By Ross McIndoe
In The Terminator (1984), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s murderous cyborg is frightening because he’s huge, strong, and seemingly indestructible. But also, the impassive face behind those famous shades holds no hope of empathy, mercy, or concession. He is not human. He is a machine, following directives and terminating targets.
While, for as far as I can tell, machines of the last 35 years have not been trying to murder us, the fear that The Terminator instills speaks to the trouble of human-machine relations. . A machine’s blankness is maddening, the complete inability to make this thing understand our problem. Even under the veneer of a placid human voice, there’s nothing quite so dehumanizing as having to repeat “Take me to IHOP” for the fifth time to your virtual assistant. As we automate more and more of the world, these problems will potentially blossom into problems with far more dire consequences.. We place power into the hands of systems, which are only capable of working along preordained pathways, and then we hope to god we built those pathways cleverly enough.
The Terminator plays on this sense of unease with a world in which technology is playing an increasingly prevalent role in day-to-day life, filtering the idea through from its earliest scenes.
The franchise’s second film, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), managed the near impossible feat of exceeding an excellent original. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and the Governator’s towering android were both re-molded before our eyes into a rugged survivalist and a lumbering bodyguard. The future which had been stopped in the first movie had found a way to resume its course. Fate proved as fluid and yet inevitable as the T-1000.
Since then, sequel after sequel has struggled to recreate the original. Tooling around on the surface, each new entry repurposed the one-liners, basic plotlines, and central characters of the original. They used the same blueprints and created a skin-level impression of the original, but failed to account for what was going on underneath.
When Roger Ebert reviewed Terminator: Salvation, he compared it to Judgement Day which was “a fairly terrific movie” and specifically notes that “it was about something.” Aside from any other problems it might have had, Salvation simply wasn’t.
The new film, Terminator: Dark Fate, also follows the same basic procedure as the original. A shiny new Terminator (the Rev-9, played by Gabriel Luna) has been sent back to take out an unsuspecting woman (Dani, played by Natalia Reyes), and a soldier from the future (Mackenzie Davis) has been sent to protect her. However, it also makes a serious attempt to reconnect to the angst which flows beneath the surface of the eighties classic. It tries to be about something.
As more or less a horror movie, The Terminator is mostly about fear. Fear of the bulking killer robot, sure, but also of something more than that. Regardless of who the villain is, for just about any movie to effectively evoke a sense of dread, it has to tap into something wired deeper into our brains.
In a goofy early moment, Sarah ends up on the receiving end of a salacious phone call because her roommate’s boyfriend can’t tell their voices apart over the phone. When the phone goes again later and is ignored, the words “Fooled you, you’re talking to a machine!” cheerfully ring out from the answering machine.
A sly bit of foreshadowing, the message doesn’t just nod to the talking machine that will soon be blasting its way through the apartment. Communication technology, even in the eighties, was distancing us from one another, changing the way we communicate to make it more convenient but less secure. We recognize a voice on the phone and assume that the person on the other end is who we think they are, though our only confirmation of this is the sounds emitted from an electronic speaker.
The Terminator uses this to his advantage, speaking over the police scanner in the voice of a cop to find out where Sarah is and using the voice of her mother to draw her out of hiding. When Sarah first realizes that she is in danger, she tries to call for help, only to be held up by busted phones and busy lines.
While the cyborg tosses her boyfriend around the apartment, her roommate is plugged into a Walkman. The comforts of modernity lure her into cutting off a vital sense, overriding her most deeply hard-wired survival instincts and leaving her blind to the approaching predator.
All through the Terminator’s pursuit, he takes advantage of the ways in which modern life and particularly modern technology have made us trusting, unobservant, and vulnerable. In thirty years time, those same qualities will see us hand over the nuclear codes to a computer, sealing our own fate.
Dark Fate clearly realizes that this is a fear which has only become more relevant and terrifying in the intervening decades and adjusts its bad guy accordingly.
The new Terminator fuses the liquid-metal of the second film’s T-1000 to a rigid endoskeleton, creating a best-of-both worlds murderbot. But that’s not his only upgrade. While Arnie had to hunt using names in a phonebook, the new machine is equipped for the information age, scanning the internet to track his target’s digital footprints, hacking into security cameras and drones to find her wherever she goes.
Everywhere we go, we carry devices with microphones and cameras to monitor us. We punch in our bank details, the names of our friends and family. We let GPS track us wherever we go, and then we keep the device online, ensuring that all of this information is sent drifting off through the internet’s invisible highways.When Sarah Connor grimaces her way back into the story, she is quick to point out what easy prey we’ve made of ourselves. We have made it almost impossible for us to run or hide, laid the perfect hunting ground for our future predators. We crafted a world-wide web, and the Rev-9 will use it to entangle his prey.
It’s a brilliant update on the original, playing to the same fear, but perfectly tailored to a modern climate in which it is even more effective. Sadly, it is not handled quite as deftly.
While The Terminator seeds its technophobia theme through its imagery and narrative from the beginning, Dark Fate is a little more muddled.
As a viewer, we needed to be given a sense of how Dani is made constantly visible by her internet age lifestyle. A login here, a GPS device and a camera lens there. Even before she is being hunted, we have to feel like she is being watched.
Instead, the movie basically picks up the idea around its middle third and drops it again for the final one. Some gruff exposition by Sarah Connor lays it out and makes sure the whole idea stops on the surface of the film’s text.
There is an especially silly moment in which the Rev-9 connects to the internet by travelling to a big room full of servers and physically grabbing hold of a bunch of wires. Daft moments don’t ruin big blockbuster movies, but this particular bit of silly hints at a deeper problem: that Dark Fate doesn’t have a full handle on how to do a digital age killing machine.
In 2019, someone can clear out your bank account, spy on you, steal your identity, jeopardize your career, or ruin your relationship from a different continent. Nothing physical needs to happen, they can reach out across the digital plane and wreak havoc on your life. The thing that should make this predator so terrifying is the fact that he is tracking you through thin air, connected across an invisible dimension to the whole world. He is everywhere, all the time, and he can always see you. In a teched up world like ours, the whole environment belongs to him.
What I’m saying is, he really shouldn’t have to break into a server room anymore than Cambridge Analytica needs to break into your mailbox..
There are several things that made the villains from the first two Terminator movies so effective: excellent, idiosyncratic performances, carefully paced plots, and well-constructed action sequences. But they also benefited hugely from the fact that their films never lost sight of what made them frightening to begin with.
By the time our heroes are showering their foe in bullets in a CGI extravaganza that crashes through all three theaters of war, it feels like any handle on this has been pretty well lost.
At that point, the film becomes just another generic blockbuster skeleton with a Terminator skin fitted over it. The Rev-9 no longer jacks in to any kind of deeper anxiety.
Which is a shame because it could have been terrifying. We’ve all become aware that the tech which fills our lives is almost certainly spying on us, that none of the information stored on it is very safe, and that there’s little we can do about any of it.
With a slightly clearer vision, the Rev-9 could have been the liquid-metal manifestation of this fear.
Dark Fate has a lot going for it. Davis and Linda Hamilton are individually excellent, and their chemistry makes the time spent with them as enjoyable as any of the fight scenes (just like in the original). It’s also got some really well choreographed (if effects-heavy and messily edited) actions sequences, and the update Schwarzenegger provides on his iconic character makes for one of the most enjoyable performances he has ever given.
Lots of the parts are good, but the sum of it doesn’t stand up as well, largely because it lacks the thematic spine of the original to build them on to.
Dark Fate is far and away the best Terminator movie that has been made since Judgement Day, in part because the intervening entries have been fairly dismal, but also because it really does try to be about something.