movie review

In Terminator: Dark Fate, James Cameron’s Audaciously Hopeful Ethos Returns With a Vengeance

The sixth — er, thirdTerminator film has gotten much better reviews than it deserves, but I understand why people want to embrace it. Photo: Paramount Pictures

In Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest souped-up Terminator gets shotgunned and comes back, pulverized and comes back, incinerated and comes back, and after more than an hour of his coming back, I thought of Jay Leno’s old Doritos commercials: “Crunch all you want. We’ll make more.” Yep, you can crunch these Terminators all you want, and if they can’t reconstitute themselves (after, say, being smushed in a handy hydraulic press or dissolved in a handy pit of molten steel), the machines in the future will make more — and send them yet again to the past to kill someone or someone’s mother, generating more chases, explosions, disintegrations, and reintegrations. These are Doritos movies, indeed: a lot of crunching, a lot of empty calories.

Dark Fate should be considered the sixth Terminator film, but the studios have their own kind of time machine, so it’s retroactively the third. That is to say, remember movies 3, 4, and 5? Forget them. Just as in the latest Halloween, in which Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode isn’t Michael’s little sister anymore, Sarah Connor and her son, John, didn’t get away clean. Seems there was another T101 (the Teutonic, lumpy-jawed original) in the mix who kept himself out of T2’s T101 vs. T2 battle — possibly he was sightseeing — and bided his time until Sarah and John lowered their guard. The prologue of Terminator: Dark Fate depicts the tragic upshot. Yes, Sarah and John did prevent the exterminating Skynet from being born, but another human-hating machine came along by the name of Legion. (Couldn’t the filmmakers have come up with a different kind of villain? They’re as unimaginative as the Knights Who Say “Ni”: “We want — another shrubbery!”)

What really happened, of course, is that with T2 James Cameron thought he’d wrapped up the saga in a neat bow but didn’t count on his ex (one of his exes, actually, the producer Gayle Ann Hurd) holding on to the rights and, with Hollywood’s enthusiastic collaboration, messing up his optimistic ending with an apocalyptic third film. Screw you, Jim: Skynet won anyway. But box-office returns diminished with each non-Cameron sequel, so the post-T2 slate has been wiped clean and the super-director prevailed upon to return (as producer) along with the original Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton — another Cameron ex. (Asked if she thought her then-husband would change after winning an Oscar for Titanic, Hamilton replied that he’d still be an asshole. By then, he’d apparently taken up with Suzy Amis from Titanic.)

So Hamilton is here, badassed, unsmiling, with a whiskey-and-cigarettes croak that recalls the late Carrie Fisher although she’s nowhere near as fun, plus another feminist warrior, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who arrives in Mexico City buck naked from the future in a crackle of electricity. Grace has come back — like so many before her — to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), whom the machines want dead on account of … no spoilers, but trust me, they hate her. The would-be assassin is the Rev 9 (Gabriel Luna), who reverts when bazookaed to a tarlike ooze and can split in two for extra oomph. (A black skeleton climbs out of him — very Day of the Dead.) Grace, whose precise nature I also won’t reveal, is plainly overmatched by this Terminator (“You don’t fight it, you run from it”), but with help from Sarah, a pissed-off Dani, and someone with a heavy Austrian accent, she has a shot at luring the indefatigable shape-shifter to Dark Fate’s equivalent of a hydraulic press or molten pit. There are nice touches. A sequence at the Mexico-Texas border suggests a dystopian future that’s already here, and no one will fail to register that humanity’s savior is a woman and Mexican. Cameron’s audaciously hopeful ethos returns with a vengeance: “Fuck fate. What matters are the choices we make now.”

I couldn’t agree more, but it’s hard to accept the idea that the future isn’t written from a movie in which every plot twist is telegraphed so far in advance. (The Hollywood word for “fate” is formula.) The director, Tim Miller, has a relatively light touch in the dialogue scenes that break up the Terminator’s attacks (though there’s nothing he can do with the leaden speeches), but the staging isn’t as witty as you’d expect from the onetime animator who made Deadpool. Cameron’s T2 was equally repetitive, but the CGI was like nothing we’d ever seen, and even today it elicits awe: What is this silver blob that can take the shape of whatever it wants, including lethal weapons? The technology of Terminator: Dark Fate is exponentially more advanced, but the pacing is so unvaried that even the miracles make you say “Whatever.”

Cameron — who gets the first story credit, followed by four more writers — does one thing better than anybody: cornball self-sacrifice. Leave me, save yourself, I die for all mankind, etc. Great war-movie stuff, and the actors play it well. Davis has been poised for stardom for a while (she’s startling in Always Shine and a hoot in Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town), and while the role doesn’t use her gift for irony, she manages to suggest the sad separateness of a hybrid being. (She looks like Mary Stuart Masterson stretched out.) The Colombian-born Reyes evokes Dani’s innocence without seeming insipid, and her budding militancy without forsaking vulnerability. The new Terminator, Gabriel Luna, looks superciliously fit, with a tiny smile that suggests arousal when he recovers his human form. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who I feared would never escape the humiliation of Terminator: Genysis, in which his paunchy Terminator was referred to as “Pops” — is about as expressive as it’s possible for him to be. He has the same haggard countenance as in the low-key, post-zombie-apocalypse drama Maggie and the faraway, what-the-hell-happened-to-me gaze of a onetime Mr. Universe losing the war (as we all must) to age and gravity. The loss of arrogance becomes him.

Terminator: Dark Fate has gotten much better reviews than it deserves, but I understand why people want to embrace it. The stars of the first big wave of sci-fi action blockbusters — Schwarzenegger, Hamilton, Harrison Ford and his fellow Star Wars icons — are at an age when they can collect Social Security, and their passing of the torch (especially to young women) honors the past while pointing toward a more just, equal society. But the world it suggests to me is the one of “franchises” and “tentpoles,” in which bigger and faster machines create the same rudimentary junk. Telling you to crunch all you want is how the studios get you lazy, fat, and addicted.

In Terminator: Dark Fate, the Cornball Franchise Returns