Dark Fate Featured

It feels so familiar now with TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. A robot goes back in time to kill a key figure to ensure the human resistance never threatens machine dominance.

However, when TERMINATOR hit theatres just over 35 years ago it felt fresh. Its vision of an unstoppable killing machine, a future barely holding on to hope, and a doomed romance that may well spell doom or redemption for humanity demanded attention and altered the pop culture landscape.

Less than seven years later, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY blew the doors off the concept with a wild stunt show of a film that kept the complexities of time travel and added the excess that had come to define both Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron’s careers by that point.

Ever since, TERMINATOR films have struggled to play within that framework in a way that delivered a movie recognizably of that world but interesting enough to justify its existence. Does DARK FATE succeed where three previous attempts failed?

Dark Fate: Rev 9
Gabriel Luna would like to introduce you to his friend in a moment from TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

The Idea Behind TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

The future has been changed. Judgment Day was stopped. Sarah Connor, as she loves to mention, saved 3 billion lives back in 1991. In Skynet’s place, though, Legion has risen. The machine-led apocalypse was delayed and given over to a different company but it still awaits us in the not-too distant future.

And, like Skynet before it, Legion has discovered that while individual humans are relatively easy to kill, humanity is a stubborn survivor. To that end, they replicate the Skynet playbook, sending a Rev 9 (Gabriel Luna) to the present day to kill Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). However, the people pull their own bit of future history repeating and pull a Kyle Reese with Grace (Mackenzie Davis).

Soon, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) joins the duo on the run from the Rev 9 thanks to instructions from an unknown source.

What is Dani’s importance? Who is the source? How does the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) fit into this? Can a Rev 9 even be stopped?

Dark Fate: She's got a stick!
Mackenzie Davis defends Natalia Reyes with an impressive piece of rebar. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Writing TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

DARK FATE is a film acutely aware of its place within a franchise. As a result, it cannot help but ladle on the callbacks to the past successful installments. Many of the dialogue recalls are groanworthy, especially the repetition/remix of “I’ll be back,” which shows up a couple of times being spouted by different characters.

There is a certain simplicity to the script that is appreciated. We are deep into the woods on time travel with these movies by now and, to steal from LOOPER, a few hours with straws would probably be necessary to really explain it all. The script strips it down to parts. Skynet was defeated. Machines still get sentient because of human greed, folly, and bloodthirst. They still damn near destroy the earth. Humanity still finds champions and fights back.

This is not to say this is the most interesting approach to the material. Perhaps there could be a TERMINATOR movie that really engaged with the time travel material and used its complexity to an interesting end. I’d be up for that attempt. However, that obviously carries higher risk issues. When you whiff on that, you whiff hard. At this safer approach, the screenwriting team — which boasts 5 story by credits and 3 written by credits — largely succeeds in creating a framework that “reads” logically in the moment.

Dark Fate: Sarah Connors
Linda Hamilton owns quite the vape rig in this scene from DARK FATE. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Casting The Human of TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

One thing you will notice immediately about DARK FATE is the characters are thin. In service of the above noted stripped down (and yet still overlong) script, characterization is more suggested than demonstrated. For Linda Hamilton, making a third go at Connor, this proves to be not much of an issue. She has two previous appearances to lean on so her taciturn, darkly snarky, and self-destructive Connor feels like a logical endpoint for the character. Suggestion works for her because we have seen so much of what she’s survived to get here.

Davis’s Grace, similarly, works with the less is more approach. She starts as a hardened warrior in the present for one purpose and ends there too. I like what she does with the character both emotionally and physically, but she has the advantage of not needing an arc to tell her story.

Unfortunately, Reyes does need an arc and the script never gives her enough to make that real. She has vignettes of change, not true character growth. She does fine with each beat but there is little sense of connective tissue to help her show Dani’s progression. The film doesn’t let her evolve, only makes her leap from one version of herself to the next.

Dark Fate: Old Friends?
Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger relive the good ol’ days in DARK FATE. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Casting the Machines

Schwarzenegger, by this point in his career, knows his wheelhouse. His “Carl,” as a result, is wonderfully pitched to the film’s attitude and momentum. He shows up, he gets off a few good lines, earns most of the movie’s laughs. Then, when the action starts, he goes quiet, wields some impressive guns, and fights with a robotic and doomed nobility. The days of the T-800 being the most compelling aspect of the TERMINATOR franchise have passed and Schwarzenegger, to his credit, has found a way to work within the new parameters.

Sadly, the new Terminator, the Rev 9, also does not feel particular compelling. The movie offers glimpses at new and interesting aspects of the machine. This is the first, for instance, that seems to be able to replicate human charisma as well as appearance. This is wildly intriguing especially when the T-800 seems capable of morality but remains every bit a robot in his interactions. But the movie does nothing with it.

Luna can only play a Terminator with little personality or visual flair to call his own. The characterization is thin, the liquid metal morph looks the same as T2 but in black instead of silver. For a franchise that once tried to make its robotic villains otherworldly and undeniable intriguing now just defaults to piling bodies at their feet. There’s some kind of irony in the Terminator most capable of appearing human feeling the least on-screen.

Dark Fate
Natalia Reyes keeps an eye on her six as she moves through TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Directing TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

As alluded to above, the liquid metal effect remains as cool as ever. We have seen it before, yes, but it still delivers.

Unfortunately, DARK FATE has a too much of the other kind of CGI.

At one point, there is a reference to one of the Terminator’s being over 400 pounds. There was a time you could feel that on-screen. TERMINATOR films had a weight to their effects, a heft. When an exoskeleton herky-jerky marched across the landscape, you could feel the ground crack beneath its dense weight. In DARK FATE, everything is instead weightless. Literally at one point.

Improbable physics don’t tend to take me out of movies. Spider-Man’s web slinging has never bothered me in any of the modern films, for example. However, the moment Luna’s Rev 9 leaps through the air like the Hulk on the Moon, the unreality of it all was undeniable. When playing with time travel, killer machines, and enhanced humans, you need to make the rest of the world feel real to keep the audience. DARK FATE too often forgets that, letting the details go unaddressed.

Too many unaccounted details break the world. Once the world breaks, why should I work to sideline my disbelief in the sci-fi elements?

Dark Fate Carl
It seems unfair to me that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, living flesh or not, can grow a better beard than me. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Recommending TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

So…I still kind of do recommend the movie. A big part of that lies with the performances. I think Hamilton and Davis are very good and Schwarzenegger is delightful during the portion of the movie that allows him to act not just shoot.

There are moments that still recall the fear and tension the first two films achieved. It makes that message, you determine your own fate, something that reads as both threatening and empowering. The best bits of the TERMINATOR franchise emphasize self-sacrifice and the idea that stopping one catastrophe does not necessarily ensure blue skies forever. DARK FATE, in its best moments, gets that too.

It is the thinnest of recommends, I’ll grant you, but still one I’ll give.

Dark Fate: Grace
Mackenzie Davis is haunted by the future in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

That’s a Wrap!

If you are a fan of the franchise and hungry for just a taste of that previous magic, you can and have done worse than DARK FATE. However, this is no return to form. Instead, it delivers a franchise’s last gasp. These Terminators need either an ending or a serious upending. It is both the best follow up to T2 and the surest sign that the franchise is falling apart like an endoskeleton dropped in molten metal.

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