Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

2020 #29
Tim Miller | 128 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Spain & Hungary / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Terminator: Dark Fate

“I’ll be back,” the Terminator famously said in The Terminator, and he has been proven right — again and again. And again. This may be a franchise about time travel, but it’s us who seem to be stuck in some kind of time loop, because this is now the third attempt at creating a direct sequel to Terminator 2. For those keeping score, the first was literally titled Terminator 3; then there was TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which picked up from T2 (pretending T3 didn’t exist); and now this ignores them both. It also ignores the other attempts to keep the Terminator franchise alive: Salvation, which actually continued the storyline on from T3 (albeit with an entirely new cast); and Genisys, which attempted to be both a sequel and a reboot.

As well as being the third Terminator 3, Dark Fate is also the third attempt to start a new trilogy (Salvation and Genisys both arrived with such lofty plans), and is now the third to see those plans aborted after poor box office. Salvation made just $125.3 million at the US box office and $371.4 million worldwide — big numbers, but not when your movie cost $200 million. Hence starting again with Genisys — but that was an even bigger flop at the US box office, taking just $89.8 million. Worldwide, it took a respectable $440.6 million (more than Terminator 3, even), which, off a lower budget of $155 million, is pretty good. But US studios continue to struggle to see beyond their own borders, and so that trilogy was abandoned too.

Both of those movies tried something new for the franchise. Salvation took us into the Skynet-ruled future, something the previous movies had only had as a threat to be averted. Genisys played more with the idea of time travel, taking us back into the timeline of the first movie, but different. Now, Dark Fate explicitly wipes out previous continuity, beginning with a flashback that directly follows on from T2 but sets us on a new path, introducing new heroes and villains, alongside the return of the original Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton (who was written out of T3 and recast in Chronicles and Genisys). Surely that would solve the box office problem? No: it took $62.3 million in the US and just $261.1 million worldwide, the worst yet by any measure.

She be back

Box office is not indicative of quality, of course, but audience reception of Dark Fate hasn’t been any better than previous attempts to continue Terminating: if you look at IMDb scores, Dark Fate has 6.2 to Genisys’s 6.3, while Salvation has 6.5. None of them are stellar, but all are solid; and, with hindsight, suggest the producers should’ve just stuck it out with one of the previous versions. Indeed, I think trying to sell Dark Fate as “another restart” probably just put more people off. The Terminator franchise has become such a tangle of forgettable messes, aborted plans, and “this is a sequel to X but not Y”-type ventures that, for your average cinema-goer, it’s easier to just ignore it than engage with what counts and what doesn’t.

All of which is to review the film’s box office performance rather than the movie itself. But I’m more or less with IMDb voters on this one: the behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than the film itself. Not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s little more than a serviceable sci-fi action-adventure flick, hobbled somewhat by a palpable sense of desperation to emulate the cultural impact and success of Terminator 2. That’s the real reason none of these continuations have been allowed to stick: because none of them equalled T2. Such a goal is a hiding to nothing; a fight you stand almost no chance of winning. T2 is regarded as a Great Movie; a seminal entry in the sci-fi and action genres; influential and beloved. Thinking you can equal that is like making a gangster movie with the view that “if this isn’t regarded as at least equal to The Godfather, I have failed.” You’re setting yourself up to lose. In Terminator’s case, they’ve had that loss three times in a row, with ever-diminishing financial returns, to the point where anyone setting out to make Terminator 7 is going to be looked on as mad. What do you do with it now? You can’t reboot it again! But nor can you reasonably make a sequel to any previous version. They have, literally, killed the franchise. (Well, they probably haven’t — someone will almost inevitably continue it someday — but it’s going to be harder than ever to persuade anyone to finance that.)

He be back

Perhaps some form of spin-off will be seen as the next thing to try, but — spoilers! — that’s basically what Dark Fate tries to kickstart. Sure, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton are here, and the events of T2 are directly referenced and continued; but Skynet is no more and there’s a new war to fight. On the bright side, with a new future, a new threat, and an apparent aim to transition from old characters to new ones, it doesn’t feel stuck on the merry-go-round like the previous sequels did. It’s at least trying to move on in a (slightly) new direction, rather than just rehash the familiar. The problem (and it has been a big problem for some fans) is that by abandoning certain key tenets of the franchise (John Connor being the ‘Chosen One’; Skynet), it doesn’t feel so much like Terminator 3 as Terminator: The Next Generation. But, hey, that worked for Star Trek! After so many sequels that tried to find new angles to rework familiar bits and bobs, isn’t it about time someone tried something new, even if it’s in a very similar mould to what came before?

Well, it’s a moot point now, because Dark Fate Part 2 ain’t happening. We can only take some small measure of solace in the fact that it isn’t as open-ended as Genisys was; and that, whatever any other filmmaker tries and fails to achieve with this franchise, we’ll always have Terminator and T2.

3 out of 5

Terminator: Dark Fate is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D (1991/2017)

2018 #103
James Cameron | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D

When I’ve previously reviewed 3D versions of films I’d already seen in 2D, I haven’t given them a new number — so why did T2 3D merit one? Partly it’s a ‘feeling’ that comes from it not being the original version. Most of those other re-watches were films that had a 3D release concurrent with their 2D one, but T2’s is a years-later addition. Still, that’s a thin justification. More importantly, however, they chose to perform the 3D conversion on the film’s theatrical cut, which I’m 95% sure I’ve never seen. The extended Special Edition was first released in 1993, which is before I first saw the film, and some of the scenes that have most stuck in my memory are from the longer cut. Is it shorter enough, and therefore different enough, to warrant a new number? Not sure. But combine that with the new 3D and I thought, yeah, that’s pretty different all round.

The film itself… well, it’s an action/sci-fi classic, isn’t it? But I needed to rewatch it to remember how good it is — I left it off my 100 Favourites a couple of years ago because I decided it was on the long-list just because you’d expect it to be there; but, rewatching it, I realise I do agree with the consensus on its greatness. The most interesting ideas in T2 aren’t what it contributes to the series’ sci-fi mythology (though a liquid metal robot is pretty neat), but how it chooses to develop its characters. The T-800 now being a good guy is the obvious one, but check out the humans: sweet innocent Sarah Connor is now a hardened military-vet-type locked up in a mental institution where she rails against the system; and her son, destined to become the great leader of humanity, isn’t a hero in waiting but instead an irritating juvenile delinquent brat. It’s these extra dimensions, not just the sci-fi and the action, that make T2 such a great film.

“Get away from him, you bitch!” ...no, wait, wrong Cameron movie

That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that T1 has withstood the test of time better than T2. The original film is a grounded sci-fi thriller, its low budget working in its favour to emphasise those qualities: it’s fuelled by both big SF ideas and the grittiness of its present-day setting. T2, on the other hand, is pitched as an action-and-effects blockbuster — it was the first movie to cost more than $100 million (according to some reports, anyway) — but in that respect it’s been continuously surpassed by numerous other summer spectacles in the intervening decades. As I said, there are other reasons it endures, but I think on balance I might prefer the first movie.

And talking of preferences, I definitely prefer T2’s extended cut to the theatrical one. There are numerous nice grace notes added to the longer cut, but it really comes down to one scene: the sequence where they take the chip out of the T-800’s head and Sarah considers destroying it, which includes the famous mirror shot. For me that’s one of the most memorable scenes from the entire film. It’s both a good scene in its own right and it’s neatly mirrored in the ending, when the Terminator makes Sarah lower him into the molten steel. I’ve always found it an odd idea that it wasn’t always there, and I continue to feel that way. The film seems incomplete without it.

Now, the 3D… As you might expect from a genuine 3D advocate like Cameron, a lot of the effect is quite subtle — it’s aiming for realistic spacing, not an in-your-face exaggeration of depth. That kind of subtlety is arguably a reason a lot of people feel 3D adds little, because its benefit isn’t obvious. Heck, sometimes you don’t even notice it’s there. Ironically, that’s sometimes amongst the best 3D, but you might need a direct comparison with 2D to notice it. Put a good subtle-3D shot against its 2D counterpart and suddenly you’re aware of the natural awareness of shape and depth the extra dimension is adding. Now, T2 3D is not a prime example of this — it’s a film that was originally shot and designed for 2D, after all — but it does have moments that I think demonstrate that kind of effect. And, at other times, the 3D is much more obvious; mostly during big action set pieces, as you’d expect.

Oh, if he only knew how many times he'd be back...

The big downside is that they felt they had to apply a hefty dose of DNR before doing the 3D conversion. I’m sure there are reasons why film grain would get in the way of a conversion, but sometimes the DNR is too heavy-handed. It’s never at the level of the infamous Predator Blu-ray, where everyone looked like a slightly-melted waxwork, but there are times here when people seem to have been formed from smooth plastic rather than the natural pore-covered texture of real skin. How much this matters is a case of personal preference, but there were one or two times I did find it distracting — the meeting between Sarah and Dr Silberman, for instance, where the DNR has smoothed his skin so much that it looks like he’s been de-aged. If this was just on the 3D version then, hey-ho, that’s a side effect of the process, but I believe the same scrubbed version has been put out as the film’s official 4K restoration. That’s very disappointing.

So, this is in no way my preferred version of the movie; but it’s such a great film anyway, and this re-watch has reminded me of that, that it can be nothing but full marks.

5 out of 5

Terminator Genisys (2015)

2015 #185
Alan Taylor | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Terminator GenisysI liked Terminator Salvation. There, I said it. (I also said it in my review, so, y’know, not news.) Not many other people agreed, however, meaning plans for a new wave of Terminator films in its wake were abandoned. Fast-forward a few years, past a load of complex and dull rights wranglings, and we reach this: one of the biggest critical flops of 2015. It also flopped with audiences in the US, taking under $90 million, but fared better internationally, to the tune of $350 million — making it the franchise’s second highest grossing film, in fact. Nonetheless, perception has hewed closer to the critics’ take. Is that vitriol deserved?

The story begins in the future war against the machines, where an army of humans led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) storm a Skynet facility and find a time machine that has recently sent a Terminator back to 1984 to assassinate Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), before she’s given birth to John. Reese volunteers to go back and save her. Now, this is where the film leans on being the series’ fifth — we’re expecting him to land in the first film. And at first he does… until a T-1000 (the one that turns into metal from T2) turns up, and Sarah rocks up to save Reese — accompanied by an aged T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who arrived decades ago and has been protecting and training Sarah ever since.

At this point, some people will already be predisposed to hate the film. Why mess with a classic, etc. I can see where they’re coming from; at the same time, it’s an interesting idea. Time travel is a key part of the Terminator series, and John grows up with the knowledge that one day he will send Reese back to 1984 to save his mother — but what if Skynet knew that too? That would change what both John and the computer did, surely? What are the ramifications of that? (And even if you’re not interested, the original Terminator is still there — they’re not re-editing it or removing it from circulation or something — so if you don’t want it affected, that’s fine.)

Come with me if you want to meet some dragonsNow, a good idea doesn’t guarantee a good execution, and here is where we begin to encounter Genisys’ problems. Time travel is a tricksy thing to engage with in fiction, and is highly prone to creating plot holes — something blockbusters regularly struggle with anyway. Genisys has at least one glaring one. Then there’s the general level of quality — the screenplay, acting, effects, and so on. In this regard, I suspect the reason so many people reacted so badly to it is that it follows, and riffs off of, two of the greatest sci-fi/action movies ever made. In and of itself, Genisys is no worse than any of the other half-dozen-or-so middle-of-the-road $150-million-plus-budgeted blockbusters we’re routinely served every year now. If you instead compare it to its iconic forebears, however, it comes up much shorter.

I think one of the major problems is the direction. Marvel hired Alan Taylor for Thor 2 because of the perception that he knew how to handle fantasy thanks to Game of Thrones. That and because, as a TV director, he would’ve been cheap, and Marvel like their directors cheap (and consequently controllable). Clearly the success of Thor 2, such as it was, was parlayed into this big directing gig. I’m just not sure Taylor has the chops for it. The fight scenes are muddled, riddled with close-ups and too many cuts. Not a unique problem these days, of course, but after, what, a decade of that style being criticised, you’d think they’d’ve finally wised up. Nowadays it looks cheap. Most of the direction looks cheap. This is an expensive movie, with lots of practical stunt work, but it never looks it; and those stunts were mostly done on green screens or with the aid of wires here and there, so they’ve ended up CGI’d too. And the CGI looks surprisingly cheap. The Terminator films used to be right at the cutting edge of effects; now it’s just any old blockbuster.

Ex-TerminatorAnd yet the man who was responsible for those remarkable pictures, James Cameron, was impressed by it. He’s interviewed among the film’s special features, where he explains, “can I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it? No. I just know that I enjoyed the film, you know. But I strongly suspect that… you’re gonna love this movie.” Well, he was way wrong there! You almost feel a bit sorry for everyone in those special features, actually. They’re all so confident that Genisys is a great, well-made movie that everyone’s going to love, and they have big plans for a trilogy which they keep talking up. I would love to see their reactions after the reviews and box office figures came in…

So, Terminator Genisys is not a good movie… but I don’t really think it’s a bad one, either. It just sort of is. The action palaver is passable, the plot at times interesting, the developments and twists on the series’ history… well, your mileage will vary. It didn’t help anyone that they were in the trailer, but I’m not sure people would’ve reacted any better if it hadn’t been spoiled. Still, it shouldn’t’ve been spoiled. Stupid marketing people.

Could Terminator Genisys be a lot better? Definitely. Could it be worse? Definitely. I didn’t mind it.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Terminator Salvation: Director’s Cut (2009)

2010 #72
McG | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / R

Terminator Salvation begins with a title sequence that displays the film’s title twice. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but somehow it just doesn’t bode well.

However, I was somewhat surprised — after the mass of negative reviews — to discover that I quite liked Terminator Salvation. Sacrilege! But, let’s see if I can explain why…

I’ll begin with the most obvious potential flaw (other than the very concept of continuing the Terminator franchise without James Cameron, that is): director McG, he of the two risible Charlie’s Angels films. Oh dear. But it turns out he’s a surprisingly good director — he certainly does better work than the cheap hack job Jonathan Mostow made of Terminator 3. I doubt everyone agrees on this point, but whatever else you may wish to say about McG, he knows how to put an action sequence together. Most of the time. There’s still some shaky-cam business and very fast cuts, but the sense of geography and what’s actually happening is largely maintained.

This is helped by two things: one, that several sequences involve Giant Robots that benefit from very wide, often aerial, shots to show them off; and two, the apparent inspiration of Children of Men’s long-take action sequences. McG doesn’t quite have Alfonso Cuarón’s conviction in maintaining the single shot for an entire sequence, but he does use it for significant chunks. That said, the latter sometimes backfires. Early on the film feels a bit like watching someone else play a first person shooter, compounded by McG’s habit of sticking with one character throughout sequences that could benefit from a wider perspective, for example Connor’s helicopter crash. That said (again), I’m a little torn what to think of that example: keeping the camera on Connor produces an unusual spin on a potentially familiar sequence, but it’s also a bit disorientating and, as I say, compounds this sense of watching someone else play a game.

Story wise, I thought it fared fairly well. The tale of how John Connor came to meet Kyle Reese and become leader of the resistance wasn’t exactly begging to be told, but if you’re going to continue the franchise into post-Judgement Day future war territory it was probably the best place to start. Terminator 3 proved that the narrative of Arnie/any other Terminator coming back to our present to save Connor/prevent Judgement Day wasn’t in need of reheating again, so it’s also nice to be presented with a slightly more original story within the same universe.

It’s not all fine and dandy though: the behind-the-scenes issues you may have heard about are fitfully apparent on screen, with occasional awkward jumps or half-thought-out developments that smack of an unfinished script or compromised edit. Some of the dialogue’s pretty poor too — considering it starts off pleasantly economical, it’s a shame when characters begin uncomfortably stating the obvious as it wears on.

And even if you hadn’t seen it on the box or heard about it in all the film’s publicity, it’s obvious pretty early on that Marcus Wright will turn out to be a Terminator. To McG’s credit, he plays the ultimate reveal quite well — for those who know, it just about functions as a scene in its own right; for those who still hadn’t guessed, it works as a reveal — but if any filmmaker genuinely thought they’d kept it covered up they were sorely mistaken, and the first half could’ve done with a more knowing rewrite to compensate. Or just delete the prologue.

Littered throughout are numerous nods to the franchise’s history, some of which occur quite naturally, others that feel shoehorned in. I suppose it kept some people happy. The same can be said of the action sequences, though one of the most forced — an attack by a random Giant Robot on an abandoned gas station our heroes only happen to have stopped at — also turns out to be one of the best. Others though, like John Connor taking out a Moto-Terminator with a bit of rope, are more “wouldn’t that be cool to see?” than logical behaviour in the context of the story.

There’s not much for the cast to do either, with a multi-pronged story that leaves everyone feeling short changed. Christian Bale growls a bit and occasionally looks Meaningful as John Connor. At least he doesn’t use his Batman voice. His part was artificially boosted following the star’s casting, which dilutes the focus from where it should be: Marcus Wright, played by the new Colin Farrell (i.e. he’s being cast in everything based on the fact someone said he was The Next Big Thing), Sam Worthington. He’s fine as ever, though his accent seems to waver between American and his native Australian. The same can’t be said of Helena Bonham Carter’s brief turn — her voice hits a constant fake American. Meanwhile, Arnie’s digitised cameo is just that. On the one hand it’s a nice touch, on the other it’s ultimately pointless — Connor doesn’t even react to the familiar face.

Bryce Dallas Howard is severely underused as Kate Connor; one wonders if her part was massively cut back at some point, or if she was just tempted by an exceptionally good payday — considering she usually appears in smaller, better-regarded films, an almost non-existent role in a blockbuster seems an odd choice. That said, she did the same thing in Spider-Man 3 and has since plumped for a role in the Twilight exploitative moneymaker series, so I guess my analysis of her career choices is off.

Finally, then, what of the Director’s Cut? I’ve not seen the theatrical so can’t comment myself, but the changes are few and most are ultimately insignificant. There’s a thorough, illustrated list here. Perhaps the most interesting thing (and you’ll see how I meant that loosely) about the newer cut is what it once again shows about the differences between the UK and the US: over here, it retained its theatrical 12 certificate when extended by just under three minutes to include ever-so-slightly more violence and the briefest of brief nudity; in the US, that bumped it up to an R.

More interesting than these slight tweaks is the behind-the-scenes story of a very different film, which I alluded to earlier. I don’t want to discuss it at length, but this article does. Would that have made for a better film? Christ knows. I wouldn’t count on it. Probably not, even. But it is interesting.

It’s not popular to like Terminator Salvation, that’s for certain, and I suppose it depends what you expect from the film. Is it the equal of the first two genre-definers? No. Is it better than the rehashed hack-directed third? Yes. Did I actually enjoy it? You know what, I did; and considering the reviews had me expecting to hate its poorly-made guts for just about every reason under the sun, it turns out that’s a good result.

3 out of 5

Terminator Salvation begins on Sky Movies Premiere today at 10am and 8pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 9th September.