Terminator: Dark Fate

     It’s hard to look at the Terminator franchise without talking about the others in the series, and it’s especially hard to talk about the direction of the story without talking about the story of the original. The entire concept is grounded in such a nonlinear fantasy mechanic that it negatively influences nearly any entry into the franchise after the first. The concept is set, the stakes are set, the players are set. 

    While you can play around in the sandbox that is the Terminator universe, it’s hard to justify many story choices given that they already established that no matter what is done, the future is nearly inevitable. The machines cause mass extinction, the humans put up a resistance. Rather than glass the planet, the machines decide that the best course to victory is to go back in time to prevent the leaders from being born. It’s an interesting concept, and far ahead of its time, back in the day. Problems arise when you try to toy with this idea. 

    The center of the conflict, the Connor family, can be visited and revisited, but after a point it gets stale. The actors age out or move on. Audiences catch on, and the machines stop being so smart if they keep failing their plans. Time travel is a difficult genre, and it takes a lot of effort from a lot of very smart people and very good storytellers to tell stories in that genre. If your ultimate story is grounded, and you’re forced into telling the story of what came before, or how we got to that point, things get stale.

    In essence, a twofold problem arises from a film that was not planned out to be a franchise. The first is that entering a series without planning out the arc of the series leads to crap like the Star Wars sequels. Who should have learned their lesson from the failures of the Terminator series in the first place. The second problem arises when you begin telling more stories in the universe. You lay down new rules, new sets of logical barriers that cannot be crossed. Each time you lay a bad brick, it forces all the following bricks to be mislaid, compounding the problem.

    So if you don’t plan properly, and you mess up early on, you have to get very smart or very creative to correct that mistake later. Best case scenario, we don’t come back to that mistake at all, and the greater series takes a direction that naturally avoids that issue. Worst case scenario, some knucklehead producer leans into that mistake, hoping to create the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It can work, if that’s the intent. Or rather, if you can make that the intent. Game of Thrones excelled at leaning into these mislaid foundations by turning them into plot points and story beats. Ned Stark spoils his plan and shows his cards to Cersei Lannister, who in turn has him arrested and that leads to other events in the series. If Ned were to survive the ordeal and remain the main character of Game of Thrones, then the story would have taken a different direction. If killing Ned needed to be retconned in Season 8, then the plot point is mislaid, and the act of killing the character becomes a compounded mistake. Like what happens to Jon Snow. Without payoff, his death, not his revival, became a mistake, compound with each new story beat.

    The Terminator series stacked mistakes on mistakes. It tried going small, by remaining in the larger flow of things with Salvation and T3, by telling stories that wouldn’t disturb the greater story, but these flawed and uninspired films shook the audience’s confidence that any more stories were worth telling. Forgiving these mislaid bricks becomes a harder and harder task and therein lies the challenge in creating large epics. The loop of the story must remain logical and closed, because time travel is unforgiving, as are audiences. 

    Dark Fate tries to sidestep this issue by leaning into its missteps and retconning many of the movies by claiming that the eventual timeline has changed, and the main players have changed. This is hard to grasp, but eventually it is the best step to take to rectify the previous mistakes. Some franchises do this, like X-Men, but it’s not fun to have to go through, and requires a good to great series of films to assuage the audience’s anxieties. Unfortunately, Dark Fate fails at this.

    The movie sucks. Inside this shitshow is actually a much better movie, that they decided was much more important and stuck with its demographics much better. The biggest flaws are its unimaginative plot and absolute dogshit dialogue. At one point, Bad Terminator says, “Give me the girl.” The response is, “No.” This is not hyperbole.

    The script for this movie is such trash that it makes me insecure about my own script writing capabilities. The crap that these actors have been forced into saying is so terrible that I’m projecting my own struggles in writing scripts. 

    There are a lot of recycled plot beats throughout, borrowed from other movies and even the same movie, somehow. The climax is identical to T2. The middle bit is basically Sicario 2: Terminator. There are two different times in the movie that they approach an old man in midwest for help. The bad terminator is revealed to have killed a room full of people and is impersonating them twice. Grace can use her technobabble to sense an incoming air vehicle no less than three times. 

    They graze sociopolitical issues by having way too much of the movie be about some illegal aliens trying to cross the US border, without actually, acknowledging that this is a real thing that’s happening right now and if you feature it in your movie without talking about it, you’re just virtue signaling with your nondominant hand. 

    It’s insulting, really. It’s as if some exec said, “Hey! Millennials are worked up about the border right now! Let’s have that in our movie!” Then some other exec said, “But let’s not piss off the racists, so let’s avoid mention of the wall, illegals, Trump and kids in cages!” A third suit steps in and says, “Hey buckos, it’s not racist to have our main character, a random, everyday Mexican, conveniently knows someone who can cross the border!” By trying to appeal to but not piss off everyone, they’ve alienated literally everyone.

    More virtue signaling comes in the form of classic 80’s macho anger, but this time it’s the women who are angry badasses! Sarah Conner and Grace, the two women who swear to protect Dani, are constantly angry at one another. Constantly. It’s exhausting. If you genderswap both characters and throw them into an action flick of yesteryear, it makes sense, but in the modern age it’s just tiring to see two folks argue and hate each other constantly, for no reason at all. Connor shows up and saves both of them, and then is pissed off Grace steals her car. Grace is pissed off because she doesn’t know Connor, and Dani just sits around asking what’s going on and buying potato chips. I mean it’s not sexist, but it is stupid. It feels as if bigwigs said, “ok yeah you ladies get your own main character badasses, but you gotta start at square one, and maybe in twenty years of action movies we’ll evolve female main characters to RDJ levels.”

    I’m about to hit three pages writing about Dark Fate. This is probably because I’m at day 11 of my quarantine and I’m really depressed and going crazy, but honestly, this movie does not require this much post-effort. I’m going to forget I even saw it. Truth be told, I forgot that I didn’t see it. It’s been two years since release, and a couple of times every few months my brain is thirsty for guns and fire and adventure, and I search around for movies to watch. I sift through dozens and dozens of movies I’ve seen and discounted, or rewatched recently, and I’ll come across Dark Fate, and I’ll go “huh”, and throw it on my spreadsheet. Then I’ll be surprised it isn’t on my “Movies to Watch” spreadsheet, so I go check my “Movies I’ve Seen” spreadsheet and it’s not there either, and then I forget to add it to my, “Movies to Watch” spreadsheet. Rinse and repeat, and now I feel really bad for whoever made this movie because it’s that forgettable. 

For the franchise, the best course of action would be to just cut your losses and let this franchise die. It’s maybe worth a revisit in twenty years’ time, if any of the ill conceived sequels have spawned any interest, or if that excellent shooting game gains a cult following. Y’know that game that’s present in every movie theater arcade with two machine guns? It’s that or the Aliens video game. Anyways, watch it because Gabriel Luna is a promising actor and this role was just two hours of him grimacing, but he’s got much more range and he deserves better. I just hope he got paid. 2/10. The CGI is good.

    I almost forgot, but halfway in they come across Arnold as Terminator: The One who Killed John, and now he’s a dad with a drapery business. He’s a machine who’s learned to care and love and his family doesn’t know and he’s apparently got an excellent sense of humor and his name is now Carl. That’s all delivered in one scene, and I am so mad that they didn’t make the movie about this guy. In one moment, Carl has become one of the most relatable, entertaining characters in the entire Terminator franchise since John Connor in T2.

    Imagine if we got a whacky, out of the box movie about Carl. Include the opening bit of him deaged and shooting John. Then, hard cut to him just being a dude living in Texas, collecting guns, running a fucking drapery business. What if we got a movie about the fucking Terminator selling curtains, being a good husband, and teaching his kid to drive a car? He struggles with his guilt, and we walk through him revealing to his family that he’s secretly a fucking robot from the future, and they come to terms with it just in time for Sarah goddamn Connor to show up at his doorstep.

    Then the second half of the movie is Carl trying to apologize and reconcile with Sarah for his past actions, and we basically jump into the latter half of Dark Fate, minus the stupid helicopter scene and maybe the plane fight. The jarring exposition that’s everpresent in the rest of Dark Fate can come up at this point, and we can just shrug our shoulders and say, “ok. There’s a future soldier, Sarah is old and mean, and there’s a random Mexican chick macguffin.”

    Seriously. Relegate the bland blah that is Dani to literally the background only after her introduction. Like, don’t even have her face in focus basically ever again. Grace walks around doing and saying macho badass shit, but doesn’t matter either. Connor being a dick is fine, because Carl killed her kid. That’s a retcon movie that would get people excited. That’s the kind of shit millenials want to see. I just hit page 4 talking about the least worst modern Terminator movie. I have literally devolved to writing Terminator fanfic about a guy named Carl. 

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