If you ask me, Terminator: Dark Fate had an incredibly strong opening moment and didn’t really back down from there. From the second the first production company logo company started to roll, I was all in.
This is the post that’s chock-full of spoilers. If you’d rather be reading the spoiler free review, click this nice word cloud made with all the words in that spoiler free review.
Okay, so we’re all just people who have seen the movie or don’t care about spoilers now, right? Good.
“You think you’re safe and alive? You’re already dead!”
The first thing I really appreciated about Dark Fate was its treatment of the obligatory minute and a half or whatever of company logos before the movie starts. Going back and seeing that video of Sarah yelling at Dr. Silberman in T2 really set the tone and made it feel right from the start like Terminator was BACK after years of being just not quite right. Honestly, it hit me sort of the same way The Force Awakens did, in that, yeah we’d seen it before, but we kind of needed to see it again to be reminded of what Terminator was *supposed* to be. Whether the rest of the film lived up to those few minutes of affected logos and Sarah recounting her nightmares of the Judgment Day to come is entirely and absolutely up for debate, but I don’t think there’s any denying that it set the tone wonderfully. I was primed for this movie immediately.
THE RETURN OF JOHN CONNOR
So, when the internet spoiled that Edward Furlong was going to be in Dark Fate as John, I was 1) annoyed that I’d been spoiled, 2) kind of excited because I wanted to see what that would be like and 3) a little confused, because he wasn’t at all a part of any of the trailers or promotional material that I’d seen. But from that moment, I resolved to stop looking. Terminator does, after all, have a history of giving away the best stuff in its trailers.
I wasn’t able to see Dark Fate when it premiered nationally. I had to wait until the following Tuesday (yay for a nonstandard weekend putting me on AMC’s discount day, I guess). And I’m very grateful and lucky for my friends who were able to see it before me and talked on Facebook about how much they enjoyed it, and especially “how good the CGI was at the beginning.”
Nobody told me the CGI at the beginning was going to be de-aged Linda Hamilton and 11(12/13/what even is canon anymore?)-year-old John Connor. And NOBODY indicated I was about to see Child John blown away by a backup just-in-case Terminator.
And therein lies probably the biggest controversy of this movie. Though internet comments make it hard to tell sometimes, it’s not that there are all these womenfolk leading the charge in somebody’s dudebro action movie. It’s not that there are subtitles and spoken Spanish dominating the first act or that it “promotes illegal immigration” (especially considering that it doesn’t do that, but internet’s gonna internet).
It’s that in the first five minutes of the movie, John Connor, humanity’s savior in the future war against the machines is killed before he even grows up.
I understand the hate that this development got. I really do. On one hand, as Dan Murrell pointed out over on Screen Junkies recently, it’s quite the emotional whiplash to go from the end of T2, where our heroes live and there’s hope for the future and then BAM! No hope. Our future hero is dead. Sorry, but here, follow these people around for awhile. And that’s why I think this trilogy of The Terminator, T2: Judgment Day and Terminator: Dark Fate can’t really be watched back to back. Because if you do that, yeah, that can be a really disappointing letdown and very unsatisfying for that legacy character, especially if you’re seeing Dark Fate for the first time right after watching Judgment Day. But I maintain that whiplash isn’t quite as severe with distance.
The other big complaint with it is that it somehow screwed up the mythology, but I just don’t get that. I mean, the whole point of what drove Sarah forward was the message that “The future is not set. There is no fate but that which we make for ourselves.” No fate doesn’t mean “everything is happy and works out for us.” It just means “nothing is destined.” Does that make Terminator a little more of a tragedy? Yeah, it does. But maybe that’s okay.
People talk about closed time loops and paradoxes and whatnot, but as that message from John indicates — unless he was just blowing smoke to buck 1984 Sarah up — there’s no indication that the franchise ever had to operate under a closed-loop time travel principle. If it did, the whole idea of having the ability to change things — for better or worse — doesn’t even really exist (as T3: Rise of the Machines posited, which is 85 percent of why I hate T3). This was actually one of the things I really liked about Terminator: Genisys. After decades of “But plot holes! Time Loops! Paradoxes!” from a certain flavor of nerd, when confronted with a “but you can’t do that because time loop/paradox/(plot hole)” the response from its new Terminator bad guy is a vehement “SAYS WHO?!”
So, yeah. Killing John was a bold move. I get the hate, I just don’t share it.
I don’t know why I’m always wary of my non-Arnold Terminators. Maybe it’s T3 based again, but I’m always afraid they’re not going to live up to the role, and I’m always wrong. From Robert Patrick in T2 to Garrett Dillahunt and the array of T-888s in The Sarah Connor Chronicles to Jason Clark in Genisys and now Gabriel Luna in Dark Fate, I’m always pleased.
Like I mentioned in the review, Luna has a little more in common with Patrick’s genial but deadly T-1000 than Arnold’s hulking T-800 or Dillahunt’s disaffected T-888, but he’s no less intimidating.
Like, there’s that scene when he first shows up after the temporal displacement bubble has frozen everything (that’s a new development, but I’m not opposed). He’s naked, as you are when you time travel in this franchise) and walks up to a stunned woman holding some laundry by the line. Is he going to kill her and take the clothes? Are we about to see some Terminating? Possibly. He’s got that look about him. But in the same vein of “Hey, that’s a nice bike,” he just reaches out, touches the clothes, imitates them with his whatever technology and walks away. I don’t remember if I’m imagining him saying ‘Thank you,” but I think he might have and that makes it even better. It’s CREEPY when our killer robots are polite!
Now, as I said in the main review, Dark Fate doesn’t have a lot of the tension that The Terminator had, and I think it’s probably because we don’t have those long slow hallway walks while Sarah cowers under a desk, and there aren’t many moments of “Oh, we think we’re safe…holy crap what’s that rising from the ashes of our burning terminator?!” No, Dark Fate pretty much just gives us a lot of running and driving and shooting and throwing. However, there are moments, most notably on the highway fight, where Gabriel Luna is running for Dani just before Sarah shoots him a few times, and there’s a speed there that’s frightening in a different way. The fear is less “What if he finds me?” and more…kind of like seeing a spider or the bug that shan’t be named skittering across the floor when you’re deathly afraid of them. That’s kind of what it felt like watching him charge at Dani in that moment. It’s weird. I don’t know how to explain it.
And that brings us to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who I resisted naming or even really talking much about in the main review. How do you talk about Carl without saying “He’s the Bonus Terminator who killed John?” So I opted not to say much of anything at all. From The Terminator to Uncle Bob to Pops, now we’ve landed on Terminator Carl, and I really liked him, even though parts of his story didn’t make a ton of sense. But some of those bits were really inconsequential. Like, I noticed he had a dog that didn’t bark at him. I wondered why, because yeah it stuck out a little bit. But does it *really* matter? Would I have wanted to sit through Carl’s rendition of whatever answer they dreamed up if Sarah or Grace had said “Why’s that dog like you?” Or is it fine that they lingered on the shot, intending for it to be noticed as just another way Carl’s not like other Terminators anymore?
Because he’s not exactly like other Terminators. After killing John, he was left alone in the 90s without a mission. So something something learning computer he set out to keep trying to seem more human. He is, after all, an infiltrator. And along the way he meets a woman and a kid and grows a conscience and a drapery company.
Yes, this Terminator sells drapes and is responsible for the single most hilarious thing in the movie. “There was this family once. They wanted to buy a solid color curtain for a baby’s room. I told them not to do that. We have polka dots and…” Come on. Even my mostly empty theater had audible laughter from that.
But that’s just surface-level Carl. His real importance to the story is how he relates now to Sarah. Sarah, who understandably is ready to kill him.
What she doesn’t know is that he’s the anonymous number that’s been texting her for years with dates and coordinates and the message “For John” that send her to a spot where new Terminators are showing up for her to kill. Apparently SkyNet (now Legion, because “progress” marches on) really didn’t want to put all its eggs in one basket.
Carl said he did it because helping the family he’s been living with gave him purpose, and made him realize in some way what he’d taken from Sarah by killing John. He thought by sending her after new targets, it would give her life meaning again. I get this, in a way. To me it kind of fits in with the way Pops grew in Genisys. Nothing about it is quite as moving as “Take care of my Sarah” but I can understand a story in which a Terminator grows over the course of decades if not to *have* feelings then to have an understanding of feelings that is different from the Guns & Ammo Kill Everything Terminator on a Mission.
It just depends on how far you imagine that “learning computer” capability to go.
Dani loses everything in the first act. There’s room after John’s death to keep criticizing Dark Fate for spending so much time following this new girl around a Mexican city as she takes breakfast home to her father, teases her brother about his English skills and goes to bat for him when his job is about to be replaced by a machine at the factory they work at. It’s not the most exciting thing in the world.
I dug it though, partly because I appreciated that the movie trusted its audience enough to mostly go all-in with subtitles, but also because it was clear Dani was going to be important, and the more we know about her, the easier it is to care about her. The more we see her life pre-Terminators, the more we can understand her growth post-Terminators and how she becomes the person she is in the future.
Terminator: Salvation notwithstanding, the franchise has always only given us glimpses of the future, and it’s always been war zone, war zone, war zone. And there’s certainly an element of that — the very first future scene we see is one of those iconic “terminators walking amid the skulls and bones of humanity” scenes — but in this, a fair chunk of the future scenes are also devoted to trying to live in the future hellscape and the dangers not just from the machines but from broken, divided people. I liked that touch. It reminded me a lot of stories from Derek Reese in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and also was a nice reminder that we have to be cognizant of how we treat each other as people, because robot and AIs aren’t the only beings in the world that can destroy it.
Having said that, there came a point when it was not at all surprising to see Future Dani as the one who started bringing people together to fight the machines instead of each other. The movie tried to throw us off the scent by having Sarah immediately assume Dani was going to be another her — the woman who has the son who will save humanity — but come on. Anyone in 2019 who thought that was the story Dark Fate was going to tell just isn’t paying enough attention to the world.
Grace was such an interesting addition! She’s a great foil for Sarah and works well with Carl. From a protector standpoint, she’s from a time when humans were beginning to experiment with creating augmented people, and it goes a little better than the Star Trek Augments that are impossible not to think of since they share a name. Well, depending on how you define better. Grace doesn’t go evil over the augmentations that give her computer enhanced vision and make her stronger, faster and more resilient. But her changes do only provide for short bursts of high-intensity action as she sensibly says “if you can’t take out a Terminator in the first few minutes…”
But because it would be an awfully short movie if she took out the Terminator in a few minutes, we get to see what happens if she only gets away. With too much sustained exertion, Grace is left completely wiped and it’s made very clear that without a hodge-podge of treatments she could keel over at any second. These moments are probably the closest to that original “being stalked by a Terminator” tension from the original movie. Before they meet Sarah, when Grace goes down, Dani not only has no protector from the Terminator that’s hunting her, she’s also on the run, in public and Grace’s situation is drawing the attention of a lot of people. Now the tension is less about “what if the Terminator catches up with them?” and more about “what if they get arrested and can’t run? They’ll be sitting ducks in a jail cell.” It’s not quite as harrowing, but it’s better than nothing.
I also really liked the way Grace and Dani were connected. They were really conspicuous about not naming the wounded commander in the future, and it certainly didn’t take long to assume that it was future Dani. So there wasn’t really any surprise when that line of thinking bore out. The neat thing to me was that Dani wasn’t just an idea to Grace the same way that Sarah was to Kyle in the first movie. She was an actual person who saved Grace’s life, taught her everything she knew and was cared for her in the same way she’s helping young Dani now. It made Grace’s deliberate sacrifice for Dani even more meaningful (but also no less predictable).
OTHER THOUGHTS AND FRANCHISE’S FUTURE
I feel like a lot of the time lately when I talk about movies or shows I end up feeling like the parts are better than the whole. There are things about it that I like enough to enjoy the final product, but really if I could just watch those things over and over and forget the rest, that would be fine too. Dark Fate is the opposite for me. It’s one of those things where, yeah, it’s not all great. It’s got some problems — chief among them predictability and an over-reliance on enormous action scenes — but I don’t think any of them are things that aren’t overcome enough to create an overall enjoyable experience. I liked this movie a lot.
Of course, three days into its run, people were already calling Dark Fate a flop. It cost $180 million to make (plus marketing) and domestically it didn’t even crack $30 million at its debut. It’s next weekend was even worse and if it manages to make its money back, it’ll be on the back of the global market. Because if it lasts through November in the U.S., I’d be surprised.
Given that, the sequels that I’d apparently been blissfully oblivious about probably won’t materialize, and I think that’s a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, I want this movie to do really well, or at least not lose money when all is said done. But I don’t think it needs to be part of a bigger trilogy. Let Sarah and Dani drive off into the sunset left alone to navigate a future that may or may not include a future judgment day with knowledge that, if it happens, they’ll be ready.
I feel like that’s a cinematic end that’s in line with both the movies that make up the trilogy it’s already a part of (if you just treat T3, Salvation and Genisys like alternate timeline anomalies that don’t matter to the Cameron-era Terminators.)
Having said that, I think a mark of a good movie is that it leaves you wanting more of *something*. I don’t want more movie really, but I would love to read some tie-in novels or watch a limited-run series about Grace and Dani in the future or Dani and Sarah leading up to that future.
And that’s got to count for something.
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