I love THE TERMINATOR, but I love TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. To me it’s one of the all time greats of sequels, summer event movies, action movies, movies in general. It came into the world at the right time to knock me on my ass, and has only grown with me. We’d never seen a movie like it; the technology had not existed for a character to do the things that the liquid metal T-1000 did, and no woman, not even Ripley in James Cameron’s own ALIENS, had returned to the screen as thoroughly transformed into an indelible badass as Sarah Connor.
At the time it seemed like the biggest, loudest, most over-the-top and technologically advanced action spectacle we’d ever seen. Now there’s a certain quaintness and groundedness to it. The then-show-stopping computer effects are only for a little bit of morphing – now we notice the huge amount of real stunts involving a semi-truck, motorcycles, a helicopter and various pyrotechnics that would never be so real in a modern movie. And the story is built on characters and emotions in a way that’s much more resonant to me than most subsequent movies of this type.
That’s especially true of the trilogy of T2 followups, each one a failed attempt to begin a new trilogy. A rotating gallery of rights holders made TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (well-crafted but obvious, until a pretty surprising ending), TERMINATOR: SALVATION (beautiful and gutsy, but a narrative mess) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (just really fuckin stupid). The new one, TERMINATOR: DARK FATE ignores them all and has the strong selling point of bringing back creator James Cameron (as co-writer and producer who was apparently hands on during pre and post-production). More importantly it has the very obvious thing that has been missing from all of the non-Cameron installments: the fucking lead actress of the TERMINATOR movies, Linda Hamilton. (In 3, Sarah was said to have died, in SALVATION she cameos on a voice recording, in GENISYS she’s played by a sorely miscast Emilia Clarke.)
Just when I thought I was out they pulled me back in. If you want the short version, I’ll just say that it’s nothing great and that I liked it. It doesn’t push any envelopes, it just works as these types of movies tend to today: reminding us of things we liked about the old movies, adding some new characters, mixing up the formula. But it’s not creating the formula and – not that this is a fair thing to ask of any movie – it’s not reinventing the way movies are made. It’s kind of like THE FORCE AWAKENS, but it’s less nostalgic, so it doesn’t attempt to mimic the tactile visual world of the old films. Now we’re used to seeing very detailed, very involved digital animations that shift and morph and flip around and are followed by impossible camera moves and yes, we see a whole bunch more of that again, because that’s what movies are now. This is just one of those, but a pretty good one.
As is TERMINATOR tradition, two opposing soldiers from a future war arrive naked in the present, one trying to protect a person from the other trying to kill her. But because Sarah (Hamilton, KING KONG LIVES) stopped the creation of Skynet in T2 it’s a different future war against a different A.I. that’s called Legion and was made by the military but also uses Terminators, Hunter-Killers and time travel assassinations. Fuck. I’m sure this will bum some people out the way ALIEN 3 did, especially since John Connor died as a teenager instead of growing up to fight, so Sarah probly wishes she never saved the world. Now she spends much of her time getting blackout drunk – or so she claims. We only see her holding a few bottles of beer handed to her in social situations.
The protector is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, TULLY), a human soldier cybernetically enhanced for super speed, strength and durability (though she crashes out and needs constant medication). The Terminator is a model Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, Ghost Rider on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), not functionally much different than the T-1000, though the FX teams always find ways to make him visually interesting, animating his morphs kind of like a hybrid of muscle fibers and rock formations. Forming beautiful shiny black tendrils. And there’s a cool gimmick I’m glad I didn’t pick up on from the trailers (so, SPOILER) that since the liquid part separates from its solid metal structure his skeleton can act as his sidekick, for example driving a truck while he’s on the hood fighting. (I wish this was explored a little more, like if our heroes figured out they had to keep them separate in order to defeat him.)
The present day citizen they’re fighting over is Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, BIRDS OF PASSAGE) of Mexico City. She’s attacked at the factory where she works and escapes with Grace. After witnessing a bunch of crazy robot violence Dani doesn’t have a hard time believing that yeah, I guess these are time travelers. Much of the movie is a series of chase scenes and fights. Just when they seem cornered, Sarah shows up with a bazooka. They have no idea who she is, but she sees that Dani is kind of in the situation she was in in the first movie, so she wants to help.
From this point on I really need to dig into some SPOILERS. Beware.
We all knew Arnold Schwarzenegger would be in it, but how, exactly? We learn that at the time of T2 there were other Terminators sent besides the T-1000, as backup or something. One T-800 later caught up with John Connor and killed him. The scene is shorter than I’d like, but they very convincingly put young Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong faces onto body doubles. I like that the T-800 is an idealized Arnold, a more chiseled face put on the swollen body of Brett Azar, who also played a young Terminator in GENISYS.
But he was just leftovers, a Terminator acting on orders from an evil computer that no longer exists, fighting a war that’s already lost before it begins. A ronin. And like John Connor’s Terminator pal in T2 he started to learn things from humans. So for years now he’s been passing as a very weird human named “Carl,” living with an adopted family in Laredo, Texas. And he can’t go back in time and change it so that he doesn’t go back in time and kill John Connor, but he can try to work toward some kind of redemption. Though clumsily introduced in dialogue I really like this premise.
And because Grace showed up with the latitude and longitude of Carl’s house tattooed on her belly she goes to him for help, bringing Sarah. So we get the ol’ “grizzled badass lady reluctantly forced to work with the robot drape salesman who murdered her son” routine.
One of the ways Cameron made the T-1000 scary was by putting him in an LAPD uniform, so in 2019 we have one disguised as Border Patrol. Grace and Sarah have to get Dani across the border to Laredo and end up in a detainment center (one that looks much more pleasant than the ones on the news). My friend Matt Lynch pre-emptively made fun of anyone who would think that makes the movie meaningful or relevant. On its own it’s not saying anything, but in the context of 2019 films it certainly is. Just compare it to RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. This year the two biggest action stars of the ‘80s reprised their most popular characters as plaid-shirt wearing cowboys living peacefully with adopted Mexican families in border states until they have to give it up to fight again. But LAST BLOOD (like SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, MISS BALA and PEPPERMINT) portrays Mexico as the land of a couple nice people sprinkled in a horde of psychotic cartel members who are coming to get us. It’s a world view that’s convenient for action theatrics and for the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, baby stealing agenda of our current regime of shitheads. I don’t know if that means Hollywood are Trumpists, or think they can make a quick buck off of the people who are, or just have bad timing. But it must be noted that it’s happening.
Therefore DARK FATE makes a statement by solely depicting Mexicans as human beings. There’s not even, like, a little scene where some alley muggers get into a scuffle. There are some young people hanging out under a bridge who might be junkies or something, but they try to help Grace. I guess the one negative cliche is the plot convenience of Dani having an uncle who’s a Coyote.
(Incidentally, I noticed a credit for footage from SIN NOMBRE, Cary Fukinaga’s excellent movie about people trying to get over the border to escape gangs – did they somehow stitch some of the train footage in there? Or was it playing on a TV or something? I didn’t catch it.)
You almost don’t notice that this is a big spectacular sci-fi action movie with three female leads because it seems more revolutionary that it’s handing off the future to a Latina. The heroine being a Mexican woman who has to cross the border illegally to save the human race – that’s not nothing. I always read meaning into T2’s future of humanity being a kid in a Public Enemy t-shirt, I’m damn well gonna read meaning into this.
Dani is like John in that she chooses helping people over a rigorous focus on the mission at all costs. She’s very different from Sarah at any stage. She’s not trained to fight, but she shows a toughness and an aptitude for leadership when she stands up to her boss at work, or even to Grace and Sarah when they’re arguing about how to protect her. She insists on her autonomy from them and from her supposed fate.
In these arguments Sarah is struggling for relevance in a world where she’s no longer hot shit. I love that she spent so many years with the weight of the world on her shoulders as the mother, protector and trainer of the future leader of the human resistance, but by saving the world she made herself into a nobody. There’s something meta about that for a character that’s such an icon to so many of us and maybe means nothing to younger people. And also for older actors in general, especially women (but even Arnold). The people who couldn’t bring enough people into theaters to make enough millions of dollars off this movie. But I still love them.
Sarah doesn’t feel as real and nuanced here as she does to me in T2. She’s at a different stage of life where she’s kind of a snarling bad attitude in human form. It’s more of a pose, less of a portrait of raw emotions hiding behind muscles and sunglasses. She knows what we think of her, and she flaunts it. But it’s fun to see her. Arnold and friends get to do these type of “that’s right, I’m still a badass” roles, so it’s enjoyable to see Hamilton get that opportunity, and of course I’m a sucker for the way she and the killer robot move toward fight brotherhood.
I kind of love Carl. I want a t-shirt with “CARL” in cool metal letters. At his home there are some jokes, most of which made me laugh, though at least one (involving sunglasses) was a groaner. But when the shit goes down it’s pretty fuckin cool to see old Arnold in this tenacious underdog fight against yet another more advanced model. It’s kinda like ROCKY BALBOA, he’s slower and stiffer but he’s tenacious and has fists like sledge hammers. (And he’s fighting alongside Grace, who sometimes has an actual sledge hammer.) When the two robots are fighting it’s like the ultimate battle of strong silent types. They don’t show pain or anger. They just keep going.
And I like that at the end Sarah and Dani seem to be pals. Driving around in a Jeep together. Sarah wearing hipper clothes all the sudden. And letting Dani drive. Maybe she’s mellowing out a little now that she has a new future war to help out with.
This is only the second film directed by Tim Miller, who did the first DEADPOOL and dropped out of the second in part to do this. He’s a veteran animation and FX guy – through his Blur Studio he worked on SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and designed the title sequence for Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, among other things.
From what I’ve read, the script was by David S. Goyer (BLADE) & Justin Rhodes (CONTRACT KILLERS), heavily rewritten by Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, OVERLORD) and then cleaned up by Cameron. But story credit also went to Charles H. Eglee (PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING [!], DEADLY EYES) and Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.