A still from Terminator: Dark Fate

Director: Tim Miller

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Mackenzie Davis

In 1984, James Cameron made The Terminator and answered a number of pressing questions. How do you combine the sci-fi movie and the chase movie? What would happen if we become overly dependent on machines (a problem that’s all the more relevant today)? And most importantly, what do you do with an actor who looks like an unstoppable killing machine? The answer was simplicity itself: Cast him as an unstoppable killing machine. The moderate success of the film ensured that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” was less of a punchline than a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we got a sequel that is one of the most seminal films of all time. Terminator 2: Judgment Day used computers in ways we never imagined they could be used. It made Star Wars look like something put together by baby Ewoks for a kindergarten project.

Since then, the series (or to use today’s terminology, “franchise”) has employed a number of permutations and combinations to address this pressing question: How do you keep the newer films interesting? After all, the story is always the same. Cyborgs from the future are sent via electricity-oozing eggs to kill someone in the present who is a major thorn in the future’s flesh? Does the future have flesh? Well, in Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate, we learn that Schwarzenegger’s T-800 model cyborg has grown a conscience — so, really, anything is possible.

So we’ve seen a male terminator and a male protector. We’ve had a female terminator and a male protector. Now, we have a female protector and a male terminator. The evil empire (Skynet) is now called Legion. The saviour (John Connor in the earlier films) has transformed from a Caucasian man to a Hispanic woman (Dani, played by Natalia Reyes). The killer cyborg has a cool new feature: he can extract himself from his skeleton, so there are two terminators for the price of one. And oh, Linda Hamilton is back as Sarah Connor. Say what you will about Cameron’s reportedly titanic ego, he did give us two of the most iconic action heroines of the 1980s. (The other one, of course, is Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.)

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate

In Dark Fate, Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent from the year 2042 to protect Dani. Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) is the bad guy. You know the drill. Watching this utterly generic film leads you to wonder why some franchises keep going on, without fatigue, while others, like the Terminator films seem like empty cash-grab exercises. Take the Bond movies. They, too, could be summarised as “you know the drill”. But something makes us keep going back — the outlandishness, perhaps, which is a quality that cannot be replicated in the realm of intense sci-fi/action.

What about the Star Wars films? The Marvel movies? I suppose there are characters you connect with, and there are emotional through-lines that keep you invested in at least some of them. In Dark Fate, the story is credited to five writers (Cameron is one of them) and there is not a single moment that pops out. Some commentators refer to the Disney films as essentially babysitters for kids. Dark Fate is a babysitter for adults. It keeps us occupied for a couple of hours with some decent action set pieces, some half-decent one-liners, and a lot of throwback elements meant to induce nostalgia.

I didn’t hate it, exactly, but I sat through the film solely as a completist. And I thought about how emotional the first Terminator was, how moving it was when we realised the man (named Kyle Reese) sent back to save Sarah would end up fathering her child. I dug up this line by Reese: “John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didn’t know why at the time. It was very old — torn, faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorised every line, every curve. I came across time for you Sarah. I love you; I always have.” Just reading it gave me goosebumps. That’s what’s missing in Dark Fate. It no longer feels personal. Even the people have come to resemble machines.

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