Movie Review – Terminator: Dark Fate
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This film is doing what a lot of blockbuster sequels or franchise installments have done recently. There has been a push in Hollywood for more diversity, both in racial representation and gender representation, meaning more people of color and more women in leading roles. As a result, we’ve seen properties that were headed by white men get remakes or sequels that have been either gender-swapped casts or diversified casts racially or both. Examples include Ghostbusters (2016) and Ocean’s Eight (2018). We’ve seen more blockbusters feature women in the lead. We’ve also seen more Latinos in the lead as well. Many of these films have been in the works for years. However, in the wake of the rhetoric and even policies of President Donald Trump, going back to his 2016 campaign and going up to his family separation policy at the border, those films starring Latinos have been spotlighted or underscored more. This film feels like it’s jumping on that bandwagon but without commenting on any of it really. That political stuff is in the background or is just window dressing here.
James Cameron directed and co-wrote The Terminator (1984), the film that made a star out of Arnold Swarzenegger, who plays a cyborg from the future that is sent back in time to kill a woman. It was mostly done as a horror film with science-fiction and action elements to it. It played on the fears of the woman. It became about her love and eventually her empowerment to fight back. Cameron directed and co-wrote Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which leaned more on the science-fiction and action, but it became more a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy, exploring his fears and his love for someone. Despite the horrific kills or the spectacular chases, Cameron managed to infuse both those films with human stories about characters with whom we empathized. In the sequels that followed, Cameron stepped away and those strong character stories vanished for more spectacle. Even in Cameron’s most recent work, either as director or producer, those strong character stories are still lacking, replaced with characters who are physically strong or emotionally tough. But their stories aren’t strong in the sense they invoke empathy from the audience.
Linda Hamilton reprises her role from both the 1984 and the 1991 films of Sarah Connor, a waitress in Los Angeles whose life changes forever when she learns that an android from the future is trying to kill her. The reason is because she is the mother of a man named John Connor. John Connor will become the leader of a human resistance in a war against an artificial intelligence system called Skynet. Skynet builds robots to fight the humans, but the humans are able to survive thanks to John Connor’s leadership. SkyNet decides to defeat the humans by building a time machine in order to send an android back to kill John before he becomes the leader of the resistance.
In the first film, it tried to kill John Connor before he was born by killing his mother Sarah. By doing so, SkyNet unknowingly created a paradox where its actions to stop John Connor are the exact actions that actually created John Connor. Because Skynet builds a time machine, it not only allows androids to go back in time, but human beings in the resistance are also able to go back in time. One of those humans is a man named Kyle Reese. Kyle goes back and does everything he can to protect Sarah from being killed by the android. Sarah falls in love with Kyle and he ends up fathering John Connor. He reveals that it was John Connor who told him to go into the time machine. Therefore, if Skynet had never tried to kill John, then John never would have been born to be killed. That paradox was the film’s greatest science-fiction twist.
The 1991 film had another interesting twist where Skynet sends another cyborg back in time to kill John Connor but this time when John is a teenager. However, instead of Schwarzenegger’s cyborg, which was labeled a T-800, the new cyborg is labeled the T-1000 and it has the ability to shape-shift to look like anything or anyone of equal size. Therefore, it could look and sound like any adult person. To fight against that, John Connor of the future finds another T-800 and sends it back to protect his younger self. That film ended with Sarah and John surviving. As a result, Sarah had gone from waitress to warrior who had retreated to Latin America to learn how to become good with weapons and combat.
Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049 and The Martian) co-stars as Grace. She’s basically a combination of Kyle Reese and the T-800. Literally, she’s a combination of the two, as this film in general is a combination of the 1984 film and the 1991 film but redone in tandem with less engagement from the audience to care. Grace is a perfect embodiment of this film’s juxtaposing all the same stuff from Cameron’s first two films. Kyle Reese was a human who was sent back in time to protect Sarah. The T-800 was a robot who was then sent back in time to protect Sarah’s child. Grace is both human and robot who is sent back in time to protect someone. She at times behaves like both. She’s at times militaristic and robotic in her attitude and actions.
Natalia Reyes is a Colombian actress who also co-stars as Dani Ramos, a young Mexican woman living in Mexico City with her brother and her father. She works at an automobile manufacturing plant with her brother. She sees that the plant is laying off its workers due to the rise of automation doing the jobs instead. When her brother is about to lose his job, she volunteers to quit her job instead. Her life changes when a cyborg comes after her. She’s basically the John Connor of this story, whose not only gender-swapped but she’s obviously Latina, further diversifying things here.
However, given what Davis’ and Reyes’ roles are, there’s something missing in this narrative. In the 1991 film, John ends up bonding and indeed falling in love with the T-800, an emotion that we feel by the end of that film. As such, one would assume that Dani would end up bonding and indeed falling in love with Grace. Obviously, there is somewhat of a bond due to the fact that they are in a life-and-death situation together, but, by the end, that emotion isn’t as felt as it was in the 1991 film. Unfortunately, this is because this film doesn’t give as much quiet time between Dani and Grace to form that bond. Any quiet time they get is simply for exposition to move us to the next action scene or it’s time given to Sarah to have her go through the same arc as Jamie Lee Curtis in the recent reboot of Halloween (2018).
Gabriel Luna (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and True Detective) also co-stars as REV-9, the new cyborg sent back to kill Dani. He wasn’t sent by Skynet. He was sent by a new artificial intelligence system called Legion. Like Grace, he is a combination of two things. He’s a combination of the T-800 and the T-1000. He can literally split into two beings, one being is the T-800 without any skin and the other is the shape-shifting T-1000. In the 1991 film, the T-1000 had a regular shape to which it would always revert. That shape was a white guy who wasn’t as buff as Schwarzenegger was back in the 80’s. Here, that shape is a Latino who also isn’t as buff as Schwarzenegger was back in the 80’s.
In the 1991 film, having a less buff white guy probably served several functions. One was that it was probably best to have the T-1000 be able to blend into his environment. Having another six-foot-two or taller, European bodybuilder or someone similar in the role wouldn’t aide in having him blend into the environment. The 1991 film needed someone with an All-American, as well as clean-cut cop look like Robert Patrick who played the T-1000 had. The other function is that given the T-1000’s advanced abilities, having him not also be as physically imposing made sense. Similarly, this film needs its REV-9 to be able to blend into his environment, that environment being Mexico, so having a Latino in the role makes sense. He not being as buff also makes sense.
Instead of limiting the whole film to Mexico City, the narrative takes things to the U.S. border. As mentioned, any political stuff is more background, except when the narrative takes Dani to a detention center on the border. Recently, detention centers have been in the news and political debate has raged over how immigrants are treated at those centers. The main issue has been the family separation policy at the border, implemented by the Trump administration. There’s also been controversy on how border patrol agents have treated immigrants. The image of a Latino fighting and even killing border patrol agents, which is what this film provides, can’t be seen as not some kind of commentary. Yet, the film blows so quickly by it that there’s not much one can make of it, besides being anti-Trump in general.
Character development and thematic development are therefore lost here. All of that could possibly be excused if the action were over-the-top stellar or the science-fiction ideas were more compelling. It presents a potentially compelling sci-fi idea, but it doesn’t do much with it. One of the ideas is that of a robot developing a conscience. The idea arises over the question of what does a robot that’s sent back in time to kill someone do if it accomplishes its mission. Yet, instead of being an idea or question that’s explored in this film, it’s instead just a throwaway bridge to get Hamilton and Schwarzenegger’s characters back together.
Rated R for language, violence throughout and brief nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.