“Terminator: Dark Fate” Movie Review


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     James Cameron returns, sort of, to the franchise he created in 1984 with “The Terminator” and followed up in 1991 with “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”.  Both are deemed by most as science fiction classics which launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger and cemented Cameron’s career as a can’t miss mega director who would go on to make several more highly regarded films including “Aliens” (1986), “True Lies” (1994), “Titanic” (1997), and “Avatar” (2009).  Along with his “Terminator” films, each of these were efforts where he actually sat in the director’s chair, creating his vision of the screenplay by supervising the production and art design, working side by side with his director of photography, having intimate involvement with the visual effects teams, and actually being on set directing the actors before each take. 

     This should not be confused with his participation as the producer of “Alita: Battle Angel” earlier this year (that film was directed by Robert Rodriguez), nor should we believe there is anything more than a few of Cameron’s fingerprints on “Terminator: Dark Fate”, a film with his name all over the marketing, though the director is actually “Deadpool” vet Tim Miller.  Bottom line is the expectations need to be lowered a bit on this one, particularly given the fact the last three “Terminator” films have not come close to reaching the heights of the first two installments without Cameron’s involvement.  But even with Cameron providing his name as a Producer and also a shared credit for the story, “Terminator: Dark Fate” follows the same oft used course plaguing the film world right now when it comes to the rebooting of iconic films of the past.  Yes, our favorite stoners in “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” got it right in their recent film.  Go figure.

     “Terminator: Dark Fate” retcons the previous three outings, and functions as a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” where Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her son, John Connor (Edward Furlong), with the assistance from a reprogramed T-800, successfully stop Skynet from coming into existence and therefore stop the near extermination of the human race.  In a nifty idea courtesy of six writers (James Cameron, Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer, Justin Roades, and Billy Ray), the immediate aftermath sees Sarah and John living a normal life, enjoying their time at a resort when a T-800 (Schwarzenegger) makes an untimely appearance and kills John.  Apparently, Skynet sent several Terminators to search for John in any number of possible locations.  The T-1000 found him first obviously, but that doesn’t mean the others stopped looking.  Even more interesting is the thought that these Terminators were essentially purposeless after Sarah changed the future.  Skynet no longer existed, so their directives are now meaningless.

     In the present day, we are introduced to a working family in Mexico City who are making their way to their jobs at an automobile factory.  Dani (Natalia Reyes) and her brother, Diego (Diego Boneta) arrive to find out the company is laying people off when new technology is introduced to replace them.  At the time, they don’t realize the irony, but something is coming for Dani that will change the course of their existence.  Shortly before, a young woman arrives via time travel from the future nearby.  She says she’s human, but is clearly enhanced in ways we could only imagine.  Her name is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), and her mission is to protect Dani at all costs.  But from what?  As the drama begins to unfold, a young man arrives via time travel as well.  A Terminator known as a”Rev-9” (Gabriel Luna), the most advanced ever.  But where has he come from?  If Judgement Day was stopped, what has happened in the future that would cause yet another catastrophic incident for humanity to endure?

     It is often said movies are a reflection of the thoughts and opinions of the era we are currently living in and “Dark Fate” is certainly no exception.  Littered within the first hour are settings and plot threads centered around the United States and Mexico border, with one sequence depicting thousands of illegal immigrants locked in cages while smug Border Patrol Agents dismiss them as if they are subhuman and meaningless.  All of this is connected by a series of high octane action sequences that by themselves prove to be as exhilarating and entertaining as anyone could expect, but just when the story hits, it suddenly misses wide right in a way that ruins any chance of a cohesive narrative.  

     In one instance, it is determined by the group running from the Rev-9 that an EMP is needed in order to fry its brain and ultimately defeat the shape shifting robotic creature.  Sarah pipes up and says she knows right where to get one.  The next scene, the group is in a warehouse where they meet some unknown high ranking military guy, of whom Sarah apparently has some sort of history with, and he hands them a suitcase carrying what they asked for.  The guy quips “Sarah Connor is the only person I would commit treason for!” and that’s it.  Simple and done.  On to the next.  It’s these types of plot conveniences which are scattered about “Dark Fate” that make it quite frustrating to watch, particularly when you realize the story is mimicking “Terminator 2” beat for beat.

     If you’re wondering how Arnold makes his way back into the timeline, you’re in for a quite a stretch.  Apparently the lost Terminator that killed John decades ago is now a drapery salesmen.  That’s not a typo, and I’m not kidding.  He’s Carl the drapery guy, who also has been sending mysterious text messages to Sarah for the past 20 years alerting her to the presence and location of other Terminators so she can go do what she does and dispatch them in revenge driven fury.  Carl has spent his down time learning to be human, going as far as to shacking up with a woman and her young child.  The scenes where all of this play out are downright painful to sit through.  Next action sequence please!

     On the plus side, “Tully” star Mackenzie Davis brings forth a powerful physical presence, balancing the emotions tied to the reason she was sent to protect Dani with an astounding display of skill and prowess.  Linda Hamilton’s return as Sarah Connor has its moments, but she is consistently used as the person filling in the audience (and the characters she’s talking to) of all that has happened in the previous films and why she hates Terminators so much.  Things we already know in other words.  At least to me, her presence doesn’t rise to the level of say Han Solo, Leia, and Luke Skywalker returning for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.  The Sarah Connor character just isn’t as iconic.  And Dani is merely a more diverse representation of Sarah Connor all over again.  Yet another thing Jay and Silent Bob got right!

     There’s no question “Dark Fate” is a tremendous improvement over 2015’s awful “Terminator Genisys”, but there were plenty of merits in McG’s 2009 post apocalyptic thrill ride “Terminator Salvation”, and I especially liked Jonathan Mostow’s 2003 film “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” which set the stage for the moments where Skynet actually took over.  But I am surprised the filmmakers chose to go with a story featuring three female protagonists, along with a crusty older version of Arnold’s T-800 for nostalgia, when the core audience of this franchise is and always will be young males.  It’s not so much that there is anything wrong with this, but when your target audience fails to show up because they can’t identify with the lead characters, then spending $185 million on a tentpole seems like a risky proposition.  But the entire story is recycled material anyway, indicating that like the T-800, this franchise is clearly obsolete.  GRADE: C