This review contains significant spoilers. However, you could probably guess the plot if you tried.
Terminator: Dark Fate is the latest in a fairly disappointing franchise following the first two ground-breaking Terminator films back in the late 80s and early 90s. This film, however, promises much by offering to scrub away some of the guff of the latter films: T3: Rise of the Machines (terrible – 2003), T4: Terminator Salvation (actually not bad – 2009), and T5: Terminator Genisys (abysmal – 2015).
Instead of following John Connor, the little brat from Terminator 2 – who we sort of wanted to survive – and somehow turns into the saviour of the human race, we now see posters of a world weary Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), and we’re told that the events in Dark Fate will follow directly on from the plot of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Not only that, but James Cameron (the original director) is back on board as a producer.
This was promising news! Not least because Terminator 2 is my favourite (and should be yours as well), but also because it promises a return to some of the elements that made T2: Judgement Day so good: classic action sequences grounded in real physics; a real sense of peril for the characters and also the human race with the foreboding of nuclear war; a strong yet complex lead in Sarah Connor; a balance of light and dark moments – all of which produce a well rounded, good looking action film that I still love to watch this day.
Alas, not all is as promised. There’s quite a lot to like about Terminator: Dark Fate, but there’s also a lot that I didn’t like.
Let’s begin with the action sequences. Terminator 2 – released in 1991 – has a number of memorable action sequences, all firmly grounded in a real physical world with gravity and everything. A world where if an explosion goes off near someone’s head, they die or at least go into a coma. Yes, there’s CGI – the groundbreaking effects of the liquid metal terminator morphing into different shapes still looks pretty good today – but it’s used sparingly throughout the film.
Terminator: Dark Fate is directed by Tim Miller (of Deadpool fame), so we could certainly expect some fast moving scenes, and probably quite a bit of CGI for good measure, so perhaps I should have seen this coming. But the difference is that in Deadpool, they break the fourth wall and point out how ridiculous the CGI is as you’re watching the film – but there’s no wit or irony about how the CGI is presented in Dark Fate.
Indeed, many of the actions scenes in this film are a complete farce. Trucks smash into their car: they survive. Their plane collides with another: they survive. They get dropped out of the plane in a Humvee that crashes into the Hoover Dam, fall off the edge of the dam, are stabbed by the terminator (whilst underwater), break their way out of the submerged car and swim to freedom in a very powerful river: they survive.
The problem is that as soon as you break the golden rule (showing something that is physically impossible and now all the characters should definitely be dead or seriously injured), the viewer loses any sense of real peril in the plot. Rather than being a ‘cool action scene’, it undermines the film completely. By no means is this an issue unique to the Terminator films – many modern films use such high levels of over the top CGI action that it’s actually become pretty boring to watch.
By contrast, some filmmakers are going out of their way to ensure their action scenes feel real. Consider Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, any Christopher Nolan film, or Mission Impossible: Fallout. Whilst these films may have their crazy moments, all of them bring a weight to the action that pulls the viewer in, and enhances the plot at the same time. CGI can give us some amazing cinema when used with care, but it’s very easy to overstep the line, and the human eye is quite good at detecting it.
Film studios: PLEASE stop throwing money into massive CGI action scenes, it’s ruining the films I pay good money to watch. In ten years time these films will be unwatchable.
Alright, we all knew the plot was going to be a bit thin. Any plot that relies on changing the future whilst having the present changed by characters from the future themselves is going to have trouble. Especially when each film has a different interpretation of what that means: T1 gets a free pass (as it is legendary); in T2, “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” (we can prevent 3 billion deaths, thank God); T3 judgement day is inevitable, even though the robot tech that Skynet was based on was destroyed in T2; in T4 it’s already happened (somehow) and we’re just seeing them sort it out (which is probably what makes this film work as the past-future stuff is mostly left out apart from some flashbacks); in T5, who knows what’s going on – but it’s tripe.
It seems like each film is based in a different parallel universe with a timeline that’s loosely connected to -but not the same as – the film before. This is convenient for the writers!
Dark Fate is no different – indeed, after a chilling start, recapping some of the excellent scenes from Terminator 2 with Sarah Connor in a psychiatric ward, we’re shown that another Arnie shaped terminator is sent back from the future in 1998 (a year after they destroyed the terminator that Skynet was reverse engineered from in 1997). Sarah Connor even mentions it in the film: “A terminator was sent back from a future that never happened”.
Okay, that seems like a plot hole.
Not only that, but Grace, the Deus-Ex style augmented human has never heard of Skynet – so the future the terminator was sent back from really didn’t exist. The only film I can think of that does future-past with more abandon to the plot is X-Men Days of Future Past, which does the history bending cop-out of bringing all the characters back from the dead by fixing something in the future. Come to think of it, Avengers: Endgame does it too… but at least they try and explain it in a way that seems half logical.
But hey – we’re not watching a terminator film because we’re looking for a logical, well thought out film. We want good solid action, a bit of apocalyptic craziness in our characters, and ideally a couple of one liners from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, good news…
Arnie is back, and on good form as a bad-terminator that develops a conscience and turns good in the end. He’s called Carl. After all, he’s just a robot following orders, so when his mission is successful, why not settle down to look after a woman and her son escaping from an abusive relationship? At last, a profound thought is presented in the movie – what gives us purpose? And does an AI robot need purpose to function? And maybe all the terminators can really be nice guys too – just so long as they get their murdery stabby mission out of the way first.
Sarah Connor is well acted by Linda Hamilton, but her character feels much thinner than in Terminator 2. Even if her voice is now two octaves lower from all the drinking and smoking, back then, in Terminator 2 you could really see why the psychologists thought that she was mentally ill. But now, even after some disastrous events, she just seems to be rolling with it, resigned to being a terminator of terminators whilst explaining to us that she drinks herself to sleep every night. It’s convenient that she told us that, as we hardly see her drink in the film, and she even refuses a beer from Arnie’s terminator. You can’t just plonk a fact like that into dialogue. Heavy drinkers don’t usually admit to heavy drinking to total strangers. That felt sloppy.
We’re introduced to a few new characters as well – the aforementioned Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who is sent from the future to protect the central character Dani (Natalia Reyes) from the new and improved Rev-9 terminator (Gabriel Luna).
This looks like some canny casting from Paramount. Firstly, three strong female characters leading the action. One of them is old (check). One of them is Colombian (double check). And Mackenzie Davis in particular is pretty convincing as spiky, sweary, imperfect saviour from the future. But some of it feels like a cynical attempt to try and twist the original plot line to suit modern sensitivities. One scene where they rubbish Sarah Connor for thinking she was important as the mother of John Connor, “It’s not about being the mum of the man who becomes a great leader” – suggests that Sarah’s role is somehow less important than Dani’s, which I think does her a disservice as a mother (after all, the terminator came for her the first time).
I personally felt unthreatened by Gabriel Luna’s terminator. It’s a challenging role in some ways, because a robot wouldn’t show much emotion, but I think somehow Javier Bardem would have made a terrifying killer-robot (he can play a pretty terrifying human, after all). So it must be possible.
There are also some not-so-subtle digs at Trump which may please the liberal audiences, with the ease of crossing the Mexican-American border, and the poor conditions of the detainee camps situated there. When Grace refers to them as prisoners, the guard corrects her saying ‘we call them detainees’. This earns the guard a knockout punch. Plus, they manage to steal a giant military plane without too much trouble. Ah but we’re getting back onto the ridiculous writing again…
I’ve been pretty harsh on this film – perhaps I’m in a bad mood because I wanted to watch the Joker and my wife felt it would be too grim. In reality, it is a vast improvement on the last few Terminator films, and does signal a return to something a bit more watchable at last.
However, until the studios stop trying to manipulate us into paying for a film, and pay more attention to the quality of the output, particularly the storyline and over the top CGI action scenes, these films are not going to be anything like as good as they could be.
An enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, but could have been great. Anyone fancy watching the Joker?