Apparently not all jobs outsourced by James Cameron are created equal. Earlier this year, we saw Alita: Battle Angel, his collaboration with director Robert Rodriguez. The hands-on approach of both filmmakers seemed to bring out the best in each, with Rodriguez’s slick camera work and knack for creating chemistry between characters enhancing Cameron’s boundary-pushing special effects and deeply humanistic undertones.
The same lightning did not strike during Terminator: Dark Fate, touted as the series reclaiming its greatness by following T2 and ignoring everything else. The desperation for credibility is right there on the poster: “James Cameron Returns,” with director Tim Miller (Deadpool) getting second billing. Cameron is listed as producer and is one of six credited writers; yes, he’s technically back, but we see little of him in the finished project. For the first time in decades, the story of Terminator is about something more than the minutiae of its own lore, but every new idea gets buried under weightless callbacks, dizzying action, and hollow noise.
Terminator: Dark Fate
R, 134 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema
In an alternate timeline, a previously undetected T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) succeeds in killing John Connor shortly after Skynet has been successfully destroyed. For decades since, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been killing any Terminators that find their way back. Today, a different future produces a new model known as the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and an augmented human soldier, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), fighting over the fate of Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), an unsuspecting woman who finds herself responsible for human society the same way Sarah did in 1984.
Like many of the great science fiction storytellers, Cameron uses the genre to explore more than cool robots, futuristic warfare, and pretty alien worlds (though there are plenty of those). The first Terminator forced a young Sarah Connor, living her regular life, to carry the weight of the world and do it thanklessly, while navigating the paradox of what it means to fulfill a destiny that is uncertain. T2 examined what makes us human, and whether our self-destructive urges can be altered or reprogrammed. Dark Fate teases at deeper meanings, both personal and political. Both Sarah and the T-800 lost their purpose when Skynet was destroyed and John was killed; once you lose your purpose, the past doesn’t disappear and the future remains unwritten, so either find a new one or adapt.
Politically, Cameron’s touch can be detected in jabs at systemic racism and the exploitation of public trust as a means to circumvent laws and regulations. All Rev-9 has to do is claim a service role, wear a badge, and talk prayer, and he can get through metal detectors and the cops overlook irregularities. A scene in which Grace opens the cages of people rounded up by border control might even elicit some cheers.
Of course, this all amounts to a positive review of Cameron’s involvement in what is otherwise a normal-to-bad movie. Sarah’s triumphant return to the screen is diminished when she says, unprompted, “I’ll be back.” The villain looks cool but is just not scary. The cast is dedicated but their interactions are undercut at every opportunity, and what might have been memorable sequences are slashed to hell with reckless editing. T2 wasn’t just about robots, it also pushed the genre forward visually and technically, so it’s a fair expectation that a direct sequel might at least try to look good. If you insist on comparing Dark Fate to the other sequels, sure, it’s better, but it’s like trying to decide between a Quarter Pounder and a Double Quarter Pounder when a Kobe beef steak is on the menu.
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.
See it again
The Godfather Part II
R, 210 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
November 10, 12