This Franchise is Terminated
Sometimes it feels like franchises never end. There’s a bunch of films in the Fast and Furious series, the James Bond movies have been trucking along since 1962, and the MCU will end at roughly the same time that our sun goes supernova and wipes out all human life on our fragile planet.
But franchises end. Consider the little-remembered Francis the Talking Mule series. Based on a 1946 novel, seven films were made during the 1950s about a mule in the Army that could talk. Presumably, they were profitable—for a while, anyway. As time went on, audiences either a) searched for new diversions in the cinema or b) realized they repeatedly spent good money on movies about a talking mule and turned away from the world in abject shame.
That trend continues today, and franchises that once seemed bulletproof have breathed their last for a variety of reasons. The Lethal Weapon series went kaput, likely due to the racist antics of Mel Gibson. The Jason Bourne films fizzled out, likely due to irrelevance. The Scary Movie flicks faced a dishonorable end due to being ragingly not funny. And then…there were the Terminator movies.
Granted, The Terminator is a mean and streamlined film that effortlessly combines horror, science fiction, action, and a loopy love story. Granted, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest sequels ever made. Yet Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is only okayish, Terminator: Salvation is simply dumb robot fun, and Terminator: Genisys is absolutely awful. Get kicked in the nuts enough times, and eventually, you’ll ask the person kicking you to stop. After all of that, Terminator: Dark Fate never really stood a chance.
Lucky for us, this is the first film in the series that doesn’t take place in Los Angeles. Instead, a familiar ball of blue electricity appears under a bridge in Mexico City. Inside it is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a woman of such intense focus, she doesn’t seem to notice she’s stark naked. You will not be surprised to learn she’s from the future, nor will you be surprised to learn she has a mission. However, you might be mildly surprised to learn she’s an augmented human. Grace is strong, fast, and can absolutely wreck ass.
She’ll need all her skills since her mission ain’t easy. Grace’s job is to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman working at an auto assembly plant. In a nice thematic moment, Dani begins her day learning that her brother Diego (Diego Boneta) will be laid off. Why? He’s being replaced by a robot.
That’s the least of her worries, as she’s being stalked by the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), a mass-murdering machine that has the ability to shapeshift and split itself between a cybernetic endoskeleton and a liquid metal exterior.* Like other Terminator models before it, the Rev-9 is designed to be nigh-indestructible, but at least this one actually attempts to pass undetected at times.**
The chase begins, and in the midst of gratuitous destruction, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) shows up to save the day—for a couple of minutes, at least. She arrives armed to the teeth with lots of guns and a really negative attitude. Can the three of them hold their own against a fiendish cybernetic thingy? No, and that’s where a certain T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) comes in.
The Hollywood Reporter tells us that Terminator: Dark Fate is expected to bomb, losing somewhere in the neighborhood of $120 million, a sum that kills the franchise as dead as Julius Caesar. With a loss like that, the film must be a monument to cinematic incompetence, a film that’s so bad that it’s not just a trash fire but a trash conflagration, right? No, and that’s the frustrating part. As sequels go, Dark Fate is pretty good, a perfectly fun time at the movies.
Part of the reason for the film’s superior pedigree is director Tim Miller and producer James Cameron. A great deal of time was spent hammering out the story, and how the film should look and feel. It feels like an honest-to-God Terminator movie. Things start off with a bang, and from there Miller puts his foot on the gas and never lets up. Miller’s pacing is almost too intense, and instead of characters yelling exposition at each other, there needs to be a few more moments allowing us to breathe and get to know everyone. Miller also effectively juggles CGI and practical effects and stunt work. The end result is a mostly handsome film that generally delivers the goods.
You’d also expect a screenplay with eight credited writers to be nothing short of disastrous. The best possible scenario unfolded, in which the final draft was okay. A wise decision was made to pretend the previous three films happened in an alternate timeline and treat Dark Fate as a direct sequel to the first two films. A sizeable risk is taken with the story in the first few minutes, and while there are a number of…well, let’s call them echoes of previous films, there are also several scenes and concepts that effectively push the Terminator mythos forward.
If you’ve spent any amount of time online, you know a small but vocal group of people are Very Angry that diversity is taking place in films. It’s cool, says I, for a mammoth franchise like this to have three women at the center of the story, giving three quality performances.*** Linda Hamilton came out of retirement to reprise the role of Sarah Connor. While she’s a little too glib at times, I liked where she took her character. Natalia Reyes’ Dani is also somewhat underwritten, and I would have liked a bit more agency from her character instead of being yanked around. As Grace, Mackenzie Davis is great fun. She’s game for all of the bananas physical scenes, and she occasionally flashes a tired sense of humor.
It wouldn’t be a proper Terminator movie without our old pal Arnold. As he’s gotten older, he’s become a better actor,**** and he returns to his iconic role of the T-800 with humor and physicality. We’re in the late stage of Schwarzenegger’s career, and like Sylvester Stallone in Creed, we need one more role to sum up his legacy and examine what he means. This ain’t it, but I have a suspicion that it’s coming.
Why did Terminator: Dark Fate fail? Is it due to audiences losing faith in a franchise after three poorly-received entries in a row? Are people simply tired of Schwarzenegger’s schtick? Is it the old story of folks being highly risk-averse when it comes to venturing to the theater? I suspect it’s a combination of all those reasons, and it saddens me that a once-unstoppable franchise has been decisively brought to a halt. Dark Fate deserved better, and time will prove that.
*Throughout the movie, the Rev-9 is shown to have the ability to transform parts of itself into a gun. Why doesn’t it shift into a bomb, a jet pack, or a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range? Because then there wouldn’t be a movie, I suppose.
**Unlike virtually all the previous films. Though I like the idea that Skynet thought an Austrian bodybuilder was the perfect specimen for covert work.
***No doubt someone very stupid has made the argument that Dark Fate failed financially due to “political correctness.” This person conveniently forgets that the Terminator films have always been unapologetically feminist.
****Seriously! Check him out in Maggie, where he gives a legit strong performance as a grieving father in the midst of the zombie apocalypse.