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Terminator: Dark Fate •••1/2

Starring: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis
Director: Tim Miller
Screenplay: James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: November 1, 2019

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 

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Scott, are you willing to tempt fate and see if Arnold will ‘terminate her?’


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I’m listening to classical music, but I’ll put it down. I’ll be Bach later. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to young Dani (Natalia Reyes) who is a factory worker where jobs are being overtaken by robots. Just as she’s arguing with her boss, a Terminator from the future kills her fellow employer and brother Luis. Then an augmented human from the future Grace (Mackenzie Davis) jumps in to save her. Now, she is running for her life.


Fortunately, just as Dani is about to be killed by the Terminator, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) shows up with advanced anti-Terminator weaponry. Connor temporarily disables the Terminator, allowing everyone to escape. But how did Connor know to save Dani? Apparently, Connor had been receiving cryptic text messages revealing the time and place of Terminator attacks, with each message ending, “For John”. With Grace’s help, they locate the source of these text messages and discover the hideout of an old Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is now willing and able to help save Dani.


There’s a lot more going on in Terminator: Dark Fate than meets the eye. Probably the most obvious theme is women taking control to save themselves, the world, and the future. But there are other themes to unpack as well. The “robots (AI) taking over the world” is also a clear theme. And we see Dani held in a Texas detention center for undocumented aliens. As she escapes, we see the Latino Terminator slashing and killing border agents and security guards as Dani frees the detainees to cover her escape. These are significant social issues at the heart of current politics being exposed as the background to a science fiction action/adventure film. I have no doubt it was both intentional and very brilliant.

As a story, this Terminator does well. It ignores all the various Terminator films following T2. And for good reason as most of them were pretty terrible. Here, we have a hybrid Terminator (utilizing the frame of the original T1 endoskeleton and the liquid-metal outer skin). This Terminator can split into two, making it difficult to fight – and to kill.

Our hero, Dani has a very clear hero’s journey as she starts out as the damsel in distress and eventually becomes the leader of the team. She is the one who finally determines to stand her ground and to turn and fight. Likewise, Sarah Connor has become the mentor-hero. As the older, more experienced hero, she now takes on the venerable role as the mentor to both Grace and Dani. She’s seen it all and now she shares his knowledge and skills with Dani to become the leader of the human resistance.

And let’s not forget our villain-turned-ally: Arnold/Terminator. After killing John Connor, he has “evolved” into a feeling robot. He’s taken up with a widow and adopted a son of his own. And now, he redeems himself by giving Sarah Connor a purpose (to kill Terminators) and also a purpose of himself: to make up for killing John.

While writer John Cameron has done a great job of putting women in the forefront, I have some qualms with how men are presented in the film. All the leading males are robotic, unfeeling characters. Even the detention settlement is populated with male assholes (except one woman who helps Grace escape). And we have a single black Air Force man who supports Sarah, and is usual in science fiction films, plays the trope of the Sacrificial Black Dude.


Terminator: The Next Generation is a serviceable follow-up to the 1991 classic starring Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reprise their roles in commendable fashion. Thirty years have gone by and our hero/anti-hero pairing may look geezerly but they still kick cybernetic ass. Quite sensibly, this movie wants to attract younger audiences, so we’re introduced to a young, ripped character named Grace whose job is to protect the future leader of the resistance, Dani. I give this movie credit for allowing women to shine in leadership roles that in 1991 were predominantly offered only to men.

So is this a good movie? Yes and no. On the plus side, and as you point out, Greg, the storytelling has been updated and now reveals modern sensibilities involving women as superb heroic entities. And yes, the film casts a somber light on today’s abuses involving US concentration camps and border agents. On the negative side, this film recycles the same plot as previous Terminator installments – but again, modernized and updated with enhanced CGI and demographic diversity.

All these tweaks will please some but disappoint others. I was struck by Schwarzenegger’s robotic body aging 30 years. Soon we’ll see the character of Data in Star Trek: Picard showing his advanced aging, and all I can say, in my best Charlie Brown voice, is “Good grief.” Do we love these characters so much that we’re willing to buy into the absurd notion that robots will “choose” to age? Apparently so. It’s bizarre and nonsensical but that’s what happens when movie studios want to appease Baby Boomers who can’t let go of their past.


Terminator: Dark Fate is better than its reputation. Bad reviews and box office returns have ignored the masterful storytelling and the use of CGI to update this story. I’m mystified as to why this film was released in the fall rather than as a summer blockbuster. It is as good as any Marvel film and has more social conscience than most films. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Dani’s hero’s journey is very well-told. All the characters assumed it was Dani’s destiny to give birth to the next hero – which Sarah Connor wryly comments “they want to save your womb.” As it turns out, Dani is the leader of the resistance that Grace was sent to protect. And she grows into that role. Also, we see a great role for Linda Hamilton who is a not just a bad-ass woman, but also a bad-ass senior citizen. She wears her wrinkles proudly and becomes the mentor to a new generation. I give Dani and her hero-come-mentor Sarah Connor 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, there is a great deal of symbolic reference to current social issues, but none are actually dealt with in any substantive way. While we see the coming of the robot overlords, the revolt of the undocumented, and the rise of women leaders – not much is actually said about it. I give this film just 2 Message Points out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Message:


Terminator: Newer, Buffer, Better is a movie designed for fans of the franchise who love the idea of weak, flawed humans being able to destroy seemingly unstoppable cybernetic freaks. Yes, the primary villain in this new installment is unstoppable, yet he must be stopped and is stopped despite the unstoppability. (I’ll stop now.) This movie is fun to watch albeit repetitive and unoriginal. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.

There is a clear hero ensemble here, with Dani as the symbolic hero but Linda Hamilton and Arnold serving as the two sentimental heroes who do most of the kickassery. The true flaw of this film lies in the fact that Arnold’s cybernetic character has transformed offscreen. This is a clear violation of the “show, don’t tell” philosophy of storytelling. We never see the Arnold-Terminator change but we see the consequences of the change, which I guess is better than nothing. I give our ensemble 3 Hero points out of 5.

The message of this movie is similar to the message of previous Terminator movies, namely, that humanity has the will, the grit, and the wherewithal to save itself from future cybernetic takeovers. These attributes of perseverance and resolve are important heroic traits. I give them 3 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Message: