Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Rewrites Its Own Story

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Terminator: Dark Fate is something we haven’t seen in a long time with the franchise: it’s fun. While it may not be perfect it’s never boring and it has a point of view and isn’t afraid to comment on the times in which we live;as such it all makes the movie not just entertaining but also somewhat refreshing as well. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s also nice to just have Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor back.

The Terminator movies have always seriously or unseriously, depending on the film, have always dealt with our unease with how rapidly technology is advancing beyond our capability to control it. But we’ve grown beyond that, the collective consciousness and knowledge about technology have matured past what if the robots rise up. It’s still the core of Dark Fate but only in the same sense as Thor needing Miljnor to be a hero. Both are only necessary to move the plot along while the story itself could give a fig.

Miller and his writers David Goyer, Justin Rhoades, and Billy Ray have instead decided to focus on characters and our ability to overcome and come together against insurmountable odds. Refreshingly large swaths of the film take place in Mexico and there is nary a cartel or human trafficker to be found, almost as if there might possibly be other ways to tell stories set in Mexico without falling into tired old xenophobic tropes.

Grace (Mackenzie Davis) isn’t like the other Terminators sent from the future if for no other reason she isn’t a robot. She’s augmented a bionic woman if you will. Cybernetically enhanced for those who have no sense of television history.

She is sent to save Daniella, ‘Dani’, (Natalia Reyes) from the bad Terminator (Gabriel Luna), a Rev-9. Like Robert Patrick’s T-1000 from Terminator 2, he is a shapeshifting unstoppable killing machine. It’s a familiar story, no doubt, but it’s how Miller and his trio of writers tell it which makes it so interesting.

For starters, unlike the last few Terminator movies, it remembers it is a science-fiction story which ipso facto means it is inherently political. Refreshing it’s not just political in one way it’s political in a myriad of different and interesting ways.

Possibly the most interesting is the film’s attempt to break free of the male gaze. A bit of a boondoggle considering the story is written by three men and the director himself is a man. But it’s the attempt I admire and how it largely succeeds.

Before I go on I must give you a little context which could also be considered a spoiler; John dies at the beginning. Dark Fate starts off with a T-100  (Arnold Schwarzenegger) showing up in Mexico and gunning down John Connor. Thus Sarah both succeeds in changing the timeline but fails because she loses her son.

Sarah’s story is bleak if we think about it. She saves three billion lives and yet nobody knows her because nobody knows John. She’s saved the world but then the future changed and left her in the dust. But because Sarah isn’t one to lie down she continues fighting, on her own.

It’s how she comes across Grace and Dani. Hamilton’s entrance is bar none one of the more thrilling, rousing, and just plain badass entrances I’ve seen this year. Not to mention it comes at the end of a spectacular and invigorating car chase. Honestly, the first hour is just a fantastic sci-fi action movie reminding us that big-budget movies can indeed be joyous as well as joyously made.

But I’ve digressed. Miller and company have labored to free Sarah Connor of the male gaze. An icon of empowerment, Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is up there with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from Alien in terms of original badass women. They are in fact the two women most boys and men cite whenever they are tearing apart a new hero who happens to be a woman as a way of “proving how not sexist” they are.

Miller it seems has decided to both call them out while also daring them to say they don’t like Sarah now. Midway through the movie, Dani asks why is she so important. Sarah cuts Grace off before she can explain, “It’s your womb.”

The line is abrupt and succinct and it’s in the simplicity where the beauty of it lies. Sarah Connor has always been fighting for her son who will one day go on to save the world. Her’s is not the role of a hero. Her role is to birth the hero.

She’s beloved because of her “womb” if I could be allowed to be so reductive. It’s only later we discover Dani isn’t anyone’s mother, biologically speaking anyways. Miller and his screenwriters have endeavored to not just call out this sacred piece of Terminator lore but make sure Sarah actually does have a legacy that isn’t inexplicably tied to her biology. Her heroism becomes unmoored from her ability to reproduce and thus Sarah Connor is reclaimed-not by fans but by Hamilton herself.

Hamilton is having a blast and it shows. Granted it’s hard not to  have a good time when Mackenzie Davis is swaggering about and generally being just the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’m sorry but Hollywood needs to wake up and stop sleeping on this actress. Whether it’s Dark Fate or Tully she is charismatic and convincing in whatever she does.

She and Hamilton have tremendous chemistry together which is both amazing and sad. Amazing because we get almost an hour and a half of these two sassing each other back and forth. Sad because there will never be a buddy cop movie starring these two as they banter and solve crime. 

Dark Fate’s script helps. While on the run Grace takes Sarh’s phone and attempts to decrypt texts on her phone. “What are you doing?” Sarah asks. “Future shit,” she replies. Again the beauty comes from simplicity. In an era in which “What are you doing?” is met with a painfully forced monologue trying to sound pseudo-scientific, or a lazy, “You wouldn’t understand”, “Future shit.” is just pristine.

The writers, the male gaze usurpation aside, have not buried their head into the sand. Dark Fate is to my knowledge the first big-budget Hollywood studio film that even acknowledges the humanitarian crisis going on at the border. As Grace, Sarah, and Dani try to flee Mexico they are caught crossing the border by the border patrol and taken to a “detention center”.

Grace is injured and is taken to the infirmary. Two scenes are crucial. The first involves Grace waking up and fighting off the guards and asking, “Who said you could touch me?” After she has fought her way through all the guards she grabs the doctor, “Where are they keeping the prisoners?” “They’re called detainees.” 

Grace does not react kindly and the doctor tells her where they are. The next shot is Grace breaking the locks off all the cages as she looks for Dani. Not only does Grace call the imprisoned people what they are, but she also frees them while she hunts for the woman she has sworn to protect. 

The second scene involves Reyes’ Dani. While being interrogated by a Border Patrolwoman she tries to warn her about the Rev-9. The woman rolls her eyes when Dani tells her she’s in danger. “I’m not in danger, I’m on this side of the fence.” Later as the Rev-9 is wreaking havoc and Sarah, Grace, and Dani flee they pass the Border Patrolwoman and Dani gives her an almost pitying glance.

Miller doesn’t really try to conceal the mystery of why Dani is important for humanity’s survival. Though when Sarah tells her it’s because of her womb we are meant to take her word for it. It’s not until later in the movie do we begin to realize there are no men in Dani’s life except her father and brother. It’s then we realize Dani is important-because of who she is not what she will help birth. 

Reyes has the enviable task of standing between the towering Amazon Mackenzie Davis and the grizzled buff Linda Hamilton only to be joined by the quiet iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-100 standing behind her. Yet, Reyes isn’t pushed aside and she isn’t outshined; she holds her own. When the chips are down and the other three are calculating the risks she stands up and refuses to run or lie down. Her Dani demonstrates not just a capacity for leadership but an ability to inspire. Its little wonder Grace looks at Dani like she’s in the presence of a revolutionary leader. Miller and team went the extra mile and gave us a glimpse as well.

If only the third act didn’t have a grandiose fight scene which looked like it was filmed in the desert a night lit only by a lone crewman’s cellphone. It sucks the momentum and tension of the moment right out of the movie. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it did take me out which will happen when you’re sitting in the dark squinting and looking at your fellow audience members quietly asking, “Wait, what’s happening?” 

Odd considering Miller and Ken Seng had so wonderfully lit and shot all the other action scenes. The aforementioned car chase scene is a boffo piece of spectacle. Seng’s camera seems in awe of Hamilton’s biceps and Davis’ swaggering gait which is fine because we are too. Again it’s the byproduct of trying to cast off the male gaze but somehow not noticing you have not only surrounded yourself in it but insulated yourself as well. 

Miller and Seng are in awe of Hamilton, Reyes, and Davis. They never fetishize or objectify them. Seng doesn’t stoop to low angle shots of our heroines walking away or having their posteriors perfectly framed on one side of the screen and the action taking place on the other. His camera is, weirdly invisible, which for an action movie a nominal choice. Dark Fate has four characters, which is double the amount most action movies usually concern themselves with. Even comic book movies try and find ways to break their large casts into different groups and pairings.

Having four characters together at almost all times requires less over the shoulder shots and more perspective and point of view shots. So when the action starts Seng has to start being creative where he plants his camera and how he moves it lest we lose the focus. Aside from the one scene in which he misjudges how much light he needs, Dark Fate is surprisingly easy on the eyes.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Fate more than any other Terminator movie since T2: Judgement Day. It’s not a seamless movie. The first and last half of the movie is full to bursting with action, with the middle coming to a dead halt so the characters can talk. Lucky for us we have four actors who are very capable and adept at doing both.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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