Like an addict who just can’t quite kick the habit, I keep coming back for more Terminator. Despite steadily diminishing returns, I’m there opening night for every new movie, and I watched every episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles live. I’ve noticed, however, the theaters seem emptier and emptier with each new movie. Not even the promise of Daenyrs Targaryen playing Sarah Connor packed in the crowds, not that I blame anyone. Genisys was just so bad.
The tide might be turning for the latest franchise installment, the Tim Miller-directed/James Cameron-produced Terminator: Dark Fate. The critical and fan reviews swear this is the best in the franchise since T2. Do I agree? I can’t totally answer that before I explain why T2 is my favorite movie – not just Terminator movie, but movie movie.
I Know Now Why You Cry
I used to feel embarrassed whenever anyone would give me a weird look after I told them Terminator 2: Judgement Day was my favorite film of all time. I knew what was coming next, and I didn’t know how to handle it. They were going to ask me why, out of every great film in history, I gravitated toward a James Cameron-Arnold Schwarzenegger-Linda Hamilton action flick as my favorite, and I was going to have to avoid making myself vulnerable. Why do I love Terminator 2? The first-of-its-kind special effects, amazing action, surprising comedy, Hamilton’s tour de force performance, Schwarzenegger’s lighter side, Robert Patrick’s icy stare, Brad Fiedel’s brilliant score, the time travel of it all, the horror imagery (hot take: the T-1000 is one of the best horror villains of all time), Guns N Roses, the VHS boxset which came with a making-of documentary that was my first real peek at how movies are made…all of that together makes for a special experience, I’d say.
But that wasn’t the whole truth. Why did I love Terminator 2? Because when I saw it I was roughly Edward Furlong’s age, I was a sad child of divorce, and the film’s story of a kid finding and ultimately losing a father figure hit me like a ton of bricks. No movie before or since has touched me in quite the same way. James Cameron trojan horsed a touching story into exactly the kind of sci-fi/action genre entertainment I craved, and it just caught me so off guard. At just 9-years-old, I wasn’t ready for what I just saw, and my entire geek fandom from that point forward was shaped by that experience.
There’s nothing to be embarrassed about that, I suppose. Children of divorce run the world now, and whether it’s E.T., Terminator 2, The Iron Giant, or even freakin’ Bumblebee genre pictures love to metaphorically give kid characters the friend/surrogate parent they so desperately need. It feels so basic, though, to say I’m a guy who missed his real dad and found comfort in a movie about a kid who never even met his own dad and got his own Terminator as a father. What’s so special about that in an age where saying you have “daddy issues” feels so cliche? Hasn’t a good chunk of film history boiled down to dudes working through the issues they had with their parents?
But at some point, you just have to learn to own your own baggage, and whatever we bring to movies change as we age. When I watch Terminator 2 now, I identify with Sarah Connor, not John, her overwhelming instinct to protect and her struggle to see anything other than the fight. She begins the film as a woman who believes with absolute certainty that we’re all doomed and she ends it looking out on a black road, tantalized that for the first time in a long time she actually has reason to hope again.
What a journey.
Terminator: Dark Fate Pulls an Alien 3
Turns out, however, her hope was short-lived. Spoiler, in literally the first scene of Terminator: Dark Fate we watch a digitally de-aged – or possibly entirely CGI – Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong act out a scene set in 1998, one year after the once-promised Judgement Day that obviously never came. Relaxing at a beach resort in an off-the-grid corner of the world, their troubles seem far behind them. John Connor is even using his terrible Spanish – remember “Asta la vista, baby”? – to chat up a young senorita. He never gets to finish his pick-up attempt. A Terminator – an unconvincing digital recreation of Terminator 2-era Schwarzenegger – waltz in and blows him away, leaving Sarah cradling his dead body and watching through tears as the Terminator walks into the distance, its mission completed.
Welcome to the new Terminator timeline: Sarah failed. John’s dead. Judgment day was merely delayed, not prevented. Skynet didn’t happen, but something else took its place because humanity never learns. The future still sends assassins to erase the past, and the Resistance still sends protectors back to offer their best “Come me with me if you want to live.” In Dark Fate, it’s something more like “come me with me if you don’t want to die in the next 30 seconds.” (It’s 2019, people. The stakes, they must be elevated.)
Oh, also – Terminator 3, Salvation, and Genisys? Never happened. Forget all about them. It shouldn’t be so hard. We did roughly the same thing when Jurassic World pretended nothing beyond Jurassic Park existed and the 2018 Halloween pretended the only other Halloween film that mattered was the one which came out in 1978. I call it the Selective Amnesia Blockbuster. Or The Mulligan Blockbuster. Don’t know. Still workshopping that.
The money people, however, call it good business. You prey on the nostalgia but jettison enough of the mythology to make a franchise accessible again to newbies. Strip away all of the pretzel-shaped narrative tricks the later creators twisted themselves into, and get back to the core appeal of the franchise.
The New Team
Terminator: Dark Fate wants to do that so very badly. After the shocking prologue with Sarah, we jump to the present day and watch a familiar pattern play out: naked people fall from blue energy spheres in the sky in separate parts of Mexico City. One of them, the genetically augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis, a fave since Halt & Catch Fire), is good; the other, a new kind of Terminator called Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, so memorable as Ghost Rider on Agents of SHIELD), is bad. They have to race to save a girl named Dani (Natalia Reyes). The good one gets there just before the bad. Fighting ensues and quickly morphs into a balls-to-the-wall action sequence, spilling out of a motor plant and onto a busy highway.
Dun dun dun dundun. Dun dun dun dundun.
Your pulse is racing, right? The movie sure hopes so, and I was certainly entertained. Mackenzie Davis is becoming a badass action star before our very eyes. After Deadpool Tim Miller knows his way around big setpieces. Reyes, in her few scenes, before the mayhem begins, lends her character an inviting mixture of sternness and warmth, acting as mother to her father and brother and standing up to the boss at the plant who is threatening to replace them with machines (Nose, you’ve been onned.) It’s hard to tell CGI Gabriel Luna from the real, but he’s always impressive to look at, single-minded in his goal and convincingly unstoppable.
What you’re never supposed to ask is why you should care about any of this. Who are these people? Where’s Arnold? Where’s Linda Hamilton? Do the characters and actors make the franchise? Or can the same formula be repurposed for an entirely new storyline and set of characters?
Worry not – at just the right climactic moment at the end of this neverending action opening, Sarah Connor waltzes in to save the day, temporarily at least. See, Rev-9 is basically a combo of the T-800 and T-1000, and he can self-replicate into two. Don’t ask for an explanation for how that works or how exactly it evolved from our modern tech; the movie never answers. It’s just cool to look at. You can’t stop him; you can only hope to slow him down.
Sarah, Dani, and Grace escape and Dark Fate turn into a bit of a road movie. The heroes search for shelter and answers and eventually discover their toughest challenge might not be outrunning Rev-9 but getting through border control at the US-Mexico border.
What’s It All About?
To this point, the movie is so overstuffed with incident it’s easy to lose track of what should really be the biggest engine behind the story: what is this about? What is this movie trying to say? What kind of journey are we taking with these characters? Or is this just a fun, thought-free action movie? James Cameron might have traded on some tried-and-true fear of the tech future tropes with his first two films but he did it in a way that made it feel new and completely vital to the Cold War era. Plus, he never lost sight of Sarah’s journey from waitress to soldier and from soldier to mother, finally a woman capable of hope.
Dark Fate – its script credited to David Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray but reportedly cooked up in a writer’s room and doctored by James Cameron himself – waves its hands at political commentary. There’s the border crossing sequence and the fact that the new savior of humanity is Mexican. Arnold eventually appears as (spoiler) “Carl,” an aged, benevolent T-800 – the same one which killed John but has evolved since then. He has a shack full of weapons like some doomsday prepper, saying, “I calculate a 70% probability of humanity turning back towards barbarism.” (I’ll refrain from truly getting into some of his other lines because, as the surprise comedy relief, has a lot of clunkers.) A hellish sci-fi future seems so quaint given the state of things now.
In the end, the film arrives at the most depressing conclusion of all (spoiler): that in our radical future, a woman saves the world. “You’re the new John Connor,” Sarah pretty much says to the hero in question. Twice. It’s not depressing because of the gender but because it takes a future sci-fi scenario for that to happen.
What’s truly frustrating is Dark Fate holds this back as its ace in the hole. When we’ve gone two entire acts without any actual confirmation about why exactly the Rev-9 wants Dani dead and already know one of Grace’s flashbacks to her childhood ended with no resolution, it’s not hard to figure out the big twist.
Yet, that’s the balance Dark Fate wants to walk. It wants to mirror Dani and Sarah so that Natalia Reyes can be the new blood and Linda Hamilton can look on with peak weary. The pattern just repeats itself. Sarah is stuck again having to learn how to trust a machine that killed a loved one. That hope-filled black road is forever out of reach these days. But if the future can be female and an old machine can still learn to be human, maybe there’s hope for us yet. Or something like that. Dark Fate kind of loses the plot the further it goes on, descending into an impossibly over-the-top, language-neutral fight on a crashing airplane that then turns in an underwater dual.
Linda Hamilton’s aged version of Sarah constantly looks as if she’s seen this all before, and the only reason to keep going is the memory of her son, whose face she heartbreakingly admits she can barely even remember anymore. Dani and Grace give her cause for hope.
That’s the same view long-term Terminator fans like myself will probably take on Dark Fate. We’ve seen this all before, and if you seriously want us to keep coming back you’d better give us something worthwhile. It doesn’t even have to be a movie as good as Terminator or T2. Just give us hope that the world can still produce a watchable Terminator movie. Thanks to the combined efforts of Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Gabriel Luna, Tim Miller, James Cameron, and countless CGI wizards, Dark Fate meets that low bar.