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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

November 3, 2019

New ‘Terminator’ Predestines Its Own ‘Dark Fate’

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The pervasive mantra of every sequel to 1984’s The Terminator has been “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” in regards to plot. The storylines of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Genisys all deal in part with a robotic entity being sent to the past to kill some important human figure while an equally adept soldier (or machine) was also sent back to save said individual. The latest installment, Terminator: Dark Fate (which ignores all other sequels continues the story of T2), proves that not fixing the seemingly “perfect” things are often what makes them break. Dark Fate is committed to the old and vintage, as it puts franchise founder James Cameron in the Producer chair and sees Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger reprise their roles Sarah Connor and the T-800. But rather than set those characters against the backdrop of a new story, it chooses the way of recapitulation. The film fills the narrative gaps it inherits from prior installments with impressive CGI action sequences and a crew of new characters that, while exciting, are too few and far between to make Dark Fate feel like a truly organic (instead of mechanical) continuation of the story.

Given how much technology has integrated into daily life in the modern day, the dangers of artificial intelligence gone awry should feel more relevant than prophetic in 2019. Dark Fate expertly capitalizes throughout its first act. The film’s new “messiah” is Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who works in a factory in Mexico City with her brother where she later learns she’ll play a pivotal role in fighting back against the machines that take over the world. She finds to her dismay that her brother has been let go from his work because a machine is able to do his job more efficiently and cheaply. To her complaints, her boss utters that this is “the future.” The fact that our fantastical fears of killer robots can blind us to the real dangers and effects machines are having in people’s lives (like taking away their jobs) is poignant commentary that the film sadly spends little time on. It does not take long for the usual plot beats to kick-in and thus rob Dark Fate of more meaningful things to say: As if on cue, an advanced Rev-9 Terminator (played by a beguiling Gabriel Luna) arrives to kill Dani but Grace (played by Mackenzie Davis) an enhanced soldier from the future comes to save her. When the pair are saved by Sarah Connor, we learn that while Skynet was defeated, a new artificial intelligence arose and took its place, going by the name of Legion — the same AI that wants Dani dead. One could read this as clever commentary and cruel irony that human beings’ propensity for self-destruction always triumphs over more noble intentions, but after having spent the past two films destroying Skynet, a recapitulation of the same villain is lazy and uninspired. This is just one of the many instances where Dark Fate inundates viewers with banal homage disguised as a clever throwback (“I’ll be back” is uttered for the umpteenth time here, its once quippy potency mitigated by sheer repetition).

But perhaps it is unfair to blame the movie for what it does not have. When it comes to the franchises’ staple action scenes, Dark Fate delivers. Director Tim Miller’s eye for using cramped spaces as gladiatorial arenas (as he displayed in the memorable bullet counting sequence in Deadpool) is put to full effect here as the grim and stripped down scale of the carnage provides a nice contrast to the ultra-powered beings who are dealing the bullets, punches and stabbings. There is a sort of visceral quality to the fight scenes as in the hands of these machines and/or human-machine hybrids, anything from a rebar to a helicopter blade is a weapon.

Additionally, the ways in which Dani, Grace and Sarah fulfill and subvert the character archetypes of the franchise help elevate this film from being a sole retread. Schwarzenegger’s return is welcome but it really is the trio of women who carry the film and reveal that it always was the human characters that made this franchise tick. Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in particular has fully embraced her vocation hardened, no-nonsense warrior that she only reluctantly accepted in prior installments.

Grace states in Dark Fate that “the future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” A variation of this line has appeared in every Terminator franchise so far and Dark Fate is the latest example of failing to practice what it preaches. While what it does with the franchises’ formula is exciting, it is just another in a long line of sequel/reboot types that masquerades repetition as ingenuity.  It is too straitjacketed by its own mythology to offer anything else other than minor tweaks to its lore which while exciting, ultimately still ring hollow as its famed antagonists.

Zachary Lee is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zlee@cornellsun.com.