The New 'Terminator' Is More Pessimistic Than Ever

'Terminator: Dark Fate' brings Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger back to the screen. There’s plenty of creative, exciting action, but on the whole it’s too much like its early predecessors

Linda Hamilton in "The Terminator: Dark Fate"
Kerry Brown / © 2018 SKYDANCE P

Being attacked or pursued is the most prevalent theme of dreams, according to the American dream researcher Dr. Kelly Bulkeley. His study, which was quoted in The Guardian, found that 83 percent of those questioned woke up from a dream of that kind, more than the 72 percent who reported having dreams of sexual experiences. The research showed that men dream about sex more than women, but pursuit dreams are gender-equal. The Terminator character, as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the eponymous 1984 film, evoked this primal fear strikingly, with a straightforward scenario of a never-ending pursuit from which no escape is possible. Even more than the Terminator’s skills as a killer, what unsettled viewers was his ability to take everything thrown at him and then get up and continue the pursuit.

Even after 35 years, “Terminator” remains one of the greatest action pictures in cinematic history. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) accomplished the near impossible for a sequel: It outdid the original. The character of the Terminator has since become a cultural icon, as has that of Sarah Connor, who was transformed from a hapless young woman into a tough action lady, if not a model mother. At the time, the director, James Cameron, chose to end the story there and move on to new projects. However, the rights to the characters remained in the hands of Cameron’s ex-wife, the producer Gale Anne Hurd, who afterward was behind the making of three more “Terminator” films, ranging from bad to forgettable.

“Terminator: Dark Fate,” currently in wide release, is thus the third film (out of six) in the series in which Cameron has been involved – this time neither as director nor screenwriter, but as producer and script consultant. He also helped construct the plot and recruit the original stars. Cameron decided to pointedly ignore the three films that were made without him and to leverage the journey in time so that the story picks up where “Judgment Day” ended. Indeed, the new picture features the return of Linda Hamilton (who is also an ex-wife of Cameron’s) as Sarah Connor, and of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the robot-like role he was born to play. They are joined by a new set of actors, led by Mackenzie Davis (“Blade Runner 2049”), and the director Tim Miller, whose second film this is, after “Deadpool.”

Saga of self-destruction

I won’t elaborate on the start of the film, which is perhaps its most surprising part, but I will note that several connecting segments deftly weld the end of the second film to the present. Back then, in the early 1990s, the heroes were able to eliminate Skynet, the artificial intelligence system, before it could develop a consciousness. That, of course, is intended to avert the post-apocalyptic spectacle we saw over and over again in all the movies: murderous machines in control, people scurrying about like rats, with the most important resource being skulls that for some reason are scattered everywhere and stick to people’s shoes.

“There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,” was the recurrent motto of the first two films. But no longer. Cameron must have undergone some sort of transformation between 1991 and 2019, because the ode to free will has morphed into a dark worldview, also reflected in the film’s title. The human race is on an unavoidable path to self-destruction. If there is no Skynet, someone will invent something else. Connor just diverted the river a little, but it still flows into the same sea.

The spirit of the series does a complete turnaround from optimism to pessimism, from an empowering free will to a gloom-ridden fate. But in every other aspect, “Dark Fate” looks as though it only wants to replicate the original. After a short opening that is all Sarah Connor, the story gets underway in the best tradition, as two naked people pop in from the future in search of a young woman on whose life the fate of humanity depends. The naive Dani (Natalia Reyes), like Connor at first, quickly gets involved in the battle between the two guests from the future (who in the meantime have put on clothes): a new Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna) who wants, obviously, to terminate her; and Grace (Davis) who, like Kyle Reese in the first film, is from the underground and was sent to protect Dani. The only twist is that Grace is a flesh-and-blood woman who, thanks to technological upgrading, enjoys superhuman powers.

This exposition runs its course within a few minutes, followed immediately by the showcasing of the Terminator and Grace – providing the pace and momentum for which Cameron is renowned, but his successors less so. Along the way, amid a flimsy but digestible explanation, Grace and Dani meet Sarah Connor, now already 60-plus but tougher than ever. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say how the triple escape becomes quadruple, but as the trailer and the film poster show, it has to do with a Terminator character, played by Schwarzenegger, who decades after settling in the United States decided to adopt the name Carl. The script doesn’t exploit the humorous potential latent in this situation properly, but Schwarzenegger occasionally compensates for this with his comedic skills.

More of the same

Cameron’s touch is felt mainly in the attempt to tap into primal fear. The cold Terminator, who is unstoppable, is given a sufficient, if unbrilliant, interpretation by Luna. A major weakness of the film is the conservative choice to stick too closely to the two previous films. An example is the design of the Rev-9. The new Terminator is effectively a hybrid of the original duo: the T-800, a metallic skeleton in a Schwarzeneggerian body coating; and the shapeshifting T-1000, played in “Judgment Day” by Robert Patrick. The Rev-9 is made of both a skeleton and a liquid metal that envelops it. The only innovation is its tar-like color and texture, in contrast to the mercury-like material of Patrick.

The fact that the Terminator and his abilities are familiar to viewers from the earlier movies plays havoc with the director’s attempts to create tension, and these efforts become increasingly fatiguing as the movie progresses. On the other hand, Grace, as rendered by Mackenzie Davis, provides a precise mix of coarseness and vulnerability. As an empowered woman, stronger than any mortal, but nevertheless not a machine, Davis is the only character with whom viewers can identify. Hamilton shows again how important her presence is to every plotline in this world, even if she is not a gifted actress. The weak link is Natalia Reyes’ Dani, but in any case she doesn’t get a chance to be anything beyond her negligible role. The decision to transform the new savior into a Mexican migrant and a storyline that includes a detention facility for migrants on the U.S. border, is no more than a superficial, embarrassing attempt to make a political “statement” without standing behind it.

However, the Achilles’ heel is Miller, the director, who appears to be overeager to spend the immense budget placed at his disposal. His first film, “Deadpool,” wasn’t exactly an indie production aimed at festivals, but the $58 million budget he had then is peanuts compared to the $200 million that was invested in “Dark Fate.” It’s worth noting that the action sequences at the beginning and end of the film are among the most complex and impressive I’ve seen on the screen in 2019 – but between them are plenty of clumsy action scenes that misfire. The exaggerated use of special effects, notably in a scene in the belly of a transport plane, tends to imbue the picture with cartoon aesthetics in the spirit of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Farfetched, fast and foolish.

Still, “Terminator: Dark Fate” fulfills Cameron’s goal in terms of erasing the memory of the three films in which he wasn’t involved. It certainly offers more exciting and creative action and justifies its designation as the direct continuation of the first two films in the series. But by the same token, “Dark Fate” suffers by the comparison, as it doesn’t approach the level of the first two films – partly due to its attempt to emulate them. The fact that Grace stands out as the most interesting character in the film attests to the potential still latent in this fictional world – if only a brave approach is adopted and a new path carved out, as “Judgment Day” did for its predecessor.