Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019.
Directed by Tim Miller.
Starring Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Natalia Reyes, Diego Boneta and Gabriel Luna.
More than two decades have passed since Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) rewrote the future and seemingly put a stop to Judgement Day once and for all. In this alternate timeline, a young everygirl by the name of Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is busy living a simple life in Mexico City, when a state of the art new Terminator – a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) – shows up at her workplace to murder her. Now on the run, Dani’s survival depends on her joining forces with two warriors: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced super-soldier from the future, and a battle-hardened Sarah Conner. As the Rev-9 ruthlessly destroys everything and everyone in its path, the trio are forced to treck over the U.S border in search of a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that might be their last, best hope.
By now we should know better than to get our hopes up for a new Terminator movie. After all, the once-untouchable brand has been locked into a state of exponential decline ever since 2003, with each successive installment being more soulless and contrived than the last. They just can’t help making the same mistakes – be that slavishly rehashing the past, muddying up the timelines, miscasting key players, or over-sanitising the tone for the sake of an ill-fitting PG-13. Hell, in the case of Terminator Genisys they invented hitherto unknown ways of fucking up!
That being said, there was cause to believe that Dark Fate might just be the one to finally break the curse. For a start, it had a promising director at the helm in the form of Deadpool’s Tim Miller, a man who inspired plenty of confidence recently by saying all the right things in interviews. Not only did he acknowledge that it’s been a rocky road in terms of sequels, but he also promised fans that he had carried out his due diligence by brushing up on the lesser entries in the series and identifying the common pitfalls. In addition to this, he offered assurance that his film would return the franchise to its R-Rated ‘’DNA’’, making a dark, brutal thriller with F-bombs galore.
Meanwhile, outside of Miller’s attachment, Dark Fate was generally primed as an overdue comeback for the IP: reenlisting the talents of Linda Hamilton; securing the blessing of creator James Cameron; and forging its own distinct lore, free from the shackles of Skynet, Cyberdyne and Judgement Day (there’s a new apocalyptic threat in town). In short, all of the pieces were lined up for this to be the first bonafide Terminator flick in nearly 30 years.
And the thing is, for the first 5 or so minutes, it seems like everything might actually pay off. The film gets off to an encouraging start with a chilling prelude that intercuts one of Sarah Conner’s prophetic rants from T2 with the studio logos, setting a truly foreboding atmosphere that hooked me from the get-go. From there, things get even better as we are eased into an utterly fantastic opening credits sequence (Miller has already proven himself to be a dab hand at these with Deadpool), wherein a static camera holds on waves gently lapping against the shore.
Initially, you’re not quite sure what to make of this mundane image, but as the ominous synth music builds and the tide rolls further in, you begin to understand what you’re looking at. You see, those waves are slowly eroding at the sands of a future battlefield, uncovering a mass grave of skeletons. Looking at the fractured skulls and decrepit bones that have been left behind, you realise that these are the last vestiges of the human resistance against the machines. The camera then pulls back to reveal a horde of robots emerging from the water, picking off the remaining survivors.
Depicting a bleak future, this haunting prologue expertly recalls the horror-noir vibe of the original Terminator and suggests that we’re in capable hands for the next 2 hours. Alas, it’s also totally unrepresentative of the rest of the movie, which transpires to be a fairly tepid blockbuster that’s far too reliant on CGI laden bombast and been-there-done-that plotting.
To clarify, I didn’t have high expectations for this one going in, but they successfully got my hopes up with that moody introduction. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it was followed up by a succession of flat visuals, generic pyrotechnics and a story that – whilst not the outward mess that Genisys was, nor a draining slog like Salvation – is still pretty underwhelming.
Before I get too critical, it’s worth reiterating that this is nowhere near as bad as those other misfires. For one thing it’s got a pretty likeable cast, as both the newbies and the old guard impress with their undeniable chemistry and fierce commitment to the physical aspects of their roles. Natalia Reyes is an affable enough protagonist, Mackenzie Davis makes for a believable bad-ass and Linda Hamilton is clearly relishing the opportunity to revisit the performance that made her a household name. Likewise, this is probably Arnie’s best turn in eons, as he utilises his under-appreciated comedic muscles to portray a cyborg assassin that has basically fulfilled its purpose, and is now searching for ways to kill time. It’s a funny and unexpectedly sweet interpretation of the iconic killing machine, and whenever he’s on-screen things liven up a little.
So you can’t really fault any of the actors here and I genuinely believe that Miller and co. were trying their damndest to justify the existence of yet another sequel. Although it’s basically a soft-reboot – echoing the plot points of T2 – the screenwriters have wisely taken the opportunity to implement some fresh twists here and there. This is best evidenced by a really interesting narrative detour in the second-act, wherein the heroes try to cross the Mexican border and end up being detained as illegal immigrants. Infusing the usual cat-and-mouse dynamic of a Terminator flick with an extra complication (as well as some heady political themes) it’s unlike anything you’ve seen in the franchise before and it’s easily the narrative highlight of the whole affair.
I also appreciated the element of meta-commentary on how the fate of mankind often rests on women in these movies, not because of their own achievements, but simply because they happen to give birth to important men. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, they actually display some self-awareness about this trope and resolve to do something meaningful about it, rather than just smugly pointing it out. To be honest the film could have done with a few more of these innovations.
But unfortunately, the rest of Dark Fate struggles to get off the ground. It’s not that it does anything overtly terrible. On the contrary, the production is just … blandly competent. And that’s precisely the problem, it never rises above the bare-minimum standard and instead finds itself going through the motions. When held up against the James Cameron originals, it so obviously pales in comparison – as there are no standout ideas, no pulse-pounding set-pieces and no memorable lines of dialogue, outside of cringe-inducing callbacks.
Even the state of the art Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, doing his best with limited material) fails to make much of an impression because it only feels like an incremental upgrade over the revolutionary T-1000. Apart from having the ability to separate itself into two autonomous parts, it doesn’t really have any new tricks up its sleeve, nor does it get much of a chance to substantiate itself as a legitimate threat.
Mediocre films like this are the toughest to review, due to the absence of glaring faults and the fact that there are only so many ways of saying: “it was just meh”. If I had to single out a particular stumbling block though, it would be the limp action, which never convinces you that the characters are in peril or that the actors are tangibly interacting with one another.
The CG-to-practical ratio is too off-kilter and it doesn’t help that the digital effects aren’t exactly seamless. Which is odd when you consider that the Terminator name has always been synonymous with cutting-edge technical advancements, like morphing and liquid simulation. Yet here everything looks a tad dated and overly glossy. One of the biggest issues is that the reboot is far too enamored with digi-doubles, resorting to computerized stuntmen whenever a character so much as bursts into a jog. It becomes a little distracting after a while, like Mackenzie Davis’ face has been awkwardly plastered onto an animated mannequin.
Meanwhile, when the robots themselves start to duke it out, they don’t seem to adhere to any kind of internal physics, resulting in fights that are sadly weightless and ragdoll-esque. At one point, a character makes a passing reference to the T-800’s considerable mass, yet when he’s fighting the Rev-9, he’s bouncing all over the place like Woody fucking Woodpecker! For all the heft he seems to possess, Arnie might as well be composed of pure helium!
Despite all the fuss that has been made over the R-Rating, the set-pieces also feel strangely neutered and lacking in jeopardy. This is mainly a result of how the indispensable main characters are the only ones ever put in harm’s way and they’re usually going toe-to-toe in secluded environments with no else around, like abandoned facilities and planes. As such, there’s little in the way of collateral damage and whenever there actually is killing, it tends to be obscured in the blocking or implied bloodlessly off-screen. In all seriousness, if you removed the swearing and some instances of partial nudity, this would probably get away with a PG-13.
That’s not to say that all of the spectacle is a total wash, as there are individual beats that work quite well. I mean, it’s hard not to grin when Arnie unloads an assault rifle into someone’s face at point-blank range. However, these are just brief flashes in otherwise pedestrian sequences and, for the most part, you’ll just get sick of all the green-screen, cartoony bullshit and the mid-2000s slow-mo.
It might seem like I’m getting too hung up on the quality of the action, but to be fair this is a Terminator sequel. That’s supposed to be a big part of the appeal, isn’t it? Plus, I need to have something to latch onto, what with the emotional stuff flatling as well.
On that note, the screenplay does feature welcome attempts at empathy, but we don’t get to know any of the characters well enough for them to have resonance. I mean, before the chase kicks-off, all we get is one scene with Dani and it’s ’s sole purpose is just to demonstrate that she quite likes her family. Given that we never learn much more about her than that, the later attempts at tear-jerking are frankly unearned and come across a little dull.
Honestly, I almost feel bad for crapping on this one, because you do get the sense that a lot of love and reverence for the source material has been channeled into it. From the way that it tries to mature the established characters, to the small twists it makes to the formula, to the way that it jettisons all the baggage of Skynet and Judgement Day – you can’t accuse the project of being lazy or half-arsed. And like I said, the cast is clearly giving it their all.
Still, whilst these are unequivocally positive attributes, and steps in the right direction for the wavering series, they don’t get you pumped for more. I mean, ‘’It did and you can tell that everyone was trying’’ aren’t exactly ringing endorsements for a major studio blockbuster. No, the sad truth is, in spite of its cast and crew’s good intentions, Terminator: Dark Fate is merely a damp squib.
It so desperately wants to be The Force Awakens of this franchise, but it just doesn’t have the spark that made J.J Abrams’ box-office juggernaut such an invigorating success. Rather, this one is akin to a perfectly serviceable tribute band, that’s drably covering a seminal track.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★