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Terminator: Dark Fate (November 2019)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Your name is Dani Ramos. You live and work in Mexico City. You live an unassuming life with your brother and father, but things are about to become royally complicated. Over two decades after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day--of which you are ignorant--a new killing machine called a REV-9 is going to travel back in time to try and kill you, while an augmented human named Grace from that same future will also be sent back in time to protect you. Stuck in the middle with you: Sarah Connor and a not-quite-T2-T-800 named Carl.

Enough of a résumé for you?

Terminator: Dark Fate is directed by Tim Miller and produced by James Cameron. The cast includes Linda Hamilton, reprising her role as Sarah Connor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a T-800 model. There’s even a cameo by Edward Furlong. That all sounds promising, right? The story is credited to James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer and Justin Rhodes. Less promising. The screenplay itself is by Goyer (who, since 2010, has written films like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice), Rhodes, and Ray (who has written some interesting screenplays, but was most recently involved in Gemini Man). Like Sarah Connor’s résumé, the filmmakers’ is a long and storied one, but its glories are past and its future uncertain.

First, the right moves. This story thankfully avoids the convolutions of other Terminator sequels (which it simply relocates to alternate timelines) and it is, on every level, easy to look at. The performances by Hamilton and Schwarzenegger are excellent, and franchise newcomers MacKenzie Davis (Grace), Natalia Reyes (Dani) and Gabriel Luna (REV-9) all turn in strong work. Action sequences are well-staged and visually coherent, with plenty of orienting wide shots and a strong sense of pacing. Julian Clarke’s editing is slick and maximizes dramatic import.

Now, for the lurching. The dialog, though sparse, is repetitive and somewhat clumsy. Jokes fall flat. Junkie XL’s score is not quite up to the task of elevating the proceedings; he plugs in Brad Fiedel’s classic theme at obvious moments, and underlines dramatic tension or emotion in other unsubtle ways. The story kicks off with a gutsy move to pick up after T2 and in the first few minutes of the picture dispatch a main character—no tricks, no do-overs. Real stakes, we think as viewers. But that’s as much conviction as we’re going to get. The rest of the plot recedes into familiarity, consumed by the maws of gigantic action set pieces that gleefully discard verisimilitude and eventually cause a glazing over of the eyes.

A desert road trip with a fugitive, and a super-human character subject to chronic convulsions, evokes Logan (2017), minus the bite or grit, and the film’s middle act plays out like a diluted version of Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado (2018). With many homages to Cameron’s work, the highway chase also recalls Miller’s own Deadpool (2016). Damningly, the entire movie seems to be of two minds about its ambitions: on the one hand--or perhaps cybernetic knee--it wishes to genuflect to the first two franchise installments, and assure everyone that this is a real bona fide sequel, while on the other it seeks to establish its own identity by conducting an unprecedented symphony of destruction. This split personality is encoded into the REV-9 itself: it can fission off into two separate killers, one a perfect regression to the T-800 frame, the other a super-evolved version of the mercurial T-1000. I get the sense that after numerous roundtable discussions and market analyses the creative team just couldn’t make a decision. “I know,” someone said. “Let’s do both!”

As standalone pop entertainment, Terminator: Dark Fate checks the boxes and offers a few tantalizing glimmers of ideas that could have been fleshed out, were it not for all the running around. As a Terminator movie, see the previous comment.

Recall Blair Williams’ words from the unfairly reviled Terminator Salvation: “You can focus on what is lost, or you can fight for what is left.” You may find yourself in agreement one way or the other, lamenting that this new movie doesn’t live up to the glory of its predecessors, or arguing that it is the best of what might have been and that we should continue to stagger forward. Here’s my stance. This is the franchise sequel in which the Terminator dramatically chooses to leave his iconic sunglasses behind—only to step out into an overcast day.

You Need Butterflies, Polka Dots, Balloons – Spoilers Ahead

Sarah Connor is mishandled by this screenplay. It’s believable that after surviving the events of the first two movies merely to watch her son be executed at close range by yet another T-800 she would indeed become an alcoholic shell of her former self, bent on seemingly never-ending, and never-satisfying, vengeance. As she herself says, she’s been “terminated.” But while the script tells us that this is who Connor has become, what it shows us is an action superhero spouting dialog procured from a conveyor belt of wise-cracking hyperbole, an improbable throwback whose backstory has been reduced to mopping up the temporal fallout of a Skynet that won’t even exist.

The problem, alas, is deeper than one reductively warped character. When Sarah, in order to improve Dani’s target shooting performance, leans over and tells Dani that her family has just been killed by the Terminator, it's like an acknowledgement of defeat on the filmmakers’ part. Yes, they’re saying with Linda Hamilton’s smirk as Dani does indeed proceed to bulls-eye each of the pieces of practice fruit into flying pulp in direct response to Connor’s manipulative prompt, we are going to exploit the cliché of traumatic loss engendering steely resolve and retaliatory precision. Never mind that small-budget films like You Were Never Really Here (2017) or the more recent The Nightingale (2019) have searingly explored the PTSD that accompanies the taking of life and the gaping futility of seeking revenge; never mind that large-budget franchises like John Wick (2014-) have crafted a sly deconstruction of that trope’s absurdity while eating their bullet-filled cakes, too. No, here we’re simply going to bow to the formula and wink.

Plot-wise, numerous aspects are dissatisfying: the future resistance fighting Legion (which has evolved in a new timeline that supplanted the Skynet timeline of T2) knows the coordinates where the now-rogue T-800 is hiding out because presumably future Dani knows, but future Dani only knows because Grace tells present Dani, so that Dani’s knowledge in the future results from her knowledge in the present, which she obtains from the future, one of those pesky a-causal affairs on which hinges a fundamental story development. T2 went to great lengths to explain that T-800s could only learn and evolve if their CPUs were set from read-only to read-write, and here we have a T-800 that has deviated wildly from its original programming, which would require substantial growth: who altered its CPU setting? In other words, who flipped Carl? This movie suggests that the original T2 Skynet sent back a myriad of T-800s, spread out through the years, since Sarah Connor has made it her life’s work to (unwittingly, with this T-800’s text message assistance) hunt them down. If this T-800 can sense his brethren before they arrive, why can’t they sense him? How has Sarah Connor single-handedly defeated this array of T-800s, year after year, while being sought in all fifty States? And why do the T-800s stop appearing now? Why do these characters refer to Legion’s time-traveling assassin as a Terminator, when it has no T-designation, and was created by a completely different AI from Skynet?

Given the incredible sophistication and jaw-dropping power of this REV-9, which can not only completely separate its skin/chassis from its skeleton into two, separately acting entities, and is also an expert at information technology and human mimicry, why does it only run when it needs to go fast? The REV-9 is infinitely more complex and advanced, technologically speaking, than, say, a car, and it can shape-shift into anything it desires: when Dani is in sight, why not simply morph part of its body into the necessary car-like components, rather than running on far slower human-style legs? Why not become a drone, or a missile, or a supersonic dagger?

Character dynamics with promise are left to languish. The animosity between Connor and Grace is readily abandoned, and Connor is deprived of the chance to kill this T-800 because, in a deference to the previous movie which metaphorically sinks this whole narrative into the past, he nobly sacrifices himself to save her and Dani. The loss of Dani’s brother and father is used once, as a plot gimmick, and never revisited. And so on.

One of the movie’s central problems is that it has no defined tone or point of view. Its engineers forgot to include affect in its specs. It introduces many elements, such as border crossings and detainee incarcerations, the shock and disorientation of a normal person being confronted with vastly advanced technology from the future, the idea of a killer AI developing a conscience, etc., that are potentially interesting, but it has nothing to say about any of them. Tim Miller appears to be so preoccupied with hitting recognizable “Terminator” beats that he forgets that one of the first two flicks’ signature elements was that of… drumroll… surprise. No matter how crafty, a cover band is unlikely to ever produce a hit on a par with those it regularly drills through, and this is no exception. I think Miller should have been less studious of Cameron’s work and taken some cues from Westworld (pick your variant), Ex Machina (2015), Upgrade (2018), and, particularly for the action, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (2011), Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation (2015) and, at the very least, Mission: Impossible -- Fallout (2018). I have to believe that Christopher McQuarrie would have taken Miller’s call. If pressed for time, even Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), generally regarded as the weakest of the Avengers movies, might have provided some helpful hints.

Despite ostensibly wanting to forge a new path, Terminator: Dark Fate is a narrative needlessly contorted into the shape of a now-obsolete endoskeleton. Proficient action filmmaking services a story lacking the conceptual frisson or technical innovations of the first two films. The tension of the chase, the dread of an implacable slasher-type foe, and the claustrophobic, nightmarish sense of impending apocalyptic doom have all been drained away and replaced with knowing nostalgia, virtuoso stunt-work and a calculated, pointless R-rating. Despite its budget and effects, this movie is--pun intended--in what old Hollywood terms would have been termed a B-programmer—and this program has been coded by an AI intent on emulation rather than creation. Despite a few fun nods and a couple of poignant moments, it’s all ultimately weighed down by a mechanical reverence towards its source material, which makes it feel like the byproduct of a terminated alternate timeline rather than, as we might have hoped for, the spectacular visitation of a cutting-edge entertainment machine from the near future.

The movie’s final shot shows Dani and Sarah driving down a suburban tree-lined street reminiscent of the one on which Marty McFly lives in Back to the Future, which feels entirely too appropriate. These characters have become seemingly trapped in an endless temporal loop of repetition with minimal variation; genuine character development has been exchanged for permutation, pathos commodified into posing. And we’re trapped along with them, darkly fated to consume each iteration with growing queasiness at the realization that these stories are no longer interested in the value of machine, let alone human, life.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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