In the very first Terminator film in 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger assured us: “I’ll be back”. Arnie has proven to be a man of his word, returning again and again as James Cameron and his pals crank out yet another Terminator sequel. We’re now up to number six – and counting. This time the director is Tim Miller, who made the first Deadpool movie in 2016, but much of the old team remains in place.
In Terminator: Dark Fate Arnie doesn’t appear until the story is well advanced, but he adds an instant spark. In listing his best traits he says: “I’m extremely funny”, and that’s no idle boast. Up until this point things have looked grim.
The story begins in Mexico City, with a crackle of blue-white electricity and the sudden appearance of a naked amazon from the future. This is Grace (Mackenzie Davis). She’s human but “augmented”, and is on the side of the good guys. Shortly afterwards another snap, crackle and pop in a different part of town, brings us the villain – the new Terminator (Gabriel Luna), more deadly and indestructible than ever before. Anticipating each updated Terminator is like waiting for the new iPhone. The special features of this model include a rapid liquid reconstruction when smashed to smithereens, and the ability to separate into a two-being tag-team, one human in appearance, the other a metal skeleton.
We know the routine by now. Kaboom! Splat! Lots of torn artificial flesh and bent metal. The Terminator has come from the future to eliminate someone who will go on to be an obstacle to the ultimate victory of the machines over humankind. In this case it’s a Mexican girl called Dani (Natalia Reyes), who works in a factory in which – wait for the irony – humans are gradually being replaced by robots.
Without much ado Grace and the Terminator arrive in quick succession and the first of several complex, breathtaking action sequences is underway. Somewhere out on a freeway they are joined by Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), 60-year-old, bad-ass survivor of previous Terminator movies, now an armed vigilante who makes it her life’s work to track down and destroy the threat from the future.
When the group locate Arnie in Laredo he’s running a drapery business and playing the family man. It’s a source of comedy, especially when the old Terminator begins discoursing on choosing the right kind of curtains for a child’s bedroom as the new Terminator closes in.
Arnie joins the gang and the rest of the movie lurches from one explosive, mind-bending vignette to the next. The writers have given some thought to these set pieces, placing one on a cargo jet, one at a massive dam, and another in a detention centre on the Mexican border. The latter is almost too topical for its own good, showing us cages full of people being treated with brutal indifference. It remains ambiguous enough to allow Trump opponents to detect an implict critique of current policies, while supporters won’t find anything to unsettle their existing prejudices. Investors can relax, the box office remains safe!
This is more than can be said for Dani and her companions who spend two hours fleeing the Terminator, until they decide to make a last stand. You can probably figure out how it ends, if not the actual details. Inevitably the door is left ajar for yet another sequel.
These seemingly endless Hollywood franchises induce cynicism, but Terminator: Dark Fate is one of the more successful examples of a well-worked sci-fi action genre. The story moves at a rapid clip, punctuated by flashforwards to a dark, dystopian future; and moments of respite in which characters are allowed to display the rudiments of personality.
One has to suspend disbelief on several counts. Firstly, it’s very odd that Arnie, as a machine, has actually aged over the past 30 years. He says he’s been trying to develop a conscience, which raises a fascinating artificial intelligence condundrum, but for a robot’s hair to go grey is a notable achievement.
The other big paradox concerns the ability of beings from the future to change the past. If a Terminator succeeded in eliminating its target then the future would no longer exist in the same form and there would be no need to send a Terminator. But if no Terminator was sent, the target would survive and prosper, and so on in an endless loop. Maybe it’s best not to go too far down this track.
The entire Terminator series plays on the worst-case AI scenario. Instead of a bunch of smart-arse algorithms predicting what we might like to buy on Amazon, or intelligent cars making decisions while drivers snooze, it posits a range of super robots made as killing machines. Soon enough these robots can’t see the point of obeying creatures so palpably inferior as human beings and decide to exterminate their creators.
Given the fact that every piece of new technology is quickly incorporated into a weapon and that the global arms trade is worth more than a trillion dollars annually, if we had the means there’s no doubt we’d already be building such machines. Perhaps there’s a case for seeing the Terminator movies as prophecy rather than pulp.
Terminator: Dark Fate
Directed by Tim Miller
Written by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray, James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee
Starring Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta
China/USA, rated MA 15+, 128 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 November, 2019