– By J.W. Fox –
Much like the titular villain, this is a franchise that is extremely difficult to kill. The previous three movies were unworthy of their title, desperately hoping to draw strength from the James Cameron masterpiece that changed action movies forever. Go ahead and watch T2 again. It has aged well and holds up despite being well over 20 years old. Terminator: Dark Fate was an even more desperate attempt to absorb the T2 glow. Pulling James Cameron in for a producer credit and bringing back Linda Hamilton was a tacit admission of the poor state of the franchise.
It is tragic. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, depended on fan service and nostalgia to make up for a bad script and terrible casting. They tried to one-up themselves with something nastier than a T1000, which ended up being an implausibly omnipotent “machine” that toys with the heroes for most of the movie.
Terminator: Salvation took scriptwriting and casting a little more seriously. Sadly, something in the execution went wrong and the high profile cast could not save a forced, mechanical plot with a wholly unsatisfying, non-sensical ending.
No need to talk about Terminator: Genisys. It didn’t take itself seriously, why should we?
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
No Fear or Drama Left in this Franchise
The formula for bad Terminator movies is pretty simple (1) accelerate through all the dramatic plot points; and (2) step up action and special effects with a bigger, badder terminators.
Judgment Day gave a dark, haunting images of the apocalypse through the opening battle sequence and Sarah Connor’s nightmares. Nuclear warfare was made very real and personal with the scene of women and children enjoying a nice day at a playground being incinerated by the blast over Los Angeles. The piles of skulls, and powerful war machines of Skynet pushing through the resistance made the danger feel close.
Sarah Connor is strong but also driven mad by her first encounter with a terminator. She was unhinged, paranoid, and cold toward everyone, including her son. Is she a bad ass? Sure, but that wasn’t her only dimension. Her character came across as a real human being: a mother, and a traumatized soldier.
All three movies after Judgment Day run roughshod over this powerful drama. The apocalypse is just a bunch of “cool” CGI images, with nameless and faceless humans being slaughtered by the hundred. Not really nightmares or haunting at all. It is treated more as a call to action, like a typical hero’s journey. Only, the franchise got off the ground as a sci-fi horror, not another superhero movie. It obviously doesn’t work well in that space.
In Dark Fate, Linda Hamilton proves she still has presence. I could still see Sarah Connor the soldier despite the many years that have passed, but the problem is her best scene was a flashback to her breakdown at the mental facility in Judgment Day. The rest of the script asked her to be a witty, one-line delivering bad ass, like some weird Bruce Willis-like character, or maybe Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon. I was waiting for her to deliver a “I’m getting too old for this shit” line in a movie about nuclear Armageddon.
Right off the bat, they had a chance to really let Hamilton shine in witnessing her son murdered by a second terminator after the events of Judgment Day. Instead, we get a flat voiceover rather than seeing or hearing her psychological trauma, shock, and despair. In other words, the movie skipped over one of the most dramatic moments in the franchise’s new timeline. The leader of the resistance is dead! WTF?
The movie had another chance when she runs into the terminator that terminated her son and all we see is some angry yelling, seething, and a underwhelming moment in the woods where Sarah regrets not having a picture of John. It wasn’t awful but felt like it wasn’t nearly strong enough.
Losing a child is one of the most traumatic moments in the human experience. Confronting the killer is another. Dark Fate accelerated through both moments to get to the action. The alliance with the terminator is thrown together like a “we don’t like each other but we have to work together” moment that felt more like a scene from a cop movie where two detectives that hate each other are forced to be partners.
Stop Trying to One-Up James Cameron!
Second part of formula: make a bigger badder terminator. We met the TX, or whatever it was in Rise of the Machines. The implausible super-terminator would fit perfectly in an Avengers movie, but was total overkill given what the heroes had in their corner. She should have been able to dispatch John Connor and company pretty easily.
Salvation pulled it back, and deserves credit for that. Instead, the movie gives Skynet a voice and a face, making it a devious evil genius that manipulates the human resistance into exposing itself and putting John Connor right in its grasp. If only the rest of the plot was better executed…
Genisys tried to create some sort of super T-1000 for Jason Clarke to play but it never really made sense. It just left me with questions: What the hell was it? Why something so omnipotent couldn’t kill two humans and an obsolete Model 101. I also strongly questioned casting a woman who is barely five feet tall to play Sarah Connor. Linda Hamilton is at least four inches taller and physically much more imposing than the dragon queen ever could be, but I digress…
Dark Fate introduces us to yet another super-terminator, the REV-9. In the future, Skynet’s successor Legion develops liquid metal terminators that can bond with a standard Cyberdyne Model 101 style terminator to make a dual-threat. Both are able to absorb ridiculous amounts of damage making it clear there was zero attempt at plausibility or balance in this fight. Just more chances to show off a super-terminator in five or six CGI-orgy action sequences.
Story be Damned, Off to the Next Explosion
Natalie Reyes plays future leader of the resistance Dani Ramos. Her outmatched protector is played by Mackenzie Davis. Both have interesting stories and both were good casting choices. Mackenzie Davis, in particular, was a powerful presence playing an augmented human. Unfortunately, the movie moves so fast from action sequence to the next, neither is given much time to really let their character develop or their personal connection to unfold. It is also usurped by Sarah Connor’s traumatic history as well, which pulled from the franchise’s legacy.
Dani and Sarah both must deal with loss of family members, which is more than enough drama to fill one movie. Throw in Mackenzie Davis’s story and you need a three hour movie. We haven’t even got to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bizarre backstory. Yes, Arnold plays the terminator that killed John but somehow has a change of heart for an AI. His life as a family man/resistance agent was a neat twist but explored for barely five minutes.
As a result, the sacrifices of all these characters lack the emotional punch at the end. It is made worst by a final scene that could have been touching but is ruined by a horribly written line delivered by Hamilton as the movie faded out. This franchise began with real gravitas, combining hard science fiction (AI and robots), a new kind of monster, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looming. Dark Fate is written more like a DC movie, that has no sense of scale or balance.
Even the musical score, which was inspired by the T2 soundtrack, lacked emotion. It sounded more like a war drum banged as an army marches into battle.
Number 6 Won’t Save the Franchise
The Terminator fanbase had eroded so much over the years that there wasn’t much interest and enthusiasm for Dark Fate. It had a miserable $29 million opening weekend. Just like with Prometheus: Covenant and The Predator, the fans have given up. The magic of the originals (or in Terminator’s case, the sequel) simply cannot be rekindled. What makes this most frustrating is that no lessons have been learned from prior failures. Dark Fate is a better movie than Genisys, Salvation and Rise of the Machines, but it makes many of the same mistakes.
J.W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls under the pen name Jacob Foxx. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works for a small biotech company in Raleigh, North Carolina.