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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: Terminator Dark Fate (2019)

In a newly-forged alternate reality, augmented human Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent back through time to save Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from a relentless robot assassin – a task she is aided in by a strange, ageing, confused terminator-hunter named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).

So, the verdict is in, and it would appear that the world was not particularly interested in another Terminator movie. The box office projections were woefully wrong, and Terminator: Dark Fate is set to lose over $100M.

What a shame, I say, because the film is pretty darn good, and I'm gutted that it didn't make more of a splash. It's a better 'soft reboot' than any other I have seen, and it's the best movie of its kind since Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt got all smashy and time-slippy in 2014s Edge of Tomorrow.

I think one reason for audience reticence was that in the years since Terminator 2: Judgment Day simultaneously captured the cultural zeitgeist and changed the nature of summer blockbusters, the Terminator franchise has fallen on hard times.

It's easy to forget that it was more than a decade after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 gave an epic thumbs-up to end the Terminator story before we got the bleak, dizzyingly expensive, utterly charmless Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. And then that film was followed by two abortive attempts to reboot the series – the knuckle-headed, Schwarzenneger-less Terminator: Salvation and the woefully wet, Emilia Clarke-starring Terminator: Genysis.

In-between all that, we also had a rather respectable TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but that show only ever had a cult following, and despite its merits the damage to the brand had been done.

It was all a bit sad. Although there had been imitators, nothing had come close to the brutal, body-horror thrills of The Terminator, a film that capitalised ferociously on 1980s technological anxiety and made Arnie a star.

Then came the sequel - that epic, thundering movie - which took things in a different direction. It throbbed with paranoia and delinquency, speaking of hope coming out of sacrifice, setting a new bar for special effects that justified the four Academy Awards it garnered.

But from then on it felt like nobody in Terminator writers’ rooms knew quite what to do next.

What was the hook for a new one?

What was the story?

What more is there to say on the topic?

The Wachowskis knew, and made The Matrix, a movie that out-terminated the films that made way for it.

Neither could successive Terminator creative teams come up with a more interesting villain than Robert Patrick’s terrifying T-1000, the liquid terminator who remains one of cinema’s great bogeymen. They tried, but they failed, and we became fed up with their anti-climactic attempts.

As a result, although new Terminator movies came along and tried to add to the series, some of them with decent action set pieces, the net result of all the explosions and clanging metal was a sense of emptiness. The franchise had become as dead-eyed as the robot assassins we were meant to fear.

Worse, it became old fashioned, and confused. Audiences were left stuck in a series of incomprehensible, meaningless paradoxes where chrome exoskeletons, big explosions, leather jackets and sunglasses had somehow become boring.

All of those poor sequels tipped a magic balance, and left us in a place where there had been more bad Terminator films than good ones. We have seen this happen before, with the Aliens franchise, the Halloween movies, Star Wars, X-Men and Jurassic Park; there is a time when audiences become bored with having the same ideas reheated and remixed and served up to them as if new.

It is quite reasonable that they might refuse to pay for the same meal again, and in the case of Terminator: Dark Fate they had additional reasons to be nervous.

I say this because the film sold itself on the idea of retreading old ground, and it lacks star power too. Arnie's cinematic reputation is in the gutter these days, Linda Hamilton effectively retired after T2, and even the film's director, Tim Miller, is hardly a celebrated talent; he may have made lots of money for 20th Century Fox with Deadpool, but nobody could claim that film was well-directed. It was a lumpy old mess, which proved to be part of its ironic charm, but James Cameron he is not.

Plus, it has been almost 30 years since Terminator 2. Teenagers of today don't care about that film, and aren't scared of machines. Heck, they rely on them for just about everything, sleep with them next to their heads at night, and speak to them on a first name basis.

Who then, or what, is there to draw people in this time around?

Well, plenty, I would say. Not least the central idea of the film, which is that no matter how many times people say that AI systems will end human civilisation it would appear that someone somewhere will make one. A machine apocalypse is inevitable, no matter how many Sarah Connors there are out there. If it isn't Skynet then it will be something else, so we had best be afraid.

Furthermore, just because one future is circumvented, don't think that it cannot impact on the past. Moreover, more than one potential future can exist simultaneously, and in any one of them time travel might be invented and used to terrorise the present.

With this solid idea underpinning things, and the idea of paradoxes and dead futures and multiple timeliness burbling along in the background, all the film really needed was characters to care about, and brilliant action sequences to drop jaws.

Thankfully, Terminator: Dark Fate gives us these things in spades. It doesn't feature martial arts, but it does do a lot of other very cool stuff with impeccable signposting and assured grasp on the story it wants to tell.

Specifically, in terms of characters, Terminator: Dark Fate is really a three-hander.

The protagonist is Dani, a Mexican factory worker who goes from an everywoman being replaced by machine automation on her assembly-line to a new kind of hero.

Her protector, Grace, is the film's best character and does most of the heavy-lifting, as well as most of the jumping, smashing and fighting. The character has understandably and quickly become a queer sex-symbol, and I hope she is remembered long into the future.

Then, rounding off the maiden-mother-crone tryptic is Sarah, the haggard, mouthy, know-it-all 90s throwback.

All of them have amazing biceps, and all of them are relatable, even if none of them are wholly sympathetic.

It is a winning mix.

Saying that, I cannot deny that many of Sarah Connor's lines fall flat in this film, and the digital de-ageing used in a pivotal opening sequence looks dreadful. Still, Hamilton is mostly great in the movie, and a scene on a log midway through the runtime is a genuine tear-jerker. Her Sarah is a complex character, bitter and often wrong, and although I wish the film had done more with her alleged alcoholism the character's arc was interesting and well worth exploring.

Admittedly, it feels strange talking about a Terminator movie being interesting, but this one really is. It is messy, but it's extremely critical of America, places discussion of the fate of Latin American migrants at its core, and it is unequivocally and unapologetically feminist. Sure, Arnie crops up, but late on, and the T-800 he plays is a victim in this film - a contrite machine seeking redemption, logically recognising the need to serve a greater good, having learned through years of blending in among people with no mission to complete.

The character is willingly emasculated in fact, and played in a manner close to pitch-perfect by a cultural icon who is familiar with this kind of idea and knows that this is his final throw of a particular, favoured dice. It is quite the swansong, and it feels apropos.

Unfortunately, I ultimately think that for all of its intelligence Terminator: Dark Fate has proved too progressive for the majority of cinema-goers. An unknown female Latin star, with a skinny, boyish lady-sidekick? Supported by a grumpy old woman? None of them sexualised, and modern Western culture given a good kicking along the way? No thank you!

Beyond such tedious considerations, I do recognise that the script clunks at times, that Miller's direction is still lumpy, and that the soundtrack is a bit middling (there are no Guns N' Roses equivalents here, sadly).

But let's not muck about: the good massively outweighs the bad, and unlike the endless run of superhero movies that dominate cinemas today and masquerade as action films, the hits this film delivers hurt, and are bloody, and there is no coming back from a good number of them.

With this in mind, I have to mention Dark Fate's set pieces. Each is multi-stage, multi-location, and innovative. They are also never far away from one another, so even when the talky bits get a bit wobbly there is not long to wait for something truly spectacular to happen.

Within ten minutes, for example, a chase breaks out that escalates and escalates and escalates, going from a factory to a shanty to a highway, resolving in a fist-pumping, thrilling moment that left me extraordinarily pleased. You can see a tiny bit of that sequence here:

Then, before long, we're into a second incredible fight and escape sequence in a border detention centre. Then, again, we are offered a third that starts on the ground, moves into the sky, crashes back down to earth, into a hydroelectric dam, and which just keeps going.

That last one just does not stop, and seems to point to the end of an era of American innovation. Planes, humvees and dams are all no match for the future, and when you think the film cannot turn up another gear it does, building and building to a feverish, terrifying finale. During it, much like through the the rest of film, things are tense. It is very, very hard to know what is going to happen next, and that's pretty novel in today's cinematic landscape.

Key to all of this is Gabriel Luna's Rev-9 robot, an element of the movie little fuss has been made about in the press, and I don't know why. Perhaps because he isn't white. Perhaps because the part isn't hugely showy. Either way, he's terrifying, and relentless, and scary.

The performance Luna gives is as excellent and understated as Schwarzenegger ever managed in fact, and although he is not given as much face-swapping tricky stuff as he probably should have been he is believable. Moreover, he makes for a wonderful, alarming, unstoppable baddie who leaps and splits and slithers and stabs and smiles and small-talks with style.

Although there are moments when the Rev-9 battles other people, the core appeal of the film is seeing him duking it out with Davies' Grace. And Davies is absolutely brilliant in this film, as she has been throughout her career, from her work on Halt and Catch Fire alongside Lee Pace to her lead role in San Junipero, which remains the best episode of Black Mirror to date, to her supporting part in Blade Runner 2049. She is a genuine rising star, and although she does not fit any of the Hollywood moulds I believe she is destined for superstardom.

There are, admittedly, some pretty crummy flash-forwards to the future starring Grace, and the film did not need them. Likewise, the requirement Grace has to inject herself with syringes to prevent her body overheating is laborious. But everything else about her role in the movie is golden, and Davies' performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Heck, the fight she has with a sledgehammer at the start of the film is worth the price of admission in an of itself.

All in all, Terminator: Dark Fate offers a great mix of cool ideas, social commentary, and crunchy action, and the big screen is the place to see it. On home video, you are never going to turn your speakers up as loud as they need to be to do it justice. If you did, your neighbours would call the police.

Regrettably though, it looks like your chance to see it has been and gone.

That is, of course, unless someone develops a means of time travel.

Only if that happens, we might have bigger fish to fry.

If they do however, I hope they also somehow manage to create a reality where more people went to see Terminator: Dark Fate. If they do, I think the world that follows will be a better place for it - one where female heroes take hits normally reserved for men and get back up and succeed, and where the worst elements of our culture take a good kicking.

Until then though, it seems like the Terminator franchise is saying hasta la vista once and for all.

And perhaps it is time for that to happen.

At least we got one last really good movie out of the bargain...



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