Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Terminator: Dark Fate is, by my count, the fifth attempt to make a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day. There was the adequate but largely-forgotten Rise of the Machines (which boasted an impressively grim ending but suffered from recasting John Connor), the best-forgotten reboot Terminator: Salvation and the creatively-conceived but direly executed and terribly titled Genisys. (Number four barely counts admittedly – I’m referring to The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I’ve never seen.)

If you want to go by early box office reports, Dark Fate is likely the last attempt to continue the franchise, at least for a while.

Which is a shame. Narratively, there’s nothing especially innovative in the film’s structure; its three credited screenwriters are beholden to the themes of Terminator 2 while avoiding its ‘let’s change the future’ arc in favour of a relentless chase story à la the first film. Playing the role of the ‘good Terminator’ is Mackenzie Davis as Grace – technically a cyber-enhanced human, splitting the difference between Kyle Reese and the T-800 – with her ward young Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a factory worker from Mexico. Their pursuer is the ‘Rev-9’ (Gabriel Luna): think Robert Patrick’s T-1000, except with the ability to separate into its exoskeleton and liquid metal components.

That set-up would complete the Terminator structure, but it’s clear – right from the opening frames of the film – that director Tim Miller is a big fan of Terminator 2. So, in comes both Linda Hamilton – in her first appearances as Sarah Connor since 1991 – alongside, inevitably, a new iteration of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800. (Of course, Hamilton’s presence is also explained by audiences’ increasing antipathy towards the franchise, necessitating the need for a big name alongside Schwarzenegger.)

I’m not telling you anything you haven’t seen in the trailer. And the primary beats of the story aren’t anything you wouldn’t have guessed from the marketing – which casually reveals most of the film’s twists – aside from, perhaps, Arnie’s capability for choosing drapes. That’s not a joke, though it does make for some funny moment in the film, which offers up an appealing blend of humour and action. But what impressed me about Dark Fate most wasn’t its jokes, or its action scenes – which range from gripping to weightless – but how it manages to find real, razor-sharp political meaning amidst an otherwise-conventional franchise film.

The film’s subtext ain’t subtle – it’s barely even ‘sub’ – but in an era where movies like these partner up with the military on the condition on the favourable presentation of same, it’s refreshing to see the film’s deep scepticism regarding the intertwining toxicity of industrialisation and militarisation. Dark Fate begins with the former, taking a swipe at automation through Dani’s brother losing his factory job to a machine.

It’s the second act, though, where the film really takes a powerful political stance. Dani, Grace and Sarah must enter America illegally from Mexico – largely because of Sarah’s ‘most wanted’ status, inherited from T2 – with the aid of a coyote. The Rev-9 uses the apparatus of the immigration wing of the American military – surveying them with drones, with the connection between contemporary robots and imagined ‘Hunter-Killers’ left implicit but obvious – and eventually stalks them through a crowded immigration prison. Sorry, “detainment centre.” It’s an unmistakable critique of American politics, and it’s not hard to see how such philosophies might manifest in a military machine.

In the original films, that machine was Skynet – here, it’s a new iteration, the malicious A.I. network known as “Legion.” To a degree, this undercuts the ambiguous optimism that concluded Terminator 2, but I think Dark Fate’s blend of pessimism and optimism – “No fate but what we make it,” rears its head – strikes the perfect balance between The Terminator and T2. The former was a ‘closed loop’ realisation of time travel, where everything that happened was always going to happen (like Sarah’s tryst with Kyle Reese begetting John Connor); the latter complicated matters by suggesting both that Skynet was a product of itself, but also that it could be defeated before it ever existed. Dark Fate suggests that – much like fascism – evil robots are inevitable, but we always have the capability to fight them back. History may be cyclical, but we have the power to break that cycle.

Not all of it hits so well. It’s sort of a spoiler to acknowledge that Dani is less “Mother Mary” than a messiah, shouldering the responsibility of John Connor in this new timeline. But the film so crudely attempts to conceal this and wield it as a twist that you’ll see it coming a mile away – and roll your eyes. The way it tries to make it seem like a shock that the hero is a heroine feels very 1990s, and not in a good way.

Regardless, Dark Fate is, in my book, the best attempt to continue the Terminator franchise since 1991. It’s a shame that it just happens to be dead on arrival.

3.5 stars

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