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Adams' Analysis - "Terminator: Dark Fate" demonstrates how the franchise has fallen apart



Warning: This story contains heavy spoilers for "Terminator: Dark Fate".

It’s 2019, Sarah Connor wields a gun that’s halfway between a rifle and an anti-aircraft gun, relentlessly trying to destroy another Terminator. It’s déjà vu all over again, in more ways than one.

Search “Terminator Dark Fate best since T2” and you’ll find plenty of reviews playing that tune, but there is an issue with such a bold, triumphant statement: none of the Terminator films since 1991 have been any good. “Terminator Genisys”, the most recent sequel, was a car crash from start to finish — the spelling of “Genisys” which was ridiculed far and wide, the trailer which spoiled one of the two biggest reveals, the nonsensical projectile vomit of the actual story. It was such a failure that the proposed sequels were cancelled. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” had been highly underwhelming, and even star Christian Bale hated “Terminator Salvation”.

Both “Rise of the Machines” and “Genisys” follow the model of the first two, with Terminators sent back in time to end the Resistance before it starts. “Dark Fate” is no exception, and tonally it attempts to most closely resemble “Judgement Day”. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. James Cameron, who created this world, is involved here too, so that stands it in good stead, right?

Wrong. Somehow, that assumption is so wrong.

That somehow is actually pretty simple. The first film worked, by-and-large, because it was a horror. MPAA rate the first three and the latest release as R, but, of course, that is to incorporate far more elements than the genre. “The Terminator” is scary. Arnie assaulting the police station is terrifying. Arnie chasing Sarah through the factory is chilling. “Judgement Day” follows a similar path, utilising more special effects but never getting carried away. Arnie using the minigun is among the most unforgettable scenes, but much more outstanding is the tension as he and the T-1000 make their way through the hospital looking for Sarah.

What filmmakers who have worked on the franchise since, including Cameron, have forgotten is that it is not an action flick. Neither of its two great successes were; none of its sequels should have been.

At the time of its release, “Judgement Day” was the most expensive film ever made. Ask any fan what they remember most about it and the answer will surely be the same across the board. The special effect of the T-1000’s liquid metal form, and how utterly breath-taking it was. Even now, for all the technological advances that have turned big-budget cinema into quite literally anything you would ever want to design, it looks magnificent.

I couldn’t help but think about it while watching “Dark Fate”. Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 would be damaged and reform; it would become part of technology by touch. Well done, visual effects team. You’ve done a good job. But, truly, does any viewer care? These kinds of effects are so commonplace that they’re expected to be good. The bar is so much higher than it was in 1991.

This ties into the misguided insistence in making the franchise too action-oriented. The first two films are narrative-heavy, a clear story present throughout and, while the timey-wimey elements can get confusing if you’re unfocused, it’s generally easy to follow how everything fits in.

Is narrative really the priority in “Dark Fate”? It has some interesting ideas. John’s death and the reshaping of Sarah’s life after that makes for a fascinating arc, Dani being the saviour rather than Mother Mary. But at every turn, in every beat of every scene, the film feels like it is using narrative simply to justify whatever stunt or piece of VFX it has coming next. And why? Because the narrative itself isn’t strong enough.

The greatest danger for any film is its audience thinking about the logistics of what is happening rather than the story. Even in a world with killing robots from the future, it is impossible not to laugh at the idea of the three female leads, human (or enhanced) as they are, surviving the sequence on the plane for more than five seconds. Any semblance of audience immersion was terminated there and then.

Why does it have to be so big and so booming? Such an insistence on the loud crash, bang, wallop has turned a once-great franchise into a shell of a shell of itself. For all the efforts of “Dark Fate”, there is no longer any nuance. It is now a bland, generic summer blockbuster that, without the attachment of “Terminator”, would fall flatter at the box office than it already has.

The story is empty. The jokes aren’t funny. At this point, a “Terminator” film seems less intended to tell a coherent new chapter in the series than it is to simply have two hours of callbacks, nods and winks at the audience as if to say: “You loved these films before — look, we love them too! You loved Arnie saying ‘I’ll be back’ — well here we’ll use it a few times over because it’s funny!” And so on.

“Dark Fate” is not an abysmal film. It is simply unintelligent and uninspiring. It is not one to be considered among the worst of the year, but there is little reason to recommend it, let alone treat it to a second viewing. And to think of it in the same airspace as “The Terminator” or “Judgement Day” is an insult to two all-time greats.

The solution should be simple. Go back to what made the first two so impressive. Let the action complement the story, not the other way around. But so much has been explored in this universe, so much story has been told and retold and retold — any subsequent Arnie Terminators who have become a part of human society should be working in a recycling facility — that it just cannot happen. How do you make “Terminator” feel fresh, when the crux of any film set pre-apocalypse is simply always going to be someone/something from the future protecting someone important in the past from a Terminator?

So the answer is to stop. Already the franchise has rendered the original two moot in some ways, establishing that no matter what the characters do in the present, AI will take over and an apocalypse will occur. “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” is no longer a truth, as it had been back in 1991. Everything that happens is a means to an end: Sarah and co. cannot win the fight to stop it from happening. The timeline has become so supremely complex, tangled like a pair of headphones. There is no need to make more of these things.

Anyone paranoid over whether Skynet or Legion could exist in our world in the future need not worry. How do we know? Because if it did or will, and it had true intelligence, James Cameron would have had a visitor in the mid-1990s, and this once-great franchise would have been left untouched, untainted.

“I’ll be back"?

For audiences’ sakes, please don’t be back.

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