In the late producer Robert Evans’ book, which I was reading this week for a tribute post, he writes of pre-production, “Fighting is healthy. If everyone has too much reverence for each other, or for the material, results are invariably underwhelming. It’s irreverence that makes things sizzle.”
Evans isn’t necessarily some font of mystical wisdom, but I think he was onto something with the reverence thing. Ever since T2, the Terminator franchise has essentially been trying to recreate T2. It ends up being fairly myopic in scope because despite being a story about killer robots from the future who can time travel, all the films are confined to a relatively small time period with the same handful of characters. Only the explanations as to why this is get more complicated.
In Terminator: Dark Fate, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton!), an augmented human played by Mackenzie Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s aging T-800, team up to stop a new terminator from a new company — The Rev-9! From an AI company called Legion! Played by Gabriel Luna! They’re trying to stop it from killing Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman who is important to the resistance in ways that aren’t initially clear. This new Terminator movie is “irreverent” in the sense that Tim Miller from Deadpool directed it, so it occasionally has a snarky joke, but reverent in the sense that it’s basically the same story as T2, only with the parts reshuffled.
All things being equal, this Terminator is probably better than the last two or three Terminators since T2. Terminator Salvation was mostly memorable for being bad (that was the one directed by McG, who promised the film would “knock your f*ckin’ balls up your ass”), and Terminator 3 and Terminator: Genesys I barely remember at all. This one has at least three strong characters. MacKenzie Davis looks almost like the basis for James Cameron’s Na’vi in Avatar with her impossibly long neck and limbs, so the role of human 2.0 seems perfect for her, aside from her convincing acting.
Meanwhile, Sarah Connor is pretty dull when she’s trying to remind us of T2 or acting “badass” (Yaaas queen, dissolve my husk in molten metal!), but fairly compelling when expressing the complex emotions of having succeeded so well that she’s no longer the key to humanity’s future. When we meet her in Dark Fate, screeching up in a beat-up pick-up truck on a desolate Mexican highway, Connor has successfully averted Judgement Day, but still couldn’t protect her son John from a rogue Arnold, a lame-duck Terminator “from a future that never happened.” (Don’t ask me to work out the timeline between T2 and this, we’d be here all day, making diagrams out of straws.)
So now here she is, having sacrificed her son and spent her life on the run to save three billion lives for a future that doesn’t even know who she is. A Sarah Connor who is now no longer the target of Terminators and kind of miffed about it, jealous of humanity’s new “Mother Mary” marked for death — it’s an interesting wrinkle.
Arnold’s T-800, meanwhile, is an orphaned Terminator forced to live out his existence as a kind of half-human, where he has apparently developed a conscience and adopted a family. The idea of a Terminator turned family man is a bit of a stretch, and the jokes about it are too cute by half (the T-800 now goes by “Carl,” deadpans “I am extremely funny” and runs a drapery business), but it’s a clever attempt to explore both the nature of consciousness and time travel simultaneously. Not to mention the same fish-out-of-water appeal that Arnold sort of always has. How does he explain never eating? What does he do when his family is sleeping?
In Dani Ramos, we have a new Sarah Connor/John Connor character — the one the Terminator wants to kill. Is she the resistance? The mother of the resistance? The inventor of some future robot-killing technology? Dark Fate withholds the answers to these questions for most of the film, which is fine, I suppose, but the bigger problem is that she has no personality. Where Sarah Connor was a young woman trying to deal, and later a haunted veteran, and John Connor was the delinquent son of a troubled mother, Dani Ramos is… just sort of plucky. Big studio action movies could use a moratorium on “pluck.”
Meanwhile, the film seems convinced that it needs to sell Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor to us as “a badass” in all the generic ways we’ve come to expect — wearing cool shades, shooting guns from the hip, walking away from explosions without looking (cool gals don’t look at explooosiooons…), etc. Hey, she said “I’ll be back,” I remember that! Connor’s arc in Dark Fate is an interesting one. It doesn’t need the hard sell. It eventually settles down and lets her be a person, but especially early in the film Miller shoots it like he’s directing an ad for the movie rather than the movie.
As for Dani’s antagonist, T2 gave us Robert Patrick’s liquid metal T-1000, a big twist on the previous movie’s Terminator and an excellent basis for a few different set pieces. In its place, Dark Fate offers the Rev-9, which can not only shapeshift like the T-1000, but also transform into gun hands (sometimes??), hack into networks (naturally), and separate its molten, T-1000 style shell and T-800 style metal skeleton into two separate killer terminators (uh, sure?).
Aside from essentially being a rehash of the first two Terminators (albeit mashed together), the Rev-9’s properties are either inadequately conveyed or shift based on whatever the action set piece at hand requires. Character should drive story, not the other way around.
Do people, as producers seem to assume, really show up to movies to see big action set pieces anymore? Did they ever? More and more I just find them dull. The less narrative sense a big action set piece makes, the more any additional spectacle just sort of advertises its own pointlessness. If you watch the big rig scene in Terminator 2, it’s striking how slowly the whole thing plays out compared to the set pieces in Dark Fate. It took the time to tell a story.
Dark Fate ends in a crescendo of screeching action that involves two C-130s smashing into each other in mid-air, a parachuting Humvee, and eventually an underwater Humvee tumbling through the wash of a hydroelectric dam while the characters fight inside it. It’s meant to be exciting but mostly it’s just tiresome. Why are they doing that? Hasn’t anyone died yet? How do people die in this universe, exactly?
The scene feels like what it probably is: overcompensation for a story that doesn’t quite come together in the end. Hey, people like explosions and shit flying everywhere, right? If we don’t know what makes the new Terminator tick, it’s hard to come up with an interesting way to kill him.
Despite some interesting wrinkles and a few jokes here and there, Dark Fate is what all Terminators since T2 have been to some extent: a little too reverent to T2 — not only about time travel but an attempt to perform it. The more you try to recapture the magic of something old, the less you notice the opportunities to do something new.