By Dev Agarwal
I went to see Terminator Dark Fate with my regular film going friend, Nik. Despite going to the cinema together since we were kids, we worked out that this was the first time we’d been to see a Terminator film together in the cinema. Given Dark Fate’s poor box office and the fact that Schwarzenegger is 72 years old, this felt like our last chance saloon.
I’ll state my positions now. Firstly, it’s impossible to discuss this film without spoilers, so don’t read further if you don’t want any. Second, I’m a big fan of the original film and have watched it many times. I had been disappointed in different ways by many of the films in the series and I had high hopes of Dark Fate. It came with a pedigree of James Cameron’s blessing, the strategic rejection of the dead ends of earlier films, and it was made by the director behind the popular film, Deadpool, Tim Miller.
Like most franchises that have survived decades, The Terminator films are no longer about one single thing, they combine and rework themes and cultural and social issues. While a principal concern is time travel and the paradox of changing the present by altering the past, the films are also commentaries on machine intelligence, nuclear destruction and individuals striving against a faceless powerful enemy.
Regarding the time travel conceit, as the first Terminator film came out in 1984, age and memory now conspire in their own form of time travel to make the start of the franchise a historic artefact from the previous century. And that, in turn, influences our perception of the current film. Dark Fate does not sit in a vacuum, it is part of a wider narrative arc and is really only understood as part of the sequence of earlier films (including the decision by James Cameron to have the current filmmakers erase the story of three of the films in the sequence).
Expectations also came Dark Fate’s way due to its two returning actors, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is a lot of love for them among Terminator fans and the sequels have suffered by Hamilton’s absence — who has been effectively retired from acting since T2.
I was not expecting a film as well rounded, stylistically rendered or compact as the 1984 original, The Terminator, but I was hoping for better than what we got. Unfortunately, there is little in Dark Fate that is visually or narratively arresting. It also felt familiar compared to recent Predator and Alien films, in that those sequels were weak echoes of initial, better films.
In terms of the story itself, well-known SF writer John Scalzi’s response to the film was: “As I walked out of the film last night I posted a five word recommendation of this film: “It gets Sarah Connor right.” This actually matters because despite the name of films, the “Terminator” films are about Sarah Connor, and the arc of her life dealing with the terrible fate that life has dealt her.”
I’d disagree with that thinking. How can Dark Fate be said to get Sarah Connor right, yet the film opens with a prologue where she passively allows a Terminator to kill her son, John? She does not sacrifice herself to stop this Terminator (which is what she attempts to do during T2), she does not die with John, she does not then die hunting the machine after John’s death. Sarah’s story is that she is mother to John and, symbolically, to the entire future. Dark Fate posits a present day where Sarah Connor could live with herself after losing John to the machines. That is not getting Sarah Connor right, as that’s not the character that we know.
What’s new in Sarah’s story, in this film, is that John has died and she’s suffering from PTSD. I’d suggest that that remains an idea that is underdeveloped through poor characterisation and bad dialogue and so unfortunately, that’s wrong too. (I’m not criticising Linda Hamilton. She had to work with what she was given). But there is a difference to having a character appear isolated and short-tempered compared to someone who is suffering grief, emotional rage and the psychosis of PTSD.
Regarding Dark Fate’s wider narrative, the film rewrites its own canon, which, given that each successive sequel was worse than the last, is no bad thing. This strategy was announced as part of the package of Cameron-Miller’s arrival and raised expectations as fans have proven to be loyal to the franchise despite each new film (a sentiment that Nik and I shared). Reworking the canon was not only popular, but necessary as an attempt to pull the story back on track. However, it remains an attempt rather than a success as the film’s makers replace one weak set of premises with new logical flaws. The reworked plot means that Skynet sends a Terminator back to kill John (an “Arnold” T-800) in the set up to Dark Fate. After its success, the T-800 is then free to roam the present day. Why didn’t Skynet have it self-destruct, or even programme it to start feeding proto-Skynet tech to human civilisation to set it on the path to developing Skynet itself (a plot thread in T2)? This logical flaw allows the T-800 to ally against Skynet. Skynet, we should remember learning in The Terminator, is a “new order of intelligence.” Yet it didn’t see the T-800 switching sides?
Returning to Sarah, we’re expected to believe that she receives anonymous texts that send her the location of new Terminators. She diligently follows the texts and fights the Terminators, yet she never traces the origin of the texts back to their source. This also stretches the logic of the story as John Connor is dead (therefore Skynet has won) yet we don’t get Skynet, we get a new AI, Legion, and new Terminators. So does that mean killing John Connor doesn’t determine the fate of the future war? If so, does protecting the new character, Dani Ramos, in this film really matter?
My experience of the film (and Nik and I were a sympathetic audience) was that it would not stop adding relentless, nagging flaws to the story: Sarah is a ruthless tactician and fighter, yet she neglects to stop two strangers stealing her van, which is also her base of operations. She’s easy to track, she doesn’t check the source of information that she’s receiving, and she doesn’t appear to bring weapons that will stop a Terminator when they fight.
Perhaps more critically, the film suffers a failure of imagination. Both the original and T2 have been praised for their distinct noirish visual style. Cameron was both derivative (in a good way) in his styling, lifting from action thrillers, car chase movies, and SF time travel tropes, and also innovative in his eye for laser effects, weapon fetishism, and set design.
Kyle Reese’s entry into the original film remains ingenuous, mistakenly pitting him against Sarah to begin with, then when he divulges information on the future, she is told he is mentally ill. The fight scene in the bar, Technoir, early on in the first film, is a masterclass in how to develop a set piece, build narrative tension and use conflicting points of view: Sarah, Kyle and the Terminator itself.
As with most Terminator films, Dark Fate has scenes set in the future (which is also the subjective past). Dark Fate wants to make these revelatory and new, but ends up being obvious and manipulative. Miller withholds key information about Grace and Dani Ramos that fails to surprise the audience during its revelation.
In terms of its rendering, the future is generic and flat, unimaginative rather than intriguingly three dimensional and particularised. The Terminator is often derided now for dated special effects (it predates modern CGI) yet for my money it realises a specific future with a landscape so wrecked there is debris everywhere and no clear spaces. The sky above it is permanently shot at night for atmosphere and is dominated by Skynet’s airborne weapons.
We saw the future twice in the original film. Very succinctly you get a sense of what surviving that future entails: children hunting rats, human fighters using guerrilla tactics and families trapped underground. Frustratingly, there is nothing as complex as that in Dark Fate.
Returning to the modern day, the aesthetic of the film is a long way from the urban landscape of the first two films. Where haven’t we been in the Terminator universe? On planes and at a dam. So let’s clumsily introduce a transporter plane, then an aerial fight on it. This made Dark Fate feel more like a Bond movie or the extended aerial spectacle of Batman or Mission Impossible. They’re on a plane. They’re on a plane in zero g. The plane crashes, now they’re on a jeep on a parachute. Now it sinks into a dam. Next idea? Let’s have the Terminators fight under water — we haven’t seen that before.
But we have seen Arnold’s T-800 kill a Terminator and sacrifice itself. And now we’re seeing it again. Then someone uses a Terminator power source to destroy the enemy. Wait, didn’t we see that before too?
More distinct is that three women often share the screen, all in leading roles, with no need for male actors to guide the narrative. Unfortunately, even that felt borrowed, as an earlier franchise film, Mad Max: Fury Road, was often more about Imperator Furiosa than Max. Also, Dark Fate’s women are trapped in a weak story that doesn’t have a strong vision of the story it’s telling. Fury Road is a good counterpoint to Dark Fate. Both had their original writer/director involved in them and came about after original films that began in the 1980s. Both also retread the basic set up but Dark Fate commits the sin of poor execution, wooden dialogue and, most lethal of all, lack of imagination.
Ultimately, coming out of the film I found that Terminator Dark Fate confirms a long running concern about “franchise series.” Looking at The Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Alien, a theme emerges of an initial film that was not designed to carry a franchise. Each original film was made as a single entity with a clear beginning, middle and end. In each case, the film’s initial success encouraged their parent studios to make more films and cash in on the premise. And in each case the narrative returns quickly diminished. There is not, it turns out, enough story to sustain repeated films.
The most charitable reading of Dark Fate is that it’s necessary to end Sarah Connor’s story (which is John Scalzi’s conclusion). But in reality, Dark Fate is a clumsy and dull attempt to pull together earlier threads of a franchise long past its best. And really, none of that is necessary at all. People are still making effective stories that deal with time travel, strong women, and machine-human conflict, but this film is not one of them.