Review – Terminator: Dark Fate Consigns Its Franchise To A Fate Worse Than Its Title
by Koom Kankesan
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When you hear those portentous hammer blows creep across a soundtrack, you expect nothing less than metal clanging upon metal, human skulls being crushed to powder under the weight of android tonnage, and the ominous fate of mankind to be so pressing that one wants to leap out of his or her cinema seat to rush home and take a sledgehammer to any and all things containing a microchip. And yet, Terminator: Dark Fate, directed by Tim Miller, seems content to tread the middle road of a mediocre genre film. Despite James Cameron and Co.’s intent to change things up, reviews generally agree that this a re-tread of various aspects of other Terminator films: a Terminator shows up in the present to kill a human key to the future resistance, an augmented being shows up from the future to stop the Terminator and protect the human, the Terminator can shapeshift, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a bad Terminator turned good, Linda Hamilton walks around blowing stuff up as if she’s never had a happy day in her life, there’s at least one car chase where the Terminator bears down upon the heroes in a truck, lots of explosions, EMP, time paradox, fate, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Besides re-digesting earlier Terminator films without understanding their ability to generate weighty stakes and muscular action, this film feels like a Terminator rip-off or a Terminator film made in another country with the generic CGI effects common to any franchise thrown around today — albeit with a sizable budget. The older films felt ‘real’ because the Terminators were terrifying figures, a little too close to the psycho killers you didn’t want to, but definitely could, encounter in a deserted urban street late at night. They moved weirdly and when their metal peeked out of their flesh after a terrifying battle involving firearms, you believed there was metal alloy in that endoskeleton with futuristic fibre optic wiring and little infrared camera eyes that roved and scanned and assessed with the cold calculating calculus of myopic machines. When I go to see a Terminator movie, I want to hear clanging metal and feel pumping pistons, not just a mess of explosions and CGI. The new Terminator model (Gabriel Luna) is mostly just CGI that separates into a shapeshifter and an endoskeleton. It’s called the Rev-9, which is as mediocre a name as its abilities. Here are twelve off-the-top-of-my-head names that are scarier than Rev-9 (which, let’s be honest, sounds like a motorcycle or a hatchback) for a Terminator: the Nullifier, the Crucifier, the Calcifier, Walking Death, Lifetaker, the Bassomatic 3000, the Crusher, the Ad Hominem, Death from Within, Alexa, Shirley Temple, and Judge Judy. A couple of those might be wrestlers – I’m not sure.
But you know what movie this installment really reminds me of? The recent 2018 Halloween film directed by David Gordon Green. You’ve got aging heroines that have become tough as nails survivalists (Linda Hamilton and Jamie Lee Curtis). You have a killer that doesn’t stop and just keeps coming (The Rev-9 and Michael Myers). The main characters are comprised of three women; the older of which and the one in the middle argue and hate on each other while the younger one tries to keep the peace and grows into the action role demanded of her. They try to escape the unstoppable killer, ultimately having to turn around and set a trap and make a stand. It is all a little too similar.
And what the heck’s happened to Arnie? The guy who was accused of multiple groping incidents while running for governor of California is now the most woke Terminator I’ve ever seen. He walks around with an outdoorsy beard and casual attire, no bulging muscles, and serves as an ally to the female heroes. Cameron’s brilliance was in realizing the oddness of Arnie — how terrifying and alien he looked and the fact that his severe lack of talent made him a perfect actor to play a killer robot. Arnie’s deadpan features and awkward jerky movements could lend a kind of black humour to scenes in the original film, but they signaled him as a Frankenstein’s monster; a terrifying Other to be feared. If you start rosily humanizing him too much, the effect is lost and it doesn’t hold up. It may have worked in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but it is another retread in Dark Fate.
The main problem with the film isn’t ultimately the CGI or the hackneyed tropes or the trite dialogue (choice examples include ‘my father was killed for a can of peaches’ and ‘If you’re Mother Mary, why do I want to beat the shit out of you?’ and ‘I knew this day would come… and also it’s Texas’ and ‘if you paint one wall wrong, it throws the whole room out of balance’) or the forgettable acting – it’s that it’s a film a relic. There’s irony in that, but none of it trickles down into the substrate of Dark Fate. When the original Terminator film and its sequel came out, people still led fairly physical existences. Mechanized but physical. A.I. was a thing of the future, very much a sci-fi sort of thing. Now, it’s common reality. The last season of Silicon Valley made fun of the concept when the main characters had to go around explaining to consumers that their integrated A.I. network wasn’t like the Terminator – they even carried around a display to workshops with an image of the Arnie android with half of the flesh removed from his face and the bionic red eye and text saying ‘we are not the Terminator.’ Real life A.I. is not interested in revolting against mankind and crushing it with guns, flying battleships, and hunter killers.
If anything, we’ve already let the A.I. win by becoming so passively dependent on technology. When the original movie came out, the novelty and alienation in society induced by computerization was a very real thing and the idea that it might develop a consciousness of its own, separate and distinct from us, and abhor us in turn, was much more potent and frightening. It was a projection of our own fears and uncertainty about this new plateau in the technological age. We sensed that what was around the corner was momentous. Now, that moment has long passed. Ironically, every time a new Terminator installment comes out, it doesn’t strengthen the franchise, it weakens it. The whole premise is built on the idea of those portentous Skynet events and whether they could be averted or not — back in the mid 1980s or the early ’90s. The drama was strip mined in the first two films. You start to throw more episodes into the mix and none of it really matters. The franchise becomes just another shoot ’em up with some CGI and futuristic jibber-jabber, like so many other movies out there.
The sad reality is that Judgment Day has already come and gone. Perhaps it was the day the internet was launched to the public in the early ’90s. Perhaps it was the day Facebook was launched in the mid 2000s. Perhaps it was the day everybody felt they needed a smart phone, sometime in the late 2000s. It doesn’t matter. It’s here and here to stay. The world is a different place from the one predicted in the early Terminator films. It’s a lot more fragmented and, at the same time, more global. Wars are fought on economic, religious, political, and cultural fronts. The idea of a concerted resistance with one-all important leader, whether we’d call him John Connor or something else, makes no sense in this day and age and this ethos. Sending a killer version of Alexa back in time to assassinate someone makes no sense. The zeitgeist demands something else. However, a movie where Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are a trio of reluctant protagonists in the mid 2000s who must get over their geek egos & geek hate to band together and outwit the guerrilla humans from the future (who have inevitably descended into illiteracy, savagery, and depravity due to the technocrats’ influences) – that’s a movie people should pay to see.