Two Cents Tries to Survive a Bad Destiny with TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

An unstoppable destructive force that continues to return no matter how many seemingly fatal attacks it weathers describes not only the Terminator, but the Terminator franchise itself. No matter how many times you blow up the car it’s in, the robot-skeleton is going to keep lunging out of the fire.

There have been four separate cinematic attempts (plus a short-lived but cultishly adored TV show) to continue the Terminator saga after 1991’s T2: Judgment Day invented the modern blockbuster and seemingly concluded the story John Connor, the future savior of humanity from the robot uprising, and his mom Sarah in such a way that there could be no more sequels.

Well they made ’em anyway. First up was T3: Rise of the Machines, a fairly standard attempt to keep things going past the original point of no return. That movie did OK but audiences weren’t super-responsive so a few years after that, with Arnie occupied as governor of California, producers took an entirely different approach with Terminator: Salvation, a sort of prequel/sequel combo that followed John Connor (now played by Christian ‘having a fit about lights’ Bale) into the future war while laying the groundwork for the first film’s time travel shenanigans.

Salvation was a disappointment, though, so plans for more installments with that cast got junked and a few years after that we got Terminator: Genisys a sort of…simultaneous remake/sequel/prequel/reboot? Call it a franchise filmmaking turducken. Genisys revisited the events of the first Terminator, only this time the aforementioned time travel shenanigans have resulted in a completely different result.

Genisys bombed spectacularly and was widely hated by audiences and critics, leading to the immediate abandonment of planned future installments. So after a whopping four years off, the Terminator franchise returned with Terminator: Dark Fate, which pulled the classic “ignore every movie we made since the last one we know everybody liked” move and sets itself up as the true direct sequel to T2.

With a story by James Cameron (returning to his franchise for the first time since T2), Dark Fate follows a cybernetically enhanced soldier from the future Grace (Mackenzie Davis) as she tries to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes), a young woman destined to play a major role in humanity’s eventual war with a machine uprising, against an unstoppable Terminator (Diego Boneta).

It’s a new war, but pretty soon old soldiers like Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, also returning for the first time since T2) and eventually an original T-800 (Arnie), all swept up in the battle to preserve the present so the future might be saved.

Directed by Tim Deadpool Miller, Dark Fate received a surprisingly warm reception among critics, but audiences, perhaps burned on too many attempts to jump-start the old machine, did not show up.

Instead of a new start to the series, Dark Fate now stands as possibly the most definitive ending the Terminator franchise has had since Sarah Connor drove off into the oncoming storm. As endings go, is this a fitting resting place or a fate worse than facing Judgment Day?

Next Week’s Pick:

Not to be confused with Wes Craven/Eddie Murphy joint Vampire in Brooklyn, the Netflix exclusive Vampires vs The Bronx arrived just a bit too late to make our Halloween “Trick or Treat” scheduling but we wanted to feature it. So now we are. Join us!

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Mikhail L. Skoptsov:

Dark Fate is the best cinematic Terminator sequel after T2. It has a coherent story, a consistent tone, and some good action sequences. Much like its predecessors, however, it is torn between adhering to narrative formulae and committing to a new direction. This schism is best embodied by what it does to its returning cast.

Where T2 boldly reinvented Sarah by making her the new Kyle Reese, DF seems afraid of pushing her into unfamiliar territory and so angering those fans and critics, for whom any deviation from her now-iconic T2 persona is an act of blasphemy. It opens with the “shock death” of John Connor, yet it’s not so much a game-changing turn as a convenient excuse for Sarah to permanently revert to her “crazy, intense, badass” ways. (It also doubles as a tacit admission that like the three sequels before it, DF has no idea, as to what to do with John as a character.)

By contrast, the movie finds new venues to explore with the aged T-800. Carl is a cyborg that can be bargained and reasoned with, that feels pity and remorse, that has even found love. This material is risky and could’ve easily fallen apart. But the film treats it sincerely and Schwarzenegger helps sell it by turning in what may be one of his best performances. One wishes DF took a similar risk when it comes to the franchise’s ostensible main character. As a send-off to Sarah Connor, it falls short. (@mls532)

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

When this movie was announced, I rolled my eyes, certain it would suck. At a certain point, you eventually learn that the stove is gonna burn you.

But then they went and made the first good Terminator movie since 1991, and I don’t know where that leaves my stove metaphor, because this movie slaps (the, uh, stove doesn’t hurt if you slap hard and fast enough — NAILED IT). Keeping Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor as the spine of the series rather than finding increasingly boring Johns was, in hindsight, always the right call. I cannot overstate how great Hamilton is at stepping back into the combat boots, and Schwarzenegger delivers arguably his best acting in his defining role I’m this film. However, what makes Dark Fate work as a whole is that it continues the trend of gradually building the heroic ensemble (from a two-hander in The Terminator to a trio in T2) with the addition of Natalie Reyes’ Dani and Mackenzie Davis’ Grace. Davis in particular absolutely *rocks* the super-soldier from the future routine, Reyes takes what could have been a thankless retread in a lesser version of this movie and uses it to demonstrate her range, and the chemistry the group has once everyone’s, uh, assembled by the midpoint of the film is a unique mix of delightful and desperate.

I don’t use “assembled” accidentally, because Deadpool director Tim Miller is clearly borrowing from the dominant blockbuster genre just as Cameron did when he injected his original sci-fi horror concept with late-’80s stunt-heavy action for T2. Miller keeps clashes between familiar parts fresh (Davis + improvised weapons = YES), but also leaves the skin-of-your-teeth danger of T1 and T2 intact — in no small part thanks to some delightfully eerie work by Gabriel Luna as the metal menace in pursuit. It’s also About Stuff in a way Terminator movies haven’t been without Cameron (who worked on the story). This series has never been subtle, but Luna donning a particular uniform for an Act 2 escape sequence in a specific setting is the kind of big swing I can’t help but respect.

The task of spinning so many plates in a relatively trim 2 hours leads to some fraying at the edges, and there’s a few concepts that play solidly but I’d have loved to see fleshed out, but the best thing about Dark Fate is that it plays every card in its hand. It tells a complete story and then rides off into the sunset — no “the sequel is where the GOOD STUFF is!” bullshit here. Just — FINALLY — a third good Terminator movie.

And now they can stop making them. For real this time. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

By a wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide margin, this is far and away the best of the post-T2 sequels, but that mostly just goes a long way towards proving that Terminator as a franchise was completely tapped out of potential by the end of T2. The original Terminator is a perfect, stripped down chase movie and T2 blew that basic set-up into a blockbuster spectacular while having fun reversing various character dynamics and pulling the rug out from what audiences expected.

Dark Fate tries a similar game, but amounts to little more than a retread of T2 with shinier graphics. There are attempts to update the various Terminator touchstones to better reflect 21st century fears and politics but then doesn’t really know what to do with notions like the savior of humanity being an illegal immigrant besides plug them into the same cat-and-mouse game that Cameron has been staging for forty years. Miller does a fine job with his set-pieces, but there’s nothing especially impressive or memorable about anything he stages in this film, even as the cast (especially the riveting Davis) are throwing themselves into things with abandon.

And while it’s fun to have Hamilton back more grizzled than ever, her presence sinks the movie in the same way that Harrison Ford showing up as Han Solo sort of sank Force Awakens. Suddenly the vibrant and exciting new characters can’t help but feel like ancillary faces to the icon’s well-deserved victory lap (especially since, again, Dark Fate doesn’t really have anything for Hamilton to do after she’s back in play besides replay the hits from T2).

If Dark Fate was the first Terminator movie since 1991, it’d be easier to shrug off its familiarity and just enjoy a return trip. But Terminator has been so over-mined and so totally exhausted that it’s hard to do anything but shrug at another trip down memory lane, no matter how well-done a trip it is. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I’m that oddball that likes all the Terminator films in varying degrees. While the sequels failed to hold up to Cameron’s originals (T2 being one of my favorite films of all time), I certainly don’t hate any of them.

Still, Dark Fate certainly manages to be the most satisfying followup since T2, although I dislike the lazy and messy franchise practice of latter sequels scrapping the earlier ones they don’t like to fit a new narrative. (In the case of Terminator movies, it’s not as egregious of a rift since we can simply accept them all as alternate timelines).

Bringing back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor is a great fan service and reframing both the future’s looming threat the next great hope for humanity was certainly a bold choice for the film, but it’s unquestionably Schwarzenegger’s character that stands out most as my favorite character and with the most delightfully weird (even by Terminator standards) and redemptive arc. Like T2, Dark Fate has something that’s been from the franchise lately — heart. (@VforVashaw)

Next week’s pick:

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