because, duh, it’s what we do. When Sarah Connor relates her version of what happened, and what was meant to happen, and Skynet, it means nothing to future person Grace. But a different AI rose up in Skynet’s absence, with the same agenda. So yet again, like in T3, it’s not stopped, just delayed by several more decades. It’s always convenient for a franchise to be able to resurrect its central villain endlessly, because then you don’t have to come up with anything new, ever.
Now the AI trying to end all humans in the future is called Legion (it makes no difference from a practical or storytelling perspective), but humanity has someone else rallying them to the cause of survival, and triumphing over the mechanical menace. And instead of raising a fist to the darkened skies and cursing Skynet’s name to the heavens, it would be a rallying cry of “death to Legion!”, which is just as catchy.
Interestingly (well, somewhat), near the film’s beginning, Dani and her soon to be dead brother go to work in an auto factory, but her brother turns up to his section to find that he has been replaced by a robot. Dani goes to argue the point with their supervisor, telling him he can’t possibly replace all of the workforce with robots, can he? And then of course a robot from the future starts killing bunches of people in the factory. IRONY so ironic you could cut it with a knife.
A fair bit later on, when Sarah, Dani and Grace decide to cross over the border back into the States, pursuing a mysterious person who keeps texting Sarah, hopefully not with robotic dick picks, they get in trouble with the Border control people, and end up at a detention facility. You know, the ones that sprung up with the families in cages, and the children separated from their asylum-seeking parents, who in many cases never find their parents again, those cages? Well, the smug evil robot from the future uses the infrastructure of the surveillance state and the border control stuff to not only capture his prey, but to then proceed to kill bunches of Border patrol agents and Immigration Customs Enforcement jerks too.
Mixed messages, people, you’re sending me mixed messages. Is it a bit too on the nose to have a bunch of innocent people locked up in cages (the way that Skynet does on the way to extermination in another one of these Terminator flicks that now no longer exists either, it’s been erased, can’t remember it ever existing) by a cruel state, only to have an actual infiltrator who looks Latinx come in and start killing good, loyal, American fascist guards by the bushel? Who’s side are you on, and who’s side aren’t you on, 6th movie in a franchise?
As action set pieces go, some look better than others, some make substantially less sense that others. The early ones, involving car / truck chases and such, well of course they’re going to recall the fine action set pieces in T2. About the only thing missing (thankfully) was the music of Guns n’ Roses. And they’re fine enough. It’s mostly Grace messing around with the very advanced Rev-9 in precarious circumstances, desperately trying to protect Dani and look cool at the same time, which she always succeeds at.
Since they don’t just want to make her a human with the abilities of a Terminator, they give her a major downside to being “augmented”, by making her need to take anti-convulsants and a cocktail of other drugs after every time she fights, and occasionally some water, too because her metabolism overheats. It’s funny how much time they spend on this plot point, because it doesn’t really make her seem any more human or relatable, because she can already do heaps of superhero shit, and it’s the equivalent of Superman having to chew on some anti-Kryptonite muesli bars every 15 minutes lest his blood sugar get too low, and his diabetes acts up.
The one thing we don’t doubt is her commitment both to Sparkle Motion and to Dani. She seems to revere the woman, and who can blame her, and there is no doubt that if it comes down to it, she’s going to happily Dani at the expense of her own existence, because Dani seems to be flat out that important.
Thing is, I appreciated that, I love loyalty in stories, but it undercuts a lot of what they establish here with this overall narrative. In the beginning, John Connor was going to be humanity’s savior. But doomsday was averted, the villain destroyed in the past/future, and a new enemy would arise, and a new savior to humanity arose too. Doesn’t it follow that there isn’t just one enemy for humanity, and not just one savior? That if things get dark enough, someone will always come along to both oppress humanity and also to liberate them? Individuals are important in and of themselves, but a decent seeming narrative would be a bit more complex that The One, there is only ever The One.
Not that I object. The one thing I’ve delayed mentioning is Arnie. Yes, of course he’s in the film. Yes of course he plays a significant role. But he’s not the centre of the film, like he was in T2 and T3. The dynamic between the three women is far more important, but he brings something more than nostalgia to the story as well.
Look, I know it’s going to sound naff in describing it, but the different trope they play with here is like the one explored with Wall-E, being that even an artificial life form, given enough time, could come to some kind of awareness that isn’t “must crush humanity”. Carl, as it is known, is the Terminator that actually got to kill John Connor, and then had nothing to do for decades. With no purpose, no orders, no programming to cover what it should do from then on, this metallic hunk of titanium alloy and well-aged Austrian beefcake becomes self-aware and even regrets its prior actions. It develops something of a conscience, though they wisely don’t push it too far and actually make it claim that it has human emotions or feelings, but something like that.
With all its status as an action classic, the “changes” to the “good” Terminator in T2 are programming changes, not because of any dawning self-awareness on the cyborg’s part. Even if he tells John that now he knows why human’s eyes leak when they’re sad, or that he should give a thumbs up when he sacrifices himself for maximum coolness. That was more about how Arnie wanted to get across to a mass audience that was starting to idolise him, and not really about what the story needed (though we lapped it up like the gullible goofs that we are).
Here it’s different. He’s also saying goodbye to us, and to the character, and the “wisdom” he has gained is hard won. He’s even, in his way, tried to make amends over the years, even to Sarah, and will continue to do so until the obviously explosive end. They also give him the lines that reference the previous catchphrases, but it’s neither as embarrassing or as painful as it was in the previous ones, or in what I referred to in the recent The Predator review. There’s some feeling in it (that I guess at the very least I’m the one projecting it onto the performance) when he refers to the woman and her son that he’s been looking after for decades, that he won’t be back. It’s almost sad.
But he also gets a bunch of low-key pearler gags. One where he explains the number of guns he’s managed to procure over the decades with a long statement about humanity’s inevitable course towards anarchy, which he then undercuts by saying “Secondly, this is Texas”, which made me laugh out loud. The second time I watched and listened with almost incredulity was when he starts talking in that stentorian robotic manner about something, and you’re not entirely sure what he’s talking about, until you realise he’s talking about drapes. The drapes he was advising a man to put in his daughter’s room. It’s such a strange and welcome line, so out of place in this or any other film, that I thought worked brilliantly. Honestly, it’s hard not to love the guy, even still.
After that relatively quiet time, we know we’re scrambling towards the end, and it requires at least three more over the top action set pieces, but these latter ones, even more reliant on CGI than the earlier ones, with a seemingly unstoppable foe that we know isn’t going to stop until a lot of characters sacrifice themselves until it’s over. And even then we know they won’t let anything end, not for reals, so it could be a prelude to doing it all again in a couple of years.
It’s great seeing Linda Hamilton again, playing an action icon like the woman she looks like now rather than pretending she’s still in her 20s-30s. She’s lost none of the fire that James Cameron, may he burn in hell in a watery grave underneath the Titanic, tried to stamp out of her. I hope whatever they paid her here covers her cost of living for the rest of her life, because gods know when she’ll get another role ever again, and who even knows if she ever wants to?
This flick is not the disaster that its poor reception at the box office and terrible reviews made it out to be (at least, in my anything but humble opinion). All of the leads put in excellent work, the action is very explody, the new Terminator is at least as mean as Robert Patrick back in T2 (though never as scary), and it’s a decent place to let this go. The feelings engendered by watching this were the complete opposite of what I felt watching The Predator update the night before, and I think that even if many of the nostalgic references and obligatory callbacks are the same, this didn’t feel like it was made by cold psychopaths. This feels like they actually cared a little bit at least about what they were doing, and what they were asking people to do on screen.
Dark Fate is okay, better than we deserve, not good enough to justify its existence entirely, but it’s okay, and I’ll take that over “actively hateful” right about now.
7 times and more that Mackenzie Davis is great in this and in all she does out of 10
“Our relationship is not physical. She appreciated that I could change diapers. Efficiently and without complaints. I am reliable, I'm a very good listener and I'm extremely funny.” – I agree with you 100% - Terminator: Dark Fate