Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

darkfWe’re currently in a period -have been for quite some time, actually, and it seems there’s no end in sight- where pop culture seems obsessed with the past. With re-visiting old icons. Its actually been going on in film for so long now that one could be forgiven for thinking its just always been this way, that this is normal and entirely intellectually ‘sound’. Its gotten to the point at which, having remade and rebooted so many huge successful properties of the past, attention has turned to those that failed first time around; I still have to pinch myself that anyone deemed it a good idea to make a sequel to Blade Runner, box-office flop that it was. News has been circulating recently that John Carpenter’s 1982 flop The Thing is being remade/rebooted. I suppose so many years has gone by that the financial failures of those two 1982 duds has been softened by decades of ancillary sales on various video formats and platforms, and their critical reappraisal won’t have hurt either. But the performance of BR2049 should always be a sobering reminder of the dangers, even if it turned out (in my eyes, anyway) a quite brilliant film possibly equal to the original. So you know, maybe a remake/reboot of The Thing is not the monstrously horrible idea that my gut instinct thinks it is.

The Terminator franchise is one of those properties that Hollywood just hasn’t been able to quite leave alone, but by the time Terminator: Dark Fate arrived one had to wonder whether film-makers were rebooting/continuing the original two films or the successive sequels/reboots. It had gotten to the point at which my apathy left me curious about it, but not enough to actually shell out any coins to watch it. Which might be why the film failed -with a slightly higher budget than BR2049 it barely surpassed that films likewise dismal worldwide box-office, perhaps some measure of just how little any of those old movies actually resonate with modern audiences, no matter how good/bad/popular they were originally.

To be brutally honest, Terminator: Dark Fate is a totally unnecessary movie. Its like Terminator is some Hollywood corpse that keeps on getting kicked around, or which some mad Hollywood studio executive scientist keeps subjecting to lightning screaming “Its alive! Its alive!”until finally realising, no, its still quite dead and kicks it into a dark corner again until some other Peter Cushing lookalike decides its worth a shot.

Maybe this time is the last time. Maybe this time they’ll let it lie.

Its not that Terminator: Dark Fate is a bad film – well, maybe it is, but at least it isn’t terrible- its just that its so redundant, just bringing back the old tropes and stunts and, in this case, two of the original actors/characters. The whole franchise has gotten so wrapped up in various timelines and realities and paradoxes that the first thing this film does is wipe out everything post T2 in one brutal opening sequence to, as it were, simply clear the state. Unfortunately at the same time it also pulls an Alien 3, by pretty much negating everything in T2 itself, too. Which is either very brave or incredibly stupid- some Alien fans still get dangerously fluctuating blood pressure issues when Alien 3 is ever raised in a discussion.  For the record, I’m a fan of Alien 3 and quite like the sheer audacity of what it did to the characters who survived Aliens, but I have always been able to appreciate the ire that fans invested in the characters of Aliens felt at the time and indeed still do. Intellectually it wholly undermines the events of that film, threatening to negate any investment in that film whenever re-watched (possibly fans instead watch and stubbornly (wisely?) ignore the fact that Alien 3 exists at all- something that likely quite a few original Star Wars trilogy fans are attempting in this Disney Star Wars era.

darkf3What Terminator: Dark Fate proposes is that all the efforts of Sarah Connor and Arnie’s reprogrammed Terminator to protect her son John from the shape-shifting T-1000 and destroy Skynet were all for nothing, because in the first five minutes another Terminator (several, it seems, having been sent into the past to kill John Connor because, well, redundancy) comes along and kills John shortly following the events of T2. Its perhaps saying something about the inevitability of fate and AI that although Skynet has been stopped, it is instead simply delaying the same Apocalyptic events, this time orchestrated by another, later AI entitled Legion.

Now on the one hand, this is a fascinating proposition- similarly to the mythology of the BSG reboot, it seems to be suggesting that whatever we do, humanity is doomed to repeat the same mistake, in that the drive/forward momentum of scientific advancement we are always destined to create machines and then AI which, when sentient, always turns against us. In BSG, what has happened before is destined to happen again, a cycle of advance and disaster. So that defeating Skynet in T2 is always futile because some other scientist is going to eventually stumble upon the knowledge that leads to AI and another Skynet- in Dark Fate‘s case, an AI called Legion. It suggests a particularly dark viewpoint, the nihilistic view that humanity is doomed whatever we do. This isn’t really dwelt upon, more the pity, because Dark Fate lacks the darkness of the first Terminator film in particular The one thing I did appreciate, is that Dark Fate actually offers a possible break in the cycle: the issue with T2 was that it ended Skynet but not the industrial/economic drive for scientific progress that led to Skynet (because Judgement Day never happened,  the lesson of Skynet couldn’t be heeded by the public/powers that be). Dark Fate is never about stopping Judgement Day, it happens eventually, and Dani is the leader to lead the resistance and defeat Legion. One would suppose that afterwards, whatever the world is like, its one in which scientists won’t be so eager to create AI that threatens the Apocalypse.

So, decades after John has been killed and Sarah lost in semi-drunken rage, two new Terminators arrive from the future- well, one, as it turns out, is not quite a Terminator, but the other is a black-liquid T-1000 variant obviously up to no good- and the basic plot of the Terminator movies is up and running again. The AI of the ‘Future End of the World (Delayed)’ has identified the human that usurps it in its future and has sent a deadly assassin into the past to kill her and ensure it isn’t, er, usurped. And, er, someone else has then sent someone into the past to ensure she, er, isn’t.

darkf2Its like the very definition of reboot. And of course, it perhaps reflects the current obsession of our times that the hero that can save humanity is a woman not a man, and that the ‘good’ Terminator sent into the past (actually an augmented human, named Grace) is a woman too. I’m not concerned with the sexual politics, its boring and largely irrelevant except for those that choose to make a Big Deal about it on YouTube etc (afterall, we had Ripley and Sarah Connor herself kicking ass in films 40-odd years ago so its really the same old, same old). But the gender choices do impact the casting, and its that casting that chiefly damages this film. On the one hand, Mackenzie Davis as Grace is great – she’s excellent at the physical work in the action sequences and she is a very fine actress so is emotive and is, really, the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, while Natalia Reyes, who plays Dani, the Dark Fate variant of John Connor, is probably a good actress in her own right, she never at all convinces as the future saviour of the human race. She doesn’t have the hardness or physical attributes to really convince that way, particularly (and most damningly) in the future sequences in which we see her leading the resistance against Legion. Maybe it was an attempt to cast against type, but it doesn’t work, at least it didn’t for me. To be honest, it was almost laughable, and her future leader proves even more unconvincing than her present-day unwitting factory worker destined for Greatmess. As if ‘anyone’ can be The One.

Arnie, of course, is back, as the Terminator that assassinated John at the films opening but is later redeemed by living with humans and getting a conscience. Yeah, I know, even typing that feels stupid, but its one of those leaps of logic that Dark Fate inflicts upon us in its strange insistence to stay positive about everything- the film really misses the darkness of the first film. This Terminator seems to have even adopted a family and had success selling Drapes. Excuse me while I barf… I don’t know. Maybe they should have written a backstory of Sarah hunting the Terminator down for revenge, capturing and reprogramming it as her robot-slave or something, or maybe that would paint her in a bad light. Speaking of Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton makes a welcome return as the great haunted anti-heroine, but again, she utterly lacks any chemistry with Reyes as Dani, I mean, there is literally nothing there.

Its like the film lacks any emotional depth or profundity at all, and that Reyes is this strange Black Hole when the character really needs to be an icon, a gravitational force of depth and substance. Only Mackenzie Davis seems to make any real connection with Reyes or Hamilton or anyone, really. Arnie is pretty much wasted, he gets a few funny gags/one-liners but its not as if the film has a dark mood to alleviate. Without the emotional connections there really can’t be any drama, and some of the decidedly ropy CGI work in the stunts with digital characters substituting for the actors and their stunt doubles while plainly necessary is so poorly done, and sticks out so badly, it just seems to turn it into an animated movie so minus any real tension.

Its bad enough that we’ve largely seen so much of this before, but the films tendency to try to do action sequences up there with the daftest Marvel Studios spandex hero nonsense just makes it, well, silly, totally lacking any weight or depth. It really needed, in my opinion, to return to the physical reality of the first movie, and a violence that looked real and hurt, away from the Marvel stuff that threatens to infect everything now.

Dark Fate is not a complete disaster, but its really not particularly good either, completely negating any reason for its existence, even if it could argue for one in the first place. Did we need another Terminator movie? If we did, we needed one better than Dark Fate.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

2016.1: Terminator Genisys (Blu-ray)

tg1We’re living in a strange time of reboots of the franchises we grew up with. Maybe its a sign of growing old (in fact I’m certain of it) but it’s strange indeed. Hollywood over the last few years has been revisiting all the expired franchises of the last few decades and attempted to put a fresh spin on them, reinvigorate them and  make fresh money off them.

When I say ‘expired franchises’ I count Star Wars among them. We’ve had reboots of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Mad Max, and most recently Star Wars over the past few years. Yes, there are obvious financial advantages of rebooting established properties- its certainly easier to market a film that has a recognised identity.  Artistically I can see the creative bonuses of revisiting something and giving it the advantage of modern technologies. The best example – and quite possibly the most successful reboot of all of them- is the Planet of the Apes series.  The original Planet of the Apes films were fine, considering the limitations of actors under make-up playing the apes, but it’s evident that there are considerable improvements from motion capture tech and having photorealistic CGI apes onscreen that enable more sophisticated storytelling and heightened drama.

tg3Terminator Genisys received plenty of ire from fans and reviewers in how it revisited events from the first two Terminator entries, but I see little difference in that to how film-makers revisited events from the Jurassic Park movies in Jurassic World or the original Star Wars trilogy in The Force Awakens. Its fine to have a droid holding secret data being hunted by the bad guys or the good guys to blow up another planet-destroying super weapon in Force Awakens, or genetically-built dinosaurs to run amok in yet another Jurassic theme park in Jurassic World, but it’s wrong to have time-travelling terminators hunting Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys? Of course its hardly original, thats the whole point of reboots- a lack of creative originality. Most of the creativity is in establishing an excuse to go through those old tropes. Whether its fine to expect a fifth Terminator movie to make $500 million worldwide, or to measure its failure to do so as some measure of the quality of the film itself, is something else entirely. Does the fact that The Force Awakens is already  close to $1.4 billion worldwide some measure that it is the best of all the Star Wars films so far? Of course not. It just means that the public were hyped/ready/excited for a new Star Wars film but less so for a new Terminator film. The critical reevaluation of The Force Awakens will come in several months, I’m sure. Maybe Terminator Genisys will get one too.

Whether Terminator Genisys needed to cost some $155 million and therefore needed to be a huge hit to break even (and if that were even possible)  is another matter, and a question for the producers to answer. Some of these bloated budgets these days are quite irresponsible and smaller films would not necessarily be any worse for being more financially viable.

tg2To be clear, I rather enjoyed Terminator Genisys, much to my surprise. From the reviews and word-of-mouth on its release, I gathered it was yet another tired attempt to relaunch the Terminator franchise and so I didn’t bother seeing it at the cinema. Now, lower expectations often give rise to pleasant surprises and this is such a case in point having received the TG blu-ray for Christmas. I thought TG was fun. I thought it was a rather clever attempt to revisit the events of the first film and its sequel using the time-travelling mechanism central to the story. It didn’t feel overly manipulative or cynical- indeed it seemed rather honest and respectful, and it offered a new twist on old events and fresh possibilities for a ‘new’ timeline. Was it perfect? No. There were likely one too many twists and too much thrown into it, including an unnecessary physical embodiment of Skynet/Genisys which would possibly have been best left for a second film. Not all the casting choices worked, but criticising Emilia Clarke for not being Linda Hamilton is like criticising Chris Pine for not being William Shatner. Those original casting choices are like lightning that can never strike twice, and I almost pity the actor who gets to play a young Han Solo in the future Star Wars spin-off.

But I am rather keen to watch TG again. Of course its no patch on the originals but it’s far superior to T3 and Terminator Salvation. It feels rather like a ‘proper’ third Terminator film that honours the first two while spinning off into a new timeline. Perhaps the negative word-of-mouth that TG received has more to do with fan expectation than reality.  Is it even fair to expect any Terminator film to be as good or better than T2? Isn’t that just setting up unrealistic expectations that no film can really measure up to? I didn’t expect The Force Awakens to be as good as The Empire Strikes Back and certainly don’t expect Blade Runner 2 to be as good as the first.

tg4Happily, the fact that Terminator Genisys’  struggle at the box-office seems to have nixed any further film doesn’t really hurt how the central narrative of the film finishes- throughout watching the film, I feared some kind of cliffhanger or lack of proper conclusion (a failing of so many of these intended trilogies that never happen, like The Golden Compass) but TG ends fine. I appreciate the film-makers for managing that. There were obviously fresh adventures ahead, further planned movies we will never see, but that’s ok, a story has been told with a beginning, middle and fairly emphatic end (even a mid-end credits coda doesn’t harm things). The Terminator franchise may eventually get another reboot down the line (it seems one of those properties that Hollywood just can’t let die) but I do think this particular franchise is rather uniquely situated in this- I think all the sequels are separate timelines, parallel universes and all the recasting and twisted logic can be explained by that. As it is, whenever I think of the franchise in future, I’ll think of it as Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Terminator Genisys, and pretend the other two don’t exist in my own particular timeline, and be fine with that.