Mackenzie Davis is a bonafide movie star, but this franchise continues to flounder in identity crisis

David G. Hughes on Tim Miller’s ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ (2019)

Around halfway through Terminator: Dark Fate, we’re re-introduced to the seemingly indispensable Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800—the cybernetic organism that made the bodybuilder’s acting career. Only, he isn’t the killing machine he once was, but a family man in a committed, asexual relationship that rests on the fact, “I’m efficient at changing diapers without complaining. I’m reliable, a good listener, and really funny.” This line is successfully played for laughs, but it also aptly summarises the contemporary blockbusters abject fear of anything that could be regarded as uncomfortable or threatening, with the chief culprit being human sexuality and the corollary requirement to just play nice. It’s indicative of an antiseptic Terminator experience with no sharp corners, a gelded vivisection of a long-ailing franchise that should probably be put out of its misery.

Schwarzenegger has come a long way from expressing his fondness for copulation on-screen and it wouldn’t be right to claim that Terminators have always been so PG-13. It’s easy to remember one barmaid’s approving shock at the T-800’s phallic flaunting in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), or the T-X’s (Kristanna Loken) instantaneous breast augmentation in order to circumvent incompetent male authority in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). These are films that play with the notion of gaze and have a deep distrust of The Man, and it’s easy to forget just how lurid The Terminator (1984) was, its depiction of indiscriminate murder shocking whilst also expressing a rock ‘n’ roll, ‘fuck the system’ nihilism. What this modern domestication signifies is a stonking victory for the academic class, neutering a star persona intellectuals love to hate. In their contempt, they have directed countless peer-reviewed articles against what they regard as Schwarzenegger’s preposterous exemplification of idealised masculinity and US imperialism. What they forget (or, more likely, are ignorant towards) is that since Schwarzenegger walked into a roadside bar butt-naked, the Terminator films have exhibited a subversive homosexual gaze inspired more by Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe than expansionist US foreign policy.

What’s ironic about Dark Fate’s hackneyed, committee-driven effort to apply half-baked correctness of thought onto the franchise is that by displacing hard-bodied men as object of the gaze, and yearning for social approval through the ‘tough female character’, they’ve merely put a beautiful female body front-and-centre, with the naked arrival now done by a shapely Mackenzie Davis. This for an audience that, it’s safe to assume, is mostly male. There’s nothing wrong with this, nor anything particularly good about it either, just indicative of a myopic, self-defeating culture that values highfalutin conceptual theories of the polis at the cost of aesthetic subversiveness.

For a franchise with such high regard for female perseverance and tenacity, Dark Fate‘s extraneous effort to masculinise the women and feminise the men strikes as ideological overkill, its depiction of male obsolescence gratuitous. This is particularly so when the man directing the film is Tim Miller, the person behind teenage-boy dreck Deadpool (2015). Behind him are four male writers and three male story credits. Unless you’re under the impression that these lads make up a radical feminist collective, it should be clear what this is: faux-progressivism as profit.

Except audiences have lost patience, tired of a franchise whose spiritual identity has flailed and floundered for too long. Since the end of the Cold War, the demise of the working-class movement, and the subsequent dominance of the white-collar economy, what exactly a Terminator film is or should be has been far from obvious. It’s hard not to see class and aesthetics connected here, considering The Terminator‘s modus operandi of machines, trucks, tools and arsenals of war, the action taking place within the milieu of blue-collar work (factories, garages, hospitals). Not to mention the Luddite philosophy about machines taking over and leaving post-industrial ruin in its wake. But just as the blue-collar experience has been set aside, so there is no room for Stan Winston’s nuts ‘n’ bolts animatronics or make-up; as soon as Dark Fate begins, it makes a splash with CGI people, “de-aged” as the term goes. It continues as such from there, depicting floaty animated combat detached from pro-filmic craft or infectious joy.

Admittedly, this franchise was ahead of the curve when innovating CGI practices to assist Robert Patrick’s villainous turn as the T-1000 in Terminator 2. But even then, circa 1991, concerns about shifting economies and changing technologies was tackled head-on — facing the bulky and technologically inferior T-800 off against an amorphous, slender foe who could swerve his way through the burgeoning white-collar economy like your middle-class friend. There was pathos and tragedy to this conflict, a rousing not going gently into that good night. For better or worse Cameron is a chief architect of the digital cinema, but he had evident respect for the hands-on worker and indeed probably sees himself as such today. Besides, the times have always spoken through Cameron more than he was ever able to speak for himself.

Such faux-Cameron motifs are given lip-service in Dark Fate, with an aside about automation taking jobs away and an appreciation of abrasive Latino women (Natalia Reyes in an unconvincing turn as the new Messiah of the resistance), but any au courant ambitions are as superficial as its gender politics, and there’s certainly nothing said that hasn’t already been stated in previous elegiac masterwork Terminator 2. In an attempt to abate bad will, much has been made about Cameron’s official attachment and endorsement of the film, even as people conveniently ignore the rather embarrassing fact that he’s given his official endorsement before, describing the dreadfully cartoonish Terminator Genysis (2015) as no less than a “Renaissance” of the franchise and what, “I think of as the third film.” That is until he thought of this as the third film, and the press are all too willing to regurgitate the official blessing with Papal subservience.

Entirely appropriately, Dark Fate cannot bring itself to open to Brad Fiedel’s stirring and iconic industrial synth-track, with its thumping, metallic beats evocative of workers in unison. This is factory porn music that would leave Eisenstein drooling, and Dark Fate is unsure what to do with it, riffing on it here and there but never feeling confident enough to go full-swing. Perhaps it’s best, and certainly telling of a blockbuster climate in identity crisis; franchise continuations act haughty and superior to that which has come before and yet remain slavishly tied to the glorious past, a Baudrillardian nightmare of re-using imagery that was once potent, sexy and exciting until they’re nothing more than trivial GIFs. What transpires, inevitably, is something that has the draping of a Terminator film, but never actually feels like it. It barely feels like anything at all, as it cherrypicks ‘topical’ concerns for a thin veneer of ‘urgency’ that liberally-minded critics lap up (it’s about the Mexican border, they’ll say), but underneath is an endoskeleton of unpleasant and cynical opportunism swirling into the creative void until the robotic red iris goes dark.

It goes without saying that there isn’t a creative personality behind Dark Fate. Despite his resources, Miller cannot conjure an image one could conceivably find pleasure in; the film is visually drab and TV-like. It’s a sad state-of-affairs when Miller — someone who describes himself as “that guy who likes movies” — is considered to be a ribald and transgressive voice in the film culture. What is refreshing, however, is the work of Mackenzie Davis as cyborg Grace, taking the position of Michael Biehn and Schwarzenegger before her as the time-travelling protector. She’s a bonafide movie star, a sexy androgyne warrior, impressive in the practical demands of the role and the films saving grace. It’s her who audiences will fall in love with, based on her charisma and style; her cropped hair and toned physique as striking as the Austrian Oak. Linda Hamilton also returns, which is a welcome addition, but it’s fair to say that she’s back for ceremonial fan purpose only, a bit player in a story that has very little to do with her even as she dominates the promo material which, for a film about keeping up appearances, makes absolute sense.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” is showing in UK cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.