****MIMETIC POLYALLOY SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..
For those keeping score, the Terminator franchise (much like “ALIEN” & “ALIENS”) has two seemingly immutable entries; 1984’s original “The Terminator” and its amped-up sequel, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991). Both are classics of sci-fi action cinema. The post T2 sequels however, are another matter altogether; they have an ever-changing, fluidic continuity very much like the “Halloween” or “X-Men” movies. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) was more or less in line with its predecessors, thought it also introduced the idea that T2 didn’t stop the aforementioned cybernetic holocaust known as ‘Judgment Day’; it merely postponed it. In fact, T3’s hardcore nihilistic ending was a refreshingly bold move for an otherwise middling entry in this movie series. “Terminator: Salvation” (2009) was an unstructured post-apocalyptic mess; though (at the very least) it tried for something other than the usual time-travel tropes of previous entries. It failed. Badly. Moving on…
“Terminator Genisys” (2015) attempted a “Star Trek” (2009)-style reboot of the entire mythology, diverging from the original’s 1984 timeline. This entry saw a few miscast actors assuming the roles of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, as well as a sexagenarian Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a technobabble-spouting version of his iconic ‘good’ Terminator (now called “Pops”). The once-awesome terminator is now played almost entirely for laughs. He’s been thoroughly Freddy Krugered. A bright spot in the post-T2 sequels was the sadly short-lived TV series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (2007-9) which came closest in legitimacy to T1 and T2 (it’s still my head canon, anyway). Despite the fluidity of the Terminator movies’ timeline, the continuity of the first two movies have more or less remained constant (with the exception of Genisys).
Now, we have “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019), which ignores everything after T2, though not without creating new issues of its own. There truly is “no fate but what we make for ourselves”…
This latest Terminator movie opens with a bitter, whiskey-voiced Sarah Connor (returning veteran Linda Hamilton) telling us that the outcome of T2 didn’t prevent the end of the world after all (as we also saw in T3). In a 1998-set prologue, we see Sarah (a digitally de-aged Hamilton) and her former future savior son John (a de-aged Edward Furlong) relaxing on a South American beach when a T-800 terminator (a de-aged Arnold Schwarzenegger) casually strolls up and shoots the boy dead right in front of his mother. It seems that Skynet launched several Terminators back through time as insurance, in case its liquid metal T-1000 prototype failed. Following that horrific tragedy, Sarah has been an embittered terminator hunter ever since.
Cut to present day Mexico City. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is the next gen ‘target’ of a new breed of Terminators. Skynet was eliminated, but a new deadly AI named “Legion” has taken its place in the future (much like the ‘Empire/First Order’ rebranding in Disney’s new Star Wars). Legion’s new terminator model Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) is a cross between the previously seen liquid metal T-1000 but with the metal endoskeleton of the earlier T-800 (much like Kristanna Loken’s T-X in T3). In extreme cases, the endoskeleton and liquid metal of the Rev-9 can separate, forming two distinct terminators, for a two-tiered attack. With their jobs at a Mexican operated, US-based auto-making plant threatened by automation (oh, the irony), Dani and her brother Diego (Diego Boneta) are confronted by this new menace, which initially assumed the guise of their father, but soon reverts to its native form.
The two siblings are then whisked from the factory by a mysterious (and powerful) stranger they met the previous night; a woman who dropped out of the sky naked (as time-travelers do in these movies). The mystery blonde is named Grace, and she is an “augment”; a human resistance fighter from the future who has been cybernetically enhanced specifically for close-quarters terminator combat, but at great physical cost (she requires regular injections to maintain her super-stamina).
During the escape, Diego is killed so that his sister may live. Dani has seen both her father and brother wiped out in a single day (not unlike the losses of Sarah’s mother and roommate in the first Terminator movie).
In their escape, they have a seemingly random-not-random encounter with a heavily armed, aged Sarah Connor, who with iron gray hair and leathery features is almost a female Clint Eastwood. Sarah slows down the new terminator a bit with her heavy-duty firepower. In gratitude, Grace and Dani steal Sarah’s truck (!).
Eventually the three meet up again at a seedy motel, and the veteran terminator fighter gives the new kids on the block a few hard-earned lessons in terminator survival (rule one; no cell phones). Sarah also helps stabilize the condition of Grace, who is suffering systemwide failure of her bionics. Turns out that Grace’s augmentation was meant for short heavy-duty ambushes, not prolonged combat. Grace and Dani may not like Sarah Connor (at first), but they very much need her expertise. She’s been around this block a few times; they haven’t. Simple as that.
Trust is soon established between the three women, and Sarah takes them on an extremely dangerous border crossing into the United States (there is some sly commentary on the futility and cruelty of Trump’s moronic wall) where Sarah seeks out the source of mysterious text messages she’s been receiving (Sarah’s phone is wrapped in foil) from an undisclosed caller in Laredo, Texas. The texts have faithfully alerted Sarah to new waves of time displacement into our present, including the two entries in Mexico (Grace and the Rev-9), thus explaining her seemingly happenstance arrival.
Stealing a helicopter after escaping from a migrant detainee camp, Grace, Sarah and Dani land in Laredo where they find a small cabin and meet “Carl” (Schwarzenegger), a now bearded, grandfatherly-looking terminator who killed John Connor 22 years ago, but has settled into a life as a drapery salesman (!). Carl is also a family man, complete with a wife and adopted son who don’t yet know papa Carl is really a deadly killing machine from an erased future. Carl welcomes the fugitive trio into his home, despite the fact that Sarah vows to kill the seemingly benign cyborg for the murder of her son. Soon Carl’s wife and son return home to find the strangers whisking their patriarch away. He doesn’t tell them the whole truth, only that his “past has caught up with him” and that he has to leave. This time Carl says he is “not coming back” (this sounds like something in Arnold’s contract rather than foreshadowing).
The quartet of terminator fighters plan to lure the Rev-9 into a “kill box”; using Dani as bait (over Grace’s objection) to draw the Rev-9 into a final all-out assault. After surviving a military cargo plane crash during pursuit by the Rev-9, the final kill box location is a spectacular one; the hydroelectric power plant of Hoover Dam (using the digitally-disguised Aldeadavila Dam in Spain… the same dam seen in 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago”, where it doubled for a dam in post-revolutionary Russia).
The predictable, CGI-laden combat in the final act grows tiresome very quickly, as Dani and her protectors use everything from chains, guns and even giant spinning turbines to try and stop the Rev-9. Overall, this final battle is more or less a redo of the steel factory climax in T2 (with some very specific references, such as Arnie’s lost arm), though not nearly as powerful or suspenseful.
Ultimately the Rev-9 is defeated, but at the cost of both Carl’s life and Grace’s bionic power pack, which scrambles the Rev-9’s neural net (something the group’s damaged EMP weapon was supposed to do). Dani has to cut and remove the power pack from Grace’s body, thus killing her own guardian to save herself. Another hard lesson learned.
The coda sees Sarah in full terminator-stalking mode with her new sidekick and future savior of humanity Dani in tow, taking off in a Jeep together after wistfully watching over a young, pre-augmented Grace playing in a park as a child…a child blissfully unaware of her ‘dark fate’.
The End (there is no post-credits sequence).
Blood, Sweat and Gears.
While little about this quasi-reboot feels very original, there are a few well-appreciated differences. The movie’s new settings of Mexico and Texas are refreshing, even if the story behind them isn’t (Spain, L.A. and Hungarian locales as substituted for those settings). This also applies to the casting of Colombian actress Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, the “new John Connor” (i.e. new savior of the post-apocalypse human race). Reyes is solid in the role, even if her character is ultimately a retread of Hamilton’s own Sarah mixed with her son John (Edward Furlong). Hamilton’s line of “she’s the new John” is achingly on-the-nose, as the ‘chosen one’ trope is utterly exhausted. ‘Chosen ones’ have been a tired genre staple for a very long time (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc). It’s also a bit of a minus that, despite new messiah Dani being a strong young Mexican woman, her ‘protectors’ are still a trio of white people (or white cyborgs). Some might legitimately argue that this falls into the ‘white savior’ movie cliche, where a person of color (however heroic or noble in their own right) is simply out of their depth without a white person to ’save’ them. * sigh * So close…
Mackenzie Davis (“The Martian” “Blade Runner 2049″) as the new cybernetically enhanced ‘bionic woman’ Grace acts as Dani’s own Kyle Reese, minus the love story (though that would’ve been far more interesting if Grace and Dani had been lovers). In flashbacks (or flash-forwards) we learn that future Dani rescues young Grace (when she was just a human orphan) in the post-apocalypse… an act for which Grace owes Dani a life debt. Rising star Davis is solid in the role, and it’s interesting that her cybernetic augmentation requires regular injections in order for her to function at her peak (or at all). It speaks to the everyday endurance (and occasional heroism) of people living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, or HIV. As a person living with occasionally debilitating arthritis, I appreciated the movie’s statement that even bionic super-humans have their weaknesses.
Speaking of weaknesses, there is the matter of the new Rev-9 series Terminator, as played by actor Gabriel Luna. While the actor’s performance is well-augmented by lots of slick CGI effects, Luna doesn’t quite project the menace of his predecessors. The original 1984 terminator was first conceived as an ‘everyman’ who’d blend right in (back when T1 costar Lance Henriksen was a frontrunner for the part), hence making him (it) more frighteningly inconspicuous. Cameron’s casting of Schwarzenegger changed all of that, of course, arguably for the better. While I appreciate director Tim Miller’s return to the original terminator concept, there is also a reason why Schwarzenegger’s imposing frame and cold stare made that character so iconic. Even T2’s Robert Patrick (as T2’s liquid metal T-1000) had that iconic, hooded, eagle-eyed stare that gave his otherwise physically unassuming character an off-the-charts intensity. Luna seems to let the effects do the heavy-lifting, with his face remaining a fixed expression. While interesting on paper, that choice doesn’t translate well onscreen. Sometimes you just have to cheat it a bit to make it really work. Luna doesn’t, and his performance feels more choreographed than cold-blooded.
They’ll be back.
There is also the much ballyhooed return of both Linda Hamilton and original franchise executive writer/director James Cameron, both of whom (ex-spouses, in fact) are returning to the franchise after 28 years. Cameron returns only as producer and a co-story credit this time around, and his mark on the film is less noticeable than Hamilton’s. Hamilton’s take on Sarah Connor is more or less the same as we saw in 1991, though with iron-gray hair, a still-dangerous physicality, and a Clint Eastwood disposition. The loss of her son John has turned Connor into a bitter but functional alcoholic (if there really is such an animal). Without her son John, or anyone else to truly love, she is reduced to a Guns & Ammo Grandma (a variation of Jamie Lee Curtis’ new take on “Laurie Strode” in the 2018 rebooted sequel of “Halloween”). This reduction of the character is a shame, since Sarah Connor was much more layered and nuanced in the first two Terminator films (and TV series).
While I realize that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence may seem essential to the Terminator movie formula, his presence in “Dark Fate” is the final nail in the coffin for the character. After killing John in the 1998 prologue, Carl goes off and (for reasons that are never quite made clear) learns to love a battered woman and her son, adopting them as his own new family. Papa Carl even finds work as a self-employed custom window draperies installer (I s#!t you not). This subplot with ex-terminator Carl and his adopted family feels like a Saturday Night Live parody of David Cronenberg’s “A History Of Violence”. I can never take Schwarzenegger’s terminator even remotely seriously ever again, especially after seeing him in cargo shorts and a flannel dad shirt. Yes, “Carl” adds levity to “Dark Fate”, but that’s also part of the problem with post T2 Terminator movies; the inclusion of extra humor at the expense of gravitas.
Time Travel Fatigue.
“Terminator: Dark Fate” is essentially the same story we saw in T2, T3 and “Genisys”; a ‘chosen one’ character needs protection by a future soldier (human or cyborg). That’s essentially it. But one critical element that made earlier Terminator movies work better for me were the love stories. The first film saw a soldier saving a woman he’d fallen in love with from a photograph. The second movie saw Sarah’s undying tough-love devotion to her son John (who is brutally taken out in “Dark Fate”‘s opener). Even the third movie had a 20-something romance between a motherless John Connor and former classmate Kate (it wasn’t much of a love story, but it was something). Without that human heartbeat, the Terminator movies are soulless action flicks. The central love story has been forsaken for extra CGI FX and action set pieces. Forgive the cliche, but love is what makes a Terminator movie… not just time-traveling robots, explosions and liquid metal shapeshifting. Director Tim Miller’s own “Deadpool” movies recognized this, with Morena Baccarin’s “Vanessa” giving Ryan Reynolds’ wiseass meta-superhero a solid anchor. Perhaps if “Dark Fate” had the courage to allow Dani to fall in love with her augmented protector Grace, the final scenes would’ve had a lot more emotional heft and impact.
“The Sarah Connor Chronicles” TV series also proved there are fresh stories to tell within the Terminator multiverse, but the Terminator movies have become too rigidly formulaic. I do wish The Sarah Connor Chronicles had lived beyond its two season lifespan. This was a series that should’ve had a good four or five year run, eliminating the need for more bloated, misfiring cinematic sequels.
While I eschew rankings or numerical scores, I’d say that “Dark Fate” is a step up from “Salvation” and “Genisys,” but not a giant leap. Granted, there are worse ways to use up a bargain matinee ticket price, but that’s not exactly high praise, either. “Dark Fate” ultimately feels like a so-so imitation of something better. Other than a change of settings and some fresh casting choices, the film is more or less a generic Terminator flick.
Given its current lackluster box office (around $28 million opening weekend), it’s safe to say the Terminator won’t be back any time soon…