The biggest thing that surprised me about this movie was not James Cameron’s much-heralded return to the franchise that made him a household name, it was the fact that it’s already been four years since the poor Terminator: Genisys. 4 years? I think I’m suffering my own time-travel headache. And really, the fact that this is the big surprise should tell you what I thought of this latest entry in the 35-year-old sci-fi franchise.
Maybe you know about Cameron’s involvement, maybe you don’t, but I’m not exactly sure just what he brought to the movie beyond the producers paying him a hefty bag of gold to get his name attached to the project. It feels like pretty much any big-budget action movie you’ve ever seen – but worse, it plays exactly like every other Terminator movie you’ve seen (with the exception of Terminator: Salvation): Robotic killing machine is sent back in time by the stupidest AI imaginable, to kill someone important to the human resistance in the future, then much chase scenes and explosions and shootings follow, The End. It’s depressingly rote – a franchise built mostly on redoing its predecessor, using different actors. The one thing about Terminator: Dark Fate is that there was actually a chance to do something different – or at least mix it up a little bit.
This isn’t much of a spoiler, but here’s the main thrust of my criticism – using T2 as Dark Fate’s true predecessor and essentially ignoring movies 3 – 5, we discover early on that Sarah Connor did indeed prevent the Judgment Day foretold in T2, but that humans inevitably created an AI that followed the exact same path as Skynet. What this committee-written story did is present the franchise with the ability to create a wholly different future timeline with a different threat to overcome, but they played it out EXACTLY as if it’s just Skynet all long! The scenes in the future show a ravaged post-apocalyptic world that’s just like the other movies, with the same designs for the future tech and the Terminators (although they’re now black chrome instead of silver). The new dumbass AI is named Legion, and not only did it also discover time travel, the transportation method looks exactly the same! Why even bother to come up with a new villain? It’s maybe the absolute laziest way you could write a new chapter. Meet the new bad guy – exactly the same as the old bad guy. And c’mon – almost three decades after T2, all you can show us is a Hispanic version of Robert Patrick’s T-1000? Really? It’s insulting.
Without seeing the movie you can guess the basic plot so there’s no point going back over it here. The big selling point is that Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) returns to the franchise, and that the movie has a female-centricity to it that could feel forced, but didn’t to me. Like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, I enjoy seeing female action heroes, and the good news about this movie is that Mackenzie Davis, who plays Grace, an augmented soldier from the future, is pretty terrific – and not just to look at either. She’s got a real screen presence, I thought – I totally bought her in this role as much as I’ve bought into any male actor in an action movie. For me, she was the highlight of the entire picture, and it’s astonishing to think the same actress played the character Yorkie in the Black Mirror episode San Junipero. I mean, c’mon:
In contrast though, Linda Hamilton’s return as Sarah Connor was distinctly one-note for me. Her raspy voice and lemon-sucking expression all the way through the movie was just tiresome. I don’t expect great acting in a franchise action movie and I don’t generally get it either (so yeah, no Oscar for RDJ in Endgame, folks), but attempting to make Connor a badass in this movie, that’s really all the writers did. Just like Jamie Lee Curtis in last year’s garbage Halloween, the character is literally only defined by her outer actions. There’s no real sense that Sarah Connor is even an attempt to write a strong female character, she’s as robotic and mission-focused as the evil Terminator, played here by Gabriel Luna. Natalia Reyes is the new John Connor, in that she’s The One that needs protecting, but there’s precious little of her that’s required by the script until the end of Act 2. For all of the running time before that, she’s simply along for the ride.
And what would a Terminator movie’s budget be without some padding for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s retirement fund? Returning to the role (somewhat) that turned him into a worldwide superstar, Ah-nuld’s participation in Dark Fate takes a back seat to Davis and Hamilton, but he’s arguably the most enjoyable character in the whole picture, and I actually liked him. It’s kind of weird to say that he’s the comic relief in a Terminator movie, but he does provide the personality-devoid goings-on with its lighter moments, and I liked the conceit the writers used to explain his presence in it. But please Arnold, now it’s time to stop. He’s just getting too long in the tooth to be anything other than a bit player in this franchise. If there’s ever going to be another (judging by the projected opening weekend grosses, that might be a tall order), there really needs to be a major shakeup in both direction and content – but therein lies the innate problem with the entire franchise, you can’t really get too far away from the central premise before it no longer justifies the name. Unless, of course, the producers take a gamble on a radically different take on it, instead of the same tired old chase-shoot-explosion template. Rip it up, I say! That could have been this picture, but they blew is so spectacularly badly by sticking way too close to the franchise’s tired tropes.
I will concede though, that I was as impressed as hell with the opening flashback scene that digitally de-aged the major players to 1991 versions. The technique is here to stay, and it’s grown by leaps and bounds since the plastic-mask days of X-Men: The Last Stand, and I thought it was done terrifically well in this scene. The true test of this will be a full movie featuring digitally de-aged versions of actors that doesn’t feel like a CGI-fest, but would they really even need the actors at this point? Maybe this could see “Schwarzenegger” back in the villainous version of The Terminator. I guess I’d spend money to see that.
© Andrew Hope, 2019