It’s one of those things where machine versus man
This year I finally got around to checking out Terminator: Dark Fate, which had not been in the cards. I remember meeting up with a friend a few years ago and he said, “Why don’t we go see Terminator sometime?” and I replied, “Yeah, I don’t know. Next movie I see in theaters is gonna be The Lighthouse.” Well, joke’s on me, because I still haven’t seen The Lighthouse. I think I may have shared the apathy of the moviegoing public which rejected Dark Fate, something that had been slowly building. I saw Salvation in theaters and enjoyed it, nearly saw Genisys but went to the wrong theater and didn’t give it another try. Saw it later and, of course, it sucked. As has been documented elsewhere, for Dark Fate, the prospect of “the third-best Terminator” wasn’t compelling enough.
But why not? I can’t say that Terminator: Dark Fate is a real good movie, one that needed to exist or that holds up under even delicate scrutiny, but I enjoyed it. My Terminator fandom was reactivated by randoming onto a couple of videos by Matt McMuscles, where he plays the most recent Terminator game, Resistance, and just talks openly — brazenly — about his own fandom. He seems like a cool guy, and he manages to strike that perfect balance of detached and passionate that certainly stirred old feelings in me about killer robots and time travel. A long time ago, Donovan once introduced me on a podcast as “a Terminator fan” and I winced, because that’s so lame! Dark Fate was a nice reminder of what the term really means, because it captured so much of what makes the formula work.
It also throws into greater relief the last two sequels, and to a lesser extent The Sarah Connor Chronicles. At its heart, Terminator is a high-tech slasher, one that sprawls out onto an epic scope when that chase advances to big vehicles and citywide destruction. The good guys are trying to escape or accomplish a mission, and the bad guy is playing Grand Theft Auto. There’s a very specific thrill that comes from this formula, with the liberation of a coming apocalypse reducing authority figures to minor obstacles. There’s also a sharp dramatic irony with that, because we understand when Mackenzie Davis says “You put 100 cops between you and a Terminator, you produce 100 dead cops.”
The greatest feature of Dark Fate is Gabriel Luna’s villainous Rev-9, who’s roughly as chatty as the T-1000 and even more compelling in design, melding the liquid metal with the Terminator endoskeleton. It’s a phenomenal performance and a fun role, and the depiction of this Terminator actually suggests the terror of an unstoppable killing machine. That would be scary! But the TX in Terminator 3 was a boob joke, and this single chase formula wasn’t the concern of Salvation or Genisys. It also helps that Dark Fate is the first R-rated Terminator in a while (I cannot imagine that Genisys was R-rated, though I’m not sure), and while T2 is a soft R even in its day, I think you need a bit more horror, a little more grit.
And then the Terminators fight each other in a way that nearly every Terminator gets right: it’s awkward. Summer Glau did this well and often, moving her body strangely but efficiently, and never with a facial muscle out of place. I think that the TV show probably suffered from some overly cute post-Whedon dialogue, and that may or may not also be the issue with Dark Fate.
First of all, there is definitely a problem with killing John Connor, and I hate saying that because the outrage it generated recalled in micro the embarrassing toxicity around The Last of Us Part II. But true enough, Dark Fate simply shifts the focus from Sarah and John onto a new character, and it doesn’t just erase John (which is, like, whatever) it significantly reduces Sarah. Her part in Dark Fate is difficult to describe, being the grumpy guardian who can do anything but isn’t a cyborg or Terminator. Everyone’s grumpy, in fact, especially Mackenzie Davis, who at one point tells Sarah, “Do that again and I will fuck you up.” It’s rare and cool to hear from female characters, but it doesn’t really work in context.
Surprisingly interesting was Arnold’s Terminator, who plays a kind of “legacy” role here like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049 or [endless list] but is actually given a character. We know that Terminators age because Genisys already wanted Arnold back and explained it, so what’s new here is that his machine-program search for purpose led him to essentially start a family. This sounds a lot like one of my sitcom pitches for a Terminator spin-off, but it’s surprisingly affecting when he has to leave on what’s undoubtedly a suicide mission. To speak of legacies, Arnold has done a lot of “colonel visits the retired badass for one last job” scenes, but here’s one that captures the emotions you’d imagine might play in that scenario: loss, uncertainty, fear.
As far as the future goes, it isn’t a question of “will it come back?” because everything comes back. We may sooner get a Squid Game reboot than the next Terminator, but rest assured we’ll hear someone else say The Line. That’s something this movie gets wrong, isn’t it? When Arnold says “I’ll be back” in the first two, the reason the line is cool is because he comes back driving a vehicle at police officers. In Dark Fate, Sarah says it, leaves, and gets her car stolen. Anyway, I would’ve been fine with a sequel to Dark Fate, but I’m just as fine with another retry. As far as franchises go, Terminator comes in third, with Predator at one and Alien at two (Robocop at four?). The Predator formula is the best despite that the movies are the worst of the three, but I’m realizing now that the Terminator formula is better than I gave it credit for. Bad or misguided sequels can do that to you. It really is simpler than Salvation and Genisys made it seem.
As a note, this post was supposed to follow one entitled “Why I’m Quitting Dinosaurs,” in reference to Jurassic World: Dominion, which I never got around to writing, so this one sat unpublished for two months.