Movie Review - Terminator: Dark Fate
By Matthew Huntley
November 14, 2019
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) is both the pinnacle and downfall of the longstanding “Terminator” franchise. On the one hand, it remains an exemplary action and science fiction blockbuster, one that’s rarely, if ever, been topped, with its cutting edge special effects; hyperkinetic chase sequences and shoot-outs; and rhythmic, well rounded story, which is unexpectedly heartfelt and humorous.
On the flip side, because Terminator 2” was so groundbreaking, it put Hollywood in a pickle because it forced the studios to admit the series probably couldn’t get any better and therefore had no reason to continue. “T2” had sealed its fate.
And speaking of fate, “Dark Fate,” which is the subtitle of the latest installment, merely serves as an illustration of the above. It’s another ho-hum, inferior sequel that’s neither good nor terrible. It’s just sort of there—a template “Terminator” movie that’s more lethargic than stimulating. And the fact it makes several nods to “T2” doesn’t make it clever or respectful so much as desperate, because it suggests not even the filmmakers knew what the point of “Dark Fate” was in the overall “Terminator” saga. After all, its plot contains the same basic setup, characters and developments as the first two “Terminator” movies, while its drawn-out, overblown action sequences, of which there are too many, don’t really expose us to anything we haven’t seen before. So other than the usual commercial reasons, why was “Dark Fate” even made?
That’s not a question you want to be asking yourself after any movie, but it’s particularly frustrating when it comes to the “Terminator” franchise because it makes you realize the filmmakers can easily negate the events of “T2” just so the series can go on. It’s as if they’re telling us everything we invested in and thought about so far doesn’t matter, because they can just make up or change anything to perpetuate the brand, which is like a kick in the teeth.
I remember feeling this way when “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) came out, although one of the few fortunate things about “Dark Fate” is that it doesn’t recognize “Terminator 3,” “Terminator: Salvation” or “Terminator: Genisys” in its universe, at least I don’t think (I’m not about to go back and watch any of these again to determine if their storylines actually connect to this newest one). Just like last year’s “Halloween” reboot, “Dark Fate” only acknowledges the first two installments of the series. And unfortunately, also like the new “Halloween,” “Dark Fate” fails to give the “Terminator” franchise much of a renewed purpose.
The long and short of the plot is it’s now 2020, approximately 25 years after Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong), along with their trusted T-800 Terminator protector (who else but Arnold Schwarzenegger?), took down Skynet, the evil artificial intelligence system that became self-aware and subsequently hellbent on destroying mankind. However, a few years from this present day, we learn a new and supposedly more powerful AI network called Legion takes over with the same MO and its deadly machines look conveniently like Skynet’s, which either means Legion and Skynet are related or the filmmakers wanted to save themselves the trouble of designing new villains.
It’s also convenient that Legion renders its own version of Judgement Day—essentially a nuclear holocaust—during which millions of humans perish, because this event once again jumpstarts the usual time-traveling “Terminator” plot, which means the filmmakers don’t have to bother devising a new story. They can just rehash the old one. You know how it goes: Legion sends one of its Terminators back in time to kill the leader of the human resistance, while the humans send back a lone warrior to protect said leader. And, as it goes, the Terminator and human protector race to get to their assignment before the other and then engage in battle in very big, extravagant ways.
If you’re at all familiar with the previous “Terminator” movies, it’s probably not necessary for me to go on with a plot summation, as this one has been part of the collective Hollywood consciousness for over 30 years now and hasn’t evolved much here. The main differences this time around are with respect to the gender roles. Instead of humankind’s savior being John Connor, it’s now the brave and resourceful Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican woman who has a knack for motivating people and making them believe they can still come together under the most dire circumstances. And instead of Arnold as Dani’s protector, it’s Mackenzie Davis, who plays Grace, an augmented human who’s part machine. Their joined by a seasoned but jaded Sarah Connor (once again Hamilton, who’s still got it) as they duke it out with Legion’s sophisticated Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), which is part liquid metal like the T-1000 from “T2” and part metal endoskeleton, like the T-800. Its two body types can detach from one another, making it easy for the Rev-9 to be two places at once.
And it just wouldn’t be a “Terminator” movie if Arnie didn’t make an appearance, and he does, although in what capacity I’ll not reveal, even though it’s not all that exciting. On the contrary, his presence proves rather sad and pathetic because it reminds us just how far both he and this franchise have fallen because we get the sense they’re clinging to the past too tightly. The screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray, carved out of a story by five writers, including original series creator and director James Cameron, doesn’t offer much in the way of new ideas or character developments. All the events and people simply fall in line with what we already know and expect and aren’t given any wiggle room. If director Tim Miller brought any unique touches to the table as a filmmaker, the hackneyed script overshadows them, while its overt parallels with “T2” almost seem deliberate.
Consider a few examples: the means by which Grace and the Rev-9 fall out of their time-traveling electric shells, naked—you’d think by now both human and AI technology would have come up with a less conspicuous manner to send their soldiers back in time; the several highway chase sequences, the first of which has the Rev-9 plowing through other vehicles and barriers while driving a dump truck as Dani and Grace speed along in a comparatively small pickup—this is all too reminiscent of the superior semitruck/motorcycle chase from “T2”; the “Guitars, Cadillacs” song by Dwight Yoakam, which is obvious attempt to get us to recall “T2”’s opening, although the scene in which it plays here has a lame payoff; the climactic battle, which once again takes place in a power plant (only this time it’s hydroelectric vs. steel), and with the space essentially being the same, the whole sequence feels overall less fresh; and the final shot of Dani grasping a chain link fence as she watches children scurry around on a playground, which is exactly what Sarah did during a dream sequence in “T2.”
I realize “Dark Fate” was partly meant as an homage to its predecessor, but in its pursuit to pay respect to “T2,” it inadvertently dishonors itself because it never establishes its own identity. The filmmakers seem content to let it live in shadow of something they know is greater, which ends up making it a forgetful token rather than a full-blooded movie that’s actually worth seeing. If “Dark Fate” accomplishes anything, it’s that it gives Hamilton, Davis and Reyes more publicity and exposure, which is good because, as actresses, they possess strength, conviction and presence, and hopefully “Dark Fate” will at least get them to seek out and obtain better, more meaningful projects in the future. There—I think I just reasoned why “Dark Fate” was made. Granted, it’s not a very good one, but it’ll do.