Thursday, November 7, 2019

It's in your nature to destroy yourselves


It's not quite the triumph one might have cautiously hoped for when they heard that both Cameron and Hamilton were coming back, but at least Terminator: Dark Fate still understands what the series was about in the first place.

Directed by Tim Miller
Written by David Foyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray, Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, and James Cameron

Spoiler alert: moderate, though I suppose the movie itself would have it as "high"

I suppose the word on the street is true, and, yes, Terminator: Dark Fate really is the best Terminator film not to have been directed by James Cameron—that is, every one of them after Terminator 2: Judgment Day, making Dark Fate the fourth unasked-for sequel to The Terminator, and the sixth film in the franchise overall—and, if I were to quibble with the street's assessment, it would be solely because I'm one of those weirdos who thinks Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines has enough of value in it that I'd be willing, for simplicity's sake, to call it good, and I'm maybe not entirely convinced that Dark Fate is obviously, objectively better.  (On the other hand, saying that it's better than Salvation—T4—let alone benighted Genisys—T5—would be such a trivial claim that it would tell you nothing whatsoever about the movie, akin to stating "it runs at 24fps," "it's in color," or "it never features Inner Circle's 'Bad Boys' as a comic musical cue.")  What is distinct about Dark Fate, however, is that it's the first post-Judgment Day sequel where I wasn't angry at it for not living up to its predecessors.  Instead, I became angry at it for not living up to itself; and I guess that actually is an improvement.

Which means I'm not angry at how Dark Fate begins, whether you're assuming I mean its first proper scene, or that I mean its first images and words.  These are played over and through the production house logos, stock footage of one of Sarah Connor's (Linda Hamilton's) overwhelming freakouts from T2, in a bold and maybe overconfident gesture that outright dares us to compare the performances in this Terminator film to the intensities Cameron managed to get out of his cast in the first two.  One miracle of Dark Fate, and I don't hesitate to call it a miracle, is that the comparison isn't humiliating.  Sometimes it even competes.  Sure as two suns in the sunset, the next images give us one of the big reasons why, albeit through a filter of remarkably good digitized de-aging: Hamilton herself, back in the franchise that has largely defined her, and which she defined in return.

Pity how much de-aging CGI costs. Otherwise maybe they'd have let this perfunctory prologue breathe a little bit more, which might've allowed to it to land with some more-than-theoretical emotional impact.  Instead, Dark Fate does what has to be done immediately, as we find Sarah on some beach in the aftermath of T2 with her son, John (Edward Furlong's voice and likeness, and whose "heyyyy, seƱorita" come-on represents the first time a Terminator sequel has ever managed any continuity of performance for its various John Connors, arguably making this the most respectful movie about John Connor since T2, regardless of what it does with him).  Anyway, this is where Dark Fate tells us it's not just using time travel to retcon the disfavored Terminator stories out of existence, when a terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), evidently sent as the T-1000's back-up, appears and blows John away, leaving Sarah bereft of the child she'd regained as her reward for rescuing the human race.

There's a lot of sourpussing about that.  Some of that's from folks who simply find it distasteful.  Dark Fate, after all, is the first Terminator film in 28 years to have meaningful input from Cameron—returning as both a producer and as a writer, if sadly only one of many—and, even so, the very first thing it does is execute Cameron's Christ-figure namesake.  Then again, even more of it is from extremely online Republicans, who see it as a savage liberal attack on their values (and, in fairness, Dark Fate has been expressly designed to push those buttons).  Thus, as Dark Fate has bombed at the box office, they have gleefully shouted, "get woke, go broke," a catchy-enough rhyme that tends to ignore several important data points and is, in any event, a pretty limited lens through which to consider the ongoing failure of a franchise that nobody has liked for decades.

Still, beyond the rote "how" of the thing, I daresay the death of JC is one of Dark Fate's strengths: after all, even when John was an active character, the Ioannes Soter he was destined to become has only ever served as a structuring absence throughout the whole six-film series.  (That hasn't even really changed here.  He's just maybe a little more absent than usual.)  And so, as T3 rejected the idea that mighty world-historical forces like the advent of artificial intelligence could be derailed by a few explosions, Dark Fate rejects the idea of the history of great men.  Skynet always loses.  Skynet always wins.  Skynet always loses again.  Hope and despair are in eternal counterpoise to one another, and John Connor, or anybody, is incidental to the process.  If only Dark Fate had the fullest courage of its convictions, I'd be obliged to treat this as more than just a neat idea sitting politely in the background.

Needless to say, it does not.  In any case, Dark Fate sure as hell doesn't reinvent its wheel; it just changes its tires.  So: we arrive upon Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican capitalina who, alongside her brother (Diego Boneta), takes care of their ailing dad (Enrique Arce) with their wages from a factory that, cutely enough, is in the midst of automating them out of a job.  These machines prove the least of Dani's worries, however, as out of the sky arrives the future's assassin, a so-called "Rev-9" (Gabriel Luna), armed with both a solid endoskeleton and with a skin of shapechanging liquid metal that allows it to switch identities at will, amongst other, more tactical moves.

But, as ever, another time traveler intervenes: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human who has undergone an augmentation process that has granted her, if only for a few minutes at a time, abilities that at least allow her to compete with the machine she's been sent to destroy.  If that still doesn't seem fair—and it isn't—then fate levels the field slightly more, by placing Sarah between the future fighters, for ever since John's demise, Sarah has been getting mysterious messages that predict when and where a terminator is going to appear, and she's been dutifully dispensing with each and every one of them.  But even with Sarah's experience on their side, it's hard to see how they'll ever stop this one.

It is, of course, only ever a remix, with the innovation being that this time, there's a maiden and crone to go along with the mother, the mythic types superimposed upon the roles already established by the series formula: The Terminator's Kyle Reese is now a sweaty, sinewy woman, rather than a sweaty, sinewy man; and T2's driven psychopath Sarah has now found herself obliged to protect the naive blue-collar schlubbette she barely remembers being.  Solid, as far as that goes, but for long enough that it might just convince you, Dark Fate is an outstanding remix: Terminator movies have their themes and their mythopoeic resonances and all that shit, but Terminator movies are, foremost, action thrillers of the highest order (well, they're supposed to be), and that is exactly what Dark Fate delivers... for, oh, about an hour of its 125-minute runtime.  It has the misfortune of frontloading its best sequence, which is, indeed, at least three sequences—a cross-cut two-way stalking, a battle on the factory floor, and the most satisfying and collateral-damage-heavy car chase I've seen since Fury Road—all bled together pretty much flawlessly by director Tim Miller (of Deadpool, of all the things that could not possibly prepare one to direct Terminator: This Time We Mean It) in a superb imitation of Cameron's own adrenaline-soaked, escalating style.  And even when it ends, Grace is still in trouble, due to her super-soldier augmentations fucking up her metabolism so bad any extended exertion can kill her; so Miller manages to craft at least forty minutes of breathless suspense, action, and then more suspense, before he finally permits you a much-needed moment of rest.

That first hour of Dark Fate is the best action filmmaking of 2019, and, obviously, by far the best Terminator-related action in forever.  The elements are surprisingly fascinating, considering they're nothing genuinely new: Grace's superhuman powers and extremely well-demarcated limitations offer a very interesting mechanic for what amounts to the "good" terminator this time (she may not feel pity, or remorse, or fear, but she absolutely will stop), and it's barely possible that Davis' single-minded, furious determination is this film's real star turn, despite Hamilton.  Or maybe not: Hamilton comes back to Sarah like she'd never even left, managing to make her feel like the years have exacted a truly dreadful toll, and all she has left is sarcasm and firepower (T2's Sarah was almost driven crazy by her conviction the world was going to end; Dark Fate's has, to some degree, stopped caring whether it does or not, since for her, it already did).  Between these two towering leads, Reyes is inevitably and invariably thrown into their shadow—I almost wonder if they cast a woman that damn short on purpose, and even when she's "taking charge" it feels like Hamilton and Davis are indulging her—but I wound up admiring her humane take on a role that the movie only cares about insofar as it cycles through the various stages of Dani's bad-assery.

Their opposition, meanwhile, is at their level: to the extent that the Rev-9 is expressly a hybridization of the T-800 and T-1000, just like the movie is a hybridization of Terminator and T2, it somehow never comes off as a T-X (which was, frankly, pretty much the same thing), or even just the same old.  As simple as it is, there's something uncanny about its ability to be in one or in two places, depending on its task, and the jet black metal that's revealed when you break its human face does wonders in bringing back an actual sense of body horror to this franchise.  Luna goes down a decisively different path than any terminator before him, largely forgoing the menacing hunger of Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick, which is good, since Kristanna Loken showed that "hungry menace" had diminishing returns once you got more than two deep into this franchise.  He plays the machine as creepily ordinary, like the proverbial serial killer who gets tagged as quiet.  Yet he's even better when his robot has to interact with humans.  That's when Luna plays to a parody of human banality and, naturally, he fits right in; if previous terminators were incarnations of Skynet's hatred, the Rev-9 is, in its subtle distinction, its successor's expression of mere contempt.

But: if these elements carry us through a first hour that's just about perfect, Dark Fate ultimately starts to break down, the dividing line being a dangerous border crossing and a stopover in an immigrant detention center that is the locus of most of the film's overt (and surprisingly funny) political commentary, as well as a rather good action scene that one is nevertheless convinced was supposed to be much better.  This is an impression that never, ever leaves this movie thereafter, especially as the action scenes get worse.  That feeling culminates in a duel of big jets (a C-5 and KC-135, respectively) rendered upon such a chaotic, inhuman scale that I'm not sure that even Cameron himself could have made it functonal.  Likewise, the ultimate showdown at a hydroelectric dam has its problems: happily, it narrows the scope back down, and gets back to the terminator battles that this film has proven it can do well, with a combination of speed-ramping and destructible backdrops granting a terrible and wonderful plausibility to their preternatural weight and agility; but I can also easily imagine that Cameron threw the location out there like pearls before swine, assuming that somebody would recognize that he'd given them a sterling visual metaphor, not unlike the cosmic foundry of T2.  Miller uses the dam mostly as a prop.

If this were all that were wrong with Dark Fate, I wouldn't have any complaints about it: it would still be one of the best actioners of the year based on nothing but that car chase and the grave sincerity offered by Miller and his cast, who for the first time in decades made a Terminator that made me feel anything, despite the bigger problems the movie has.  Sadly, those problems are enormous: when the pace downshifts, and we arrive at our de rigeur appearance from Schwarzenegger, Dark Fate has some surprises that are at least weird enough to keep up the energy even if the momentum has clearly halted, and Schwazenegger manages some precious comic relief by simply playing his extremely-odd old terminator straight.  But this is also where I think those six writers just stopped trying, and even for "not trying" Dark Fate's screenplay becomes gruesomely unacceptable: the contrivances to get Dani and Friends onto a C-5 are possibly worse than no explanation at all; this is also where the film starts leaning even more heavily on Grace's flashbacks to the future, and these have always been risible (they demonstrate an utterly baffling lack of confidence in Davis's ability to deliver monologues), and they get astonishingly terrible here (it doesn't help that they look and feel less like the movie than a tie-in video game to the movie, and are deeply unimaginative in their design, given that our new Judgment Day happened completely differently).

Worst of all is when Dark Fate drops its "twist" on you, an absurdly self-congratulatory thing that requires its characters to be as stupid as Dark Fate thinks its audience is.  Hold onto your monocles, friends, because they're about to fly across the room: the Rev-9 doesn't want to kill Dani because she'll give birth to the chosen one, but because she is the chosen one.  Other than a line by Sarah positing the former scenario out loud, it's kind of what any non-idiot assumed going in, especially if a non-idiot could do math.  (Presumably, Grace was not sent back in time by an adolescent.)  It's nice to be feminist, but this feels like six guys high-fiving themselves on their shocking decision to make the world's savior a woman... in a Terminator movie, where, in practice, this has always been the case.

And thus did the sourness that passed me by in the opening eventually find its way into my heart, and while Dark Fate avoids pretty much all of the problems that have plagued its franchise for years, it invents entirely new ones of its own; no fate but what you make, you know.  That I still think it's the third best in the series goes down to how bad this series got; that I still think it's good just means that it does not fuck up the basic appeal of the thing, which is killer robots from the future.  You'd think not fucking that up would be a given, but it turns out to be an actual accomplishment.

Score: 7/10

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