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Josh Reviews Terminator: Dark Fate

November 4th, 2019
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The latest Terminator film ignores the events of Terminator 3, Terminator: Salvation, and Terminator: Genisys, treating only the first two films, the ones written and directed by James Cameron, as canon.  Terminator: Dark Fate picks up in 2019, decades after Sarah Connor stopped Judgment Day and the creation of Skynet (in Terminator 2: Judgment Day).  But now a new Terminator has come through time.  This time, its mission has nothing to do with Sarah or John Connor.  Its target is a young woman living in Mexico City: Daniella “Dani” Ramos.  A new protector has come from the future as well: Grace, a woman augmented with Terminator-like tech.  Sarah sees in Dani the woman she was so long ago, and joins with Grace in an effort to protect Dani and ensure the defeat of the machines.

Terminator: Dark Fate is a solidly entertaining film!  I had quite a good time watching it!

Now, I do have to say that this is not a film that has much of any reason to exist.  It doesn’t really have anything to say beyond what James Cameron’s first two Terminator films said.  Although there are new characters and new action sequences, the basic framework of the story follows many of the beats laid out in those first two Terminator films.  (This was likely intentional — more on this below.)  We get a new Terminator, but it’s not all that different from the nearly unstoppable T-1000 we met back in 1991’s T2.  We get a new threat from the future that has a new name (“Legion”) but is basically just Skynet.  We get a new human resistance fighter from the film who goes through basically the same story arc as Kyle Reese in the first film.  We spend much of the movie in familiar territory.

But in many respects I think that works in the film’s advantage!  Terminator: Dark Fate is clearly designed to try to recapture the series’ glory days: those first two James Cameron films.  There were a lot of nice touches that indicated the filmmakers’ desire to put us back in touch with those original films.  I loved opening the film with the recording of Sarah’s rantings, while in the psych ward, from T2.  I loved that, after a monologue from Sarah Connor, we got to glimpse an action sequence set in the post-Skynet world, just like we did in the first two Terminator films.  And, of course, not only did this film bring back Arnold Schwarzenegger, but we also got Linda Hamilton back as Sarah Connor for the first time since 1991’s T2.

It’s glorious to see Linda Hamilton back on screen, and I am delighted that she’s not just back for a cameo.  She has a lead role in the film.  Ms. Hamilton is spectacular.  It’s such a delight that this film allows a sixty year-old woman to be a bad-ass action hero!!  I love where this film picks up Sarah’s story.  She’s still a raw nerve in many ways (as she was in T2).  She’s still a tough-as-nails Terminator-fighter.  But she’s older and wiser and calmer.  She’s closed off, but it’s sweet as we see her start to make a connection with Dani.  Ms. Hamilton lights up the screen.  Watching this film makes me sad that she hasn’t been starring in tons of other films for the past few decades.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as well.  (The only film he was absent from was Terminator: Salvation, though even that film did sort of wind up involving him at the end, too.)  I don’t want to spoil here the how and why Mr. Schwarzenegger is back in this story.  But I’ll say that he is as fun as ever.  Mr. Schwarzenegger has rarely been used as well as he has been in this franchise.  He can still kick ass, while this film also allows him some humor and even gentleness (as the best of the films since T2 have always done).

The new characters are solid.  I really loved Mackenzie Davis (The Martian, Black Mirror, Blade Runner 2049) as the cybernetically-enhanced Grace.  This character is the film’s one great big new idea.  It makes sense that the resistance fighters of the future might try to take advantage of future tech to beat the machines.  Ms. Davis has the tremendous physicality needed to be convincing as a big bad warrior woman who can go toe-to-toe with a Terminator, and she has the acting chops to sell us on the soulfulness of this female Kyle Reese, who knows she’s on a one-way-trip in order to save someone she loves.

Natalia Reyes is solid as Dani, the latest last-best-hope for the future.  It’s clear from when we first meet her that Dani is smart loyal and tough.  She’s much less of a damsel-in-distress than Sarah Connor was originally, when we first met her back in 1984’s The Terminator.  But she nevertheless has a journey to go on, trying to make sense of her life once these visitors from the future destroy it, killing everyone she loves.

I was also very happy with Gabriel Luna’s work as the latest Terminator.  He’s a lot of fun in his scenes, showing us this Terminator’s unstoppable menace while also having life and even a hint of playfulness in his delivery.  (This is a harder balance to find that one might think, but it’s key to playing an interesting Terminator.)

It’s pretty cool that Ms. Reyes, a Colombian actress, and Mr. Luna, a Mexican-American actor, are two of the leads of this new Terminator film.  It’s even cooler that the film’s focus is squarely on its three main female heroes: Sarah Connor, Grace, and Dani.  It was pretty groundbreaking at the time for Ms. Hamilton to step into the role of action lead; this franchise has always has strong female characters.  But it feels like a strong step forward — and a good way to restart this franchise — to give the spotlight to these three strong female characters.

It’s a tricky balancing act, trying to restart a once-popular franchise.  You have to balance nostalgia — getting back to the core elements of the series that fans once loved — while also taking the stories in a new direction.  I thought often, while watching this film, of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens.  That film has a lot of flaws — flaws that have become more obvious upon rewatches, when the initial excitement of seeing the film for the first time has faded.  (Its main failing, in my opinion, is the way the third act is too much of a retread of the original Star Wars, with the death of the father-figure and yet another assault on a huge moon/planet-sized super-weapon.)  But the film works because it is able to push all the nostalgia buttons (buttons the Prequels failed to push) while also giving us lots of great new characters and new situations.  Terminator: Dark Fate seems intentionally designed to emulate the structure of the first two Terminator films (just as The Force Awakens was intentionally designed to emulate the original Star Wars).  I wish it was a little more original… but I can’t really fault it for trying to bring the franchise back to its original elements after so many failed sequels.

The film has been much-publicized as being hopefully the beginning of a new trilogy of films.  So was Genisys.  (And so was Terminator: Salvation before that!!)  But Genisys’ major sin (among its myriad flaws) was that it didn’t tell a full and complete story.  Huge critical pieces of the story (such as: what was the original inciting event that changed the timeline, and caused a T-1000 to be waiting for Kyle Reese when he went back to 1984???) were kept secret, only to be revealed in future sequels that were never made.  Terminator: Dark Fate wisely avoids that mistake.  (Thank goodness, because the film’s poor box office reception means that this is looking like the third straight failure in a row to restart the franchise and launch a new trilogy of films.)  The ending does clearly leave open many possibilities for future stories.  (The future in which humanity is wiped out and the A.I. “Legion” takes over the world hasn’t been changed — just as Skynet’s future victory was left unchanged by the first Terminator film.)  But this film does tell a complete and satisfying story that comes to an ending by the time the closing credits roll.  That sounds like filmmaking 101, but it’s stunning how many films these days are so concerned with launching a new series that they forget those basics!!

Other thoughts (and beware some SPOILERS ahead, so stop reading here if you haven’t yet seen the film):

* I loved the look of the new Gabriel Luna Terminator, but I wish the film had more clearly explained what it could/couldn’t do.  It looks like the liquid metal part CAN make a weapon (unlike the original T-1000 from T2), though maybe I missed something in the film?  How independently can the two Terminators (the liquid metal half and the metal endoskeleton) operate?  What would happen to one if the other was destroyed?  I wanted more clarity on all of that.

* Dark Fate isn’t as dumb a title as Genisys, but it’s still disappointingly generic and meaningless.

* I loved the surprise of seeing circa 1998 John Connor again in flashback!  Great use of CGI to recreate Edward Furlong’s look as John from T2!!  (Apparently Mr. Furlong was involved in some capacity in doing a performance for this scene that was adjusted via CGI.)

* I like the idea that a new A.I. threat has emerged in the future, but “Legion” is a disappointing name as it’s so associated for me with the X-Men character (and the great FX TV show that only recently ended!!).  The new Gabriel Luna Terminator is referred to as a Rev-9, which is a disappointingly generic label.  (I miss the “T-whatever” label, but since the last film gave us a T-5000, I can understand why the filmmakers felt that particular designation had been taken as far as it could go.)  While the film suggests that “Legion” is totally separate from Skynet, the Gabriel Luna robot is called a Terminator and has an endoskeleton that looks exactly like a Terminator, and it was sent back in time via a time bubble that used exactly like the one Skynet used!  So clearly there IS a connection between “Legion” and Skynet, and I wish the film had given us a little more explanation for that.  (One line of dialogue would have satisfied me: maybe Sarah’s saying something about “Legion” clearly being based on similar tech from what Skynet grew out of, or something like that.)

* Speaking of the classic Terminator time bubbles, how did Grace get ahold of the same time travel technology that was used to send the Gabriel Luna Terminator back in time?

* I loved the idea of an older Arnold Schwarzenegger-model Terminator.  (This was one of the few good ideas in Genisys, and it works just as well here too.)  It’s a very interesting idea that the Terminator, having no purpose since it completed its mission to kill John Connor, would have spent the next several decades learning, and growing a conscience.  It’s a truly delicious idea that a Terminator wound up having a family!!!  I wish the film had spent more time further developing that.  I wish the T-800’s wife and adopted son had actual lines of dialogue in the film.  I really wanted to get to know them, and to see more of their reaction once Grace, Dani, and Sarah Connor showed up at their doorstep and the fiction of their lives came crashing down.

* Speaking of that T-800’s killing John, I can live with it, but that plot twist really doesn’t make any sense.  Future John Connor knew about both Terminators that Skynet sent back in the first two Terminator films — so why wouldn’t he have known about this one?  And why wouldn’t he have known about all the other Terminators, since we learn a new one has basically been coming back to the past every two years?  And I am unclear as to how the T-800 could have predicted the arrival of additional Terminators (the mention of his being able to detect the chronal whatever of time-travel doesn’t seem consistent with what we’ve seen of Terminators before).  I can live with these plot holes because I think the film as a whole works so well, but I do wish these details had been tied up a little more neatly.  (One of the best aspects of Mr. Cameron’s first two Terminator films was how well thought out and tightly constructed they were, with few plot holes.)

Unfortunately, it looks like Dark Fate has not made a lot of money, and so this will likely turn out to be one more false-start for this franchise.  It’s a shame, because I’d have been curious to see where Mr. Cameron (who produced the film) and director Tim Miller would have taken this story from here…

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