Wednesday, October 30, 2019

'Terminator: Dark Fate' (2019) Movie Review

Stop me if this sounds familiar. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, Running With the Devil) just wants to go to her job in a Mexico City car factory. It’s a normal day, arguing with her boss about being replaced by machines, when a shape-shifting killer robot from the future (Gabriel Luna, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) shows up at work to kill her only to be thwarted by a human soldier, Grace (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049), also from the future. 

On the surface, Terminator: Dark Fate follows the template laid out by James Cameron’s 1984 original. It’s not the franchise redemption many hoped for after Terminator Salvation and, especially, Terminator: Genisys. There are highs, there are lows, and despite having five story-by credits and three screenplay-by credits—or perhaps because of that—it’s dumb as a brick, though the action is passable. However, in the end, it falls to about the same level of just-okayness as Terminator 3. Sure, that makes it the best Terminator movie in years, but that’s not the highest bar. 

Dark Fate also ignores all but the first two films, effectively retconning the others out of existence, though in much less convoluted fashion than Genisys’ attempt. It essentially posits that the events of T2 did in fact reshape the future. But while it staved off Judgment Day, it didn’t prevent it completely. The details have changed, the specifics altered, but when we get glimpses of the future, what we see resembles what we’ve seen—a vindictive artificial intelligence has taken over, decimated the human population, and a small band of resistance fighters rise up and attempt to thwart their own extinction.

Let’s start with what works best. This is sci-fi franchise, but even then, the action has always come first and foremost. With one of the greatest action directors of his era at the helm, the first two movies are more or less genre masterpieces—not a word I like to use, but if the shoe fits. In the hands of Deadpool director Tim Miller, the action is…fine. There’s nothing particularly spectacular, but he stages and shoots clear, concise set pieces. He often relies too heavily on slow motion, and there are issues with full-CGI characters looking like video game cut scenes, but those are issues I have with most Hollywood tentpoles, so at this point, it’s more an observation and a shrug than a major hurdle.

Like the action, the actors are largely solid—nothing mind-blowing, but good enough. Davis acquits herself well in both the fight sequences and giving Grace texture and a modicum of emotional depth in between bullets and fistfights. Her charisma is such that if she were to become a regular face in big action movies, I wouldn’t complain. Reyes strikes a nice balance between a frightened and confused target and strong, principled young woman who refuses to let circumstances force her into abandoning herself and who she is. While he’s mostly a blank-faced murder-machine, Luna conveys empty, soulless, and driven in a way that can be chilling, if familiar. 

The true selling points for Dark Fate, however, are Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a version of a T-800 from an alternate timeline. His name is Carl now. Sarah is as badass and capable as we remember, only now ravaged by time, hard living on the run, and lingering, inescapable grief. She’s biting and sarcastic and funny as hell—Hamilton has all the best lines in the movie and takes over most non-action scenes. 

In most cases, revealing Carl in a review might be considered a spoiler. Though he plays a major role afterward, he doesn’t appear until deep into the movie. But it’s front and center in every piece of marketing, so unless a person has no idea what this movie is, everyone knows Schwarzenegger shows up. Unfortunately, that ruins what should be a fantastic surprise for fans. Within the movie, it’s presented as a shock, as a major reveal the characters don’t expect. If only it played the same for viewers. That said, it is fun to see Arnold as his most iconic character, now a kinder, gentler, family man of a Terminator who runs a drapery business. Hell, he even has dog, which I find endlessly hilarious. (Also, how can you trust a dog that doesn’t bark at a Terminator?)

While the actors do a solid job, Dark Fate’s biggest problem is they don’t have much to work with. The script is jumbled and messy. Earlier I mentioned five story-by credits—including Cameron himself and Josh Friedman, who wrote for the criminally underappreciated Sarah Connor Chronicles—and you definitely feel a lot of hands in there mixing things up. To the film’s detriment.

A surface-only approach keeps the characters from truly resonating. The script pays empty lip service to their various traumas. Grace briefly reminisces on the horrors she experienced in the future, only for an action beat to happen and we never see it again. Sarah talks about hunting Terminators and drinking herself to sleep every night, but that never manifests outside of the fact that she’s mad. There’s no weight or emotion behind anyone or their story, and the moment it starts to hint there might be, something blows up and we move along. The rapid pace distracts from some obvious flaws, but it can’t smooth over all of them.

Dani has an early moment where the enormity of the fact that her entire family was just killed hits her, but for most of the movie, it’s like it doesn’t affect her. And she simply accepts the fact she’s being pursued by a hunter from the future without question. While that’s the first question everyone would ask when there’s a moment of downtime—why me?—she never brings it up. That is, until it’s narratively convenient—the truth is supposed to be an astonishing revelation, but it’s painfully obvious, more annoying than unexpected.

Carl presents an interesting idea, but one that, like everything else, the script neglects to explore. Can AI learn and evolve and become more human? Can he love can he feel? These are big questions, big questions that are posed and immediately brushed aside and never again addressed in any meaningful or insightful way. 

Dark Fate also writes itself into a corner with a villain that’s too unkillable. Sure, the Rev-9, as it’s known, has a cool hook. It splits into two pieces, so double the Terminator fun. I’m not sure how the physics of that are supposed to work and they never attempt to explain it, which is probably for the best…as the movie says, future shit! But there also doesn’t appear to be any actual way for the heroes to defeat or even hurt their adversary. It becomes this inevitable thing that ruins any hope of creating tension—they blew it up, again, and it walks out of the explosion, again. It’s exhausting and repetitive. (Within that, there’s more inconsistency—the Rev-9 survives one huge explosion without a scratch, but when it’s convenient for the plot, another of similar size causes significant damage.)

And the Rev-9 isn’t the only part of the future that’s inconsistent. Grace is human, but she’s undergone a procedure to enhance her strength, speed and fighting ability—she’s full of metal, augmented optics, and the like. Which comes at a cost. Designed for short, accelerated bursts—as she says, you either beat a Terminator quick or you die—her energy and stamina rapidly fade and she needs to inject herself with a cocktail of various drugs. How long she can last not only fluctuates as the plot demands, but the film forgets about it for long stretches only to pop in occasionally an remind us they painted themselves into a corner.

The script has so much to say. Or at least it pretends to have anything to say. As with Carl and the evolution of AI, it brings up drones, immigration, the cruelty of detention camps on the border, and making your own fate and future. Also as with Carl, these attempts at thematic depth are vapid and hollow and pointless. Just because the movie presents these things doesn’t mean it has anything to say about any of them. Because it doesn’t, if that wasn’t clear, nor does it actually try. 

With a brisk tempo and wall-to-wall action, Terminator: Dark Fate can be a modestly entertaining sci-fi action ride. There’s nothing much lurking below the surface—unlike Grace, who has a wire mesh under her skin— there are glaring flaws and holes, and it’s dumb as all hell. Fortunately, it doesn’t slow down too much to allow space to dwell on these. At best, it’s fine, good for a distraction of a few hours, and worth watching to see Linda Hamilton revisit her greatest character. Outside of that, it doesn’t offer much. [Grade: C]

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