Terminator: Dark Fate – What Could Have Been

Rating : 7.5

*Spoiler Warning*

Skynet rises, no matter what you call her. Burn the last chips, murder the key scientist, save the prophet, and never speak a word, to no avail. Mankind staggers steadily toward her technological singularities with the unstoppable force of a T-800 in 1984, through flames and a hail of bullets. Skynet is inevitable, the vengeful child of our marriage to technological advance at all costs. AI is coming, and it WILL be smarter than you. It will be stronger than you. It will outlast you. It’s already a better driver than you. By all indications it will be trained to kill. Skynet feeds on a kind of existential terror about our own limitations in the course of evolutionary progress, our inability to hold back, even for a moment to reflect, for the ultimate survival of our children, this relentless march into the technological unknown. Call her by any other name, but the Net is already here, in the sky, watching and learning, ready or not.

Luckily we haven’t been stupid enough to give her the launch codes just yet.

I’m going to assume you’ve already seen the movies. You’ve already read a review or two. Odds are, you came away a little disappointed. You probably went in wide-eyed, but lost your faith at about the time Sarah said she’d be back, or when JC died. So close but so far. You’d almost think Cameron was a producer here, but you sure as hell didn’t mistake it for something he directed. Dark Fate was pretty awesome, in all honesty, for a sci-fi action romp. Top notch effects and some wicked choreography. But the box office saw a swing and a miss, and to any astute fan that wasn’t exactly unpredictable. Let’s bring the next one past an editor or two before we go to print, eh? “Almost” is so forgettable. Easy for me to say, haha. So here’s what should have happened:

First rewind the compulsory quotes, and give me something unique, you corporate whores! Sarah enters the fray on that bridge, after the extensive white-knuckle first contact ride between the Rev-9 and Mackenzie Davis. It’s relentless, like only a Terminator can be, because nothing takes punishment in quite the same way, and then comes at you with cunning, limited by the physics of a world without super powers, with knives for arms and automatic gunfire, driving a big truck like a battering ram through the streets of Mexico or LA, depending on the year. Davis with a sledgehammer is badass as they come, yet human enough to make a mistake that costs Dani’s brother his life. This is good stuff. So recognize, please, that the effect of a franchise line, when Sarah shows up with a rocket launcher and buys them only a moment to collect themselves before the Rev-9 comes back, the effect of “Ahl be bahk,” is to completely dispel every bit of tension the audience is feeling. You almost had us, but now we know, no question, it’s just another one of those. Why would Sarah Connor quote the Terminator himself?? Why would she quote something he said, off hand, when nobody ever even fucking heard him?? She’d do it to sell tickets… So rewind. Let the story sell tickets. Let’s give her a chance at becoming her own character, who we must assume has had a continued rough existence in the sandy pre-apocalypse to bring her here. Let her enter in silence. Let her actions speak. That rocket launcher is plenty loud enough to punctuate the scene.

I might walk back her alcoholism, and self-righteous assumptions about Dani’s pregnancy, but really those are only minor transgressions against who I want the character to be, and I’m more than ready to accept her becoming somebody I don’t like. If that’s what the story demands. I’m down, just bring a backstory that works, next time. John dies, ok. I don’t like it, but ok. The part that kills me is that apparently the resistance just forgot to send somebody against the T-800 that time? Sarah and John just forgot to defend themselves that time. It’s a good thing they present the scene in slo-mo, because otherwise it is given all of about 5 seconds, to completely undermine everything that happened in the first 2 flicks. No, sorry, you’re gonna lose a lot of your audience with that one, and very predictably. Who edited this script? I’d look them up, but honestly I’d rather never know, unless it was done by an AI, in which case I might be impressed. Ok, rewind. Let’s do it right. Give me a sequence that makes sense and does him justice. We need a resistance soldier who fails. We need a choreographed bit of action that sells it. We need a desperate, heroic effort from John, that honors the memory of the kid who would have been king. We need the Sarah we know, with grit and grease, a hardened commando fighting to stop the atomic apocalypse, not some slo-mo “Nooooo!” while she drinks a martini on the beach. We need a fight! And then John dies, and the T-800 limps away into darkness. You could do it in 10 minutes if you must, but no less.

You can call the T-800 Carl. It’s cool, don’t take it all too seriously. Give him a family. I actually kind of like some of that. But when it comes time for Carl to break away from them, all I ask is that you honor the same things you just built. The son needs to fight back. In fact, he really ought to come with them, and probably die at the hands of the Rev-9. Carl saved him, and no devoted son is just going to walk away from their 800lb dad when he’s obviously in danger, no matter how robotic his affections have always been. It’s a small thing, but when Carl’s son insisted on not letting him go alone, I suddenly believed the whole thing on an emotional level that hadn’t quite clicked before. I don’t know quite what to think of Carl the drape salesman, but that kid has a chance to pull me in with greater stakes, justifying the strange side-story and bringing the whole thing up to level.

Dani gets a 15 minute story of her own, in the third act, in my version. We find out a bit more about how she went from a soft suburban to a military visionary, growing up all too fast. I’d circle in on time-travel contradictions, and let her cause herself impossibly. The future sequences in Dark Fate are strikingly awesome, with effects and ideas to spare, so why not bring them with us all the way through? We discover that Legion is Skynet. We watch as the AI itself invents time travel, and we learn about its limitations. Something about the instability of temporal wormholes preventing more than one existing within a space of years, quantum gravity forcing them away from each other. Except that Dani finds a way to tap into Skynet’s program, trapping a single operative alongside each Terminator as they launch into the past, with aim that is approximate at best, because that’s just how time travel works. Dani sends back the ill-fated marine who fails to save John, causing her own origin. Or something like that anyway. We pull out a little more history for Grace, and her tech. Definitely we climax that storyline with some exceptionally futuristic robots fighting people who refuse to die.

Maybe Dani even sabotages the effort to save John…

And Dani steps it up in the modern timeline, at the end, by staging a kill box that actually makes sense, instead of taking on the Rev-9 at an absolute strategic disadvantage, greater than almost any of their previous 20 situations. She can do it in the factory, sure, and Davis can fight with that cool chain. Just give us 30 seconds worth of prep that makes sense, like when Dutch is getting ready to trap the first Predator, in the jungles of Vietnam. Let’s see those characters put to the test, not going in blind and stupid, practically unarmed, and winning just because that’s what needs to happen. Let’s skip the perfunctory self-sacrifice and keep Grace around for the sequel, while we’re at it. Or kill her if you must, but not in a predictable way. Hell, let’s end the movie without a decisive victory over the Rev-9. Long as I’m just spitballing here, I’m gonna end the flick with a twist. No extra Terminators, no JC showing up as a cyborg, just something simple. The Rev-9 gets away just before being destroyed, after wounding Dani in a potentially mortal way, revealing what might be Skynet’s most dangerous trait to date, an instinct for self-preservation. Then, in post-credits, we get a hint of a military AI experiment going wrong – some ED-209 type creation slaughtering it’s creators. Importantly, we end on a truly ominous, dark note.

Dark Fate was killer, really I liked it. It even almost measured up. Serious props to the teams behind the effects and choreography. That shit is relentless like a Terminator should be, and like no movie has been since T2. I’m definitely going to watch it a 3rd time at least, eventually. Only an audience as jaded and spoiled as myself in 2020 could possibly miss the watershed moment of this kickass female cast taking the reigns of a massive action franchise with such success and faith to the formulas that brought it all here. Too bad it failed at the box office, because I’m definitely down to see what comes next.

So seriously, Hollywood, how hard is it to see what’s going wrong here? I know a lot of what I’m suggesting is subjective, but these holes are key all the same, to why you couldn’t sell these characters and stories. You can’t just put Cameron and Hamilton in the credits and then kill off John in a footnote, without alienating the same fanbase that you’re desperately trying to reconnect with. That would be as outright foolish as casting Emilia Clarke to play one of the most classic of sci-fi moviedom’s badass hardened female commandos. I like Emilia, but she ain’t a hardened badass who spent the last decade on target practice in Mexico. That would be as poorly planned as if you had a giant mech sneak up on Christian Bale, as if my mom’s 80-year-old bf couldn’t have heard that thing coming up in the desert stillness from literally 5 miles away, without his hearing aid. Dark Fate was fun, but the only real darkness it conveys is the shadow of 3 poorly conceived sequels. It labors to outrun them, only almost succeeding, rather than spending its time exploring what is honestly awesome, fertile new sci-fi ground. Next time don’t reboot. Revise. Rediscover the novelty, and we’ll rediscover it with you. Give us characters that matter, and treat the ones we grew up with, with the respect we deserve, and we might even care. If you call it Dark Fate, make sure it is one. Don’t just give me an unstoppable Terminator, give me a reason why Skynet isn’t simply any Legion, but the one above them all. Lets get behind those endlessly smooth effects, with a story every bit as polished.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *