On-Target Actioner Great for its Target Audience
About the Film
The right audience will have a very enjoyable experience with Terminator: Dark Fate (2019). The original Terminator (released in 1984!) was essentially a low-budget horror film, and in its sequel of 1991, James Cameron perfected the formula he invented in Aliens (1986) of taking a frightening premise and blowing it away with spectacular action. What launched Terminator 2 into the stratosphere, however, was Cameron’s brilliant addition of beginning the movie as a philosophical sci-fier, asking deep and unflinching questions about human nature, before blowing them away with action set pieces never seen before. Cameron also included an early-on surprise—not a plot twist, a surprise!—stunning viewers with the transformation of the first film’s damsel-in-distress into a battle-hardened female action hero, a new trope which has been endlessly and annually replicated since. When Cameron threw in the actual plot twist that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was not the bad guy but the good guy, audiences were shocked. Yet this was 28 years ago, and young audiences have grown up with “strong female protagonists,” spectacular action set pieces, and photo-real robot fights. Furthermore, the potential audience for Terminator: Dark Fate (TDF) is not nearly as broad as that targeted by, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because the coveted millennial-and-below crowd have generally not seen the original Terminator movies while the people who did see them no longer attend theaters as much. And to appreciate TDF, you need to have seen Terminator 2.
As a note of personal importance, I make it a practice not to read others’ reviews before seeing a movie myself so that my reviews will not be influenced. I saw a snarky review headline entitled “Get Woke, Go Broke” which simultaneously implies that TDF advocates social justice and is therefore failing at the box office. The less important point is that box office does not indicate whether a film is good or bad (Suicide Squad, memorable solely for how bad it was, made $700 million, while Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wondeful Life were not box office blockbusters). More importantly though, it is petty and unfair to politicize a movie which not only does not make political points but does not preach at all. It is refreshing not to be hectored by cinema, so that misleading headline scores only strawman points.
On the Surface—(Profanity, sexual content, violence, etc.)
This is an action movie, and there’s a lot of action, including violence. (There is some extreme violence directed exclusively at robots.) Brief, shadowed nudity is depicted because in the Terminator world, time travel must be done without clothes. Hard profanity is present, mostly coming from an embittered character but harsh and grating nonetheless.
Beneath the Surface—(Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
- Remorse and Repentance
TDF features a child-murderer, a topic whose obvious evil would make it a powerful choice for exploration on the screen except that its sheer potency proves too hard for people to bear. Surprisingly, this movie tackles the subject with sensitivity and appropriate somberness. In fact, TDF devotes an entire character arc to the murderer coming to regret his action and devoting the rest of his life to showing his remorse through actions, although other characters are more or less believing of the heart-change. This is a remarkable subplot to see in a mainstream movie, especially in a social climate where the sins which society still sees as wrong are met with unforgiveness and rejection. The child-murderer dies in a self-sacrificial act, mouthing that he is doing it for the child he killed, and I choked back a sob when that happened.
2. Rejection of “The Greater Good”
In the United States right now, it is very popular to believe that an action’s morality should be judged based on how it effects the most people. So, certain actions might hurt individuals but result in benefit to a larger group, and thus those actions would be right. In short, “you’ve gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.” TDF rejects this morality. Instead, it identifies the quintessential quality of leadership as caring for the individuals one is responsible for, which certainly calls to mind the good shepherd who leaves 99 safe sheep to secure the lost one. While this message collides with a great deal of the leadership of the real world, it resonates deeply with the human heart which longs for personal care.
Terminator: Dark Fate is not an all-time classic, because it introduces nothing new to the cinema. While Linda Hamilton is electric, I have long said that it speaks volumes of Schwarzenegger’s thespian abilities that playing a robot attempting to pass as human is the role he was born to play, and everyone else’s acting is serviceable at best. But TDF tells a great story which contains powerful themes.
The movie itself is not great but good. Sadly, the profanity prevents me from being able to recommend it to everyone. However, if you are a member of its target audience who can handle hearing harsh profanity without being tempted to use it or being so disgusted that you cannot continue listening, you are going to enjoy Terminator: Dark Fate immensely.