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.

Deadpool (2016)

2016 #107
Tim Miller | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In the US Deadpool was, famously, rated R — which (for those not up on their international film certificates) ostensibly means you have to be over 17 to see it. In the UK it was rated 15, which is much more appropriate, because if Deadpool had a mind it would be that of a 15-year-old boy. Of course, plenty of grown men also have the mind of a 15-year-old boy, and that’s why it’s the highest-grossing R-rated movie (worldwide) ever. And I guess I must still have the mind of someone half my age too, because I loved it.

Spinning off from the X-Men series (more on that later), Deadpool is the story of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a former mercenary who falls in love with Manic Pixie Geek Wet Dream Girl Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) before being diagnosed with aggressive cancer. He agrees to radical treatment in an attempt to cure it and be with Vanessa forever ‘n’ that. The treatment drives him pretty much insane, but also ignites his mutant genes, which give him the power of self-healing (like that other mutant whose name rhymes with Polverine…) Permanently scarred and feeling like he can’t return to Vanessa, Mr Pool sets out for revenge.

Yeah, it’s a pretty standard superhero origin plot. But the devil is in the details, and it’s how Deadpool tells its story that matters — the narrative is just a framework on which to hang the gags. The immediate point of comparison on a superhero comedy is surely Kick-Ass, and it doesn’t take deep analysis to see that Deadpool isn’t as subversive as that movie. Where Kick-Ass comments on, at times even deconstructs, the superhero genre, Deadpool takes its rules as a given and throws a shedload of humour on top of it. Is that a problem? It depends what you’re looking for. I think Deadpool’s makers set out to make a superhero film that was genre-aware and prepared to take the piss out of that, but I don’t think they were aiming to deconstruct superhero narratives. It might make Deadpool a less ‘intelligent’ movie than Kick-Ass, but it doesn’t stop it being entertaining.

That doesn’t mean Deadpool’s makers are short on cleverness, though. The film’s structure is particularly nifty: it gets right into the action, then mixes the back story in as it goes on. This avoids either, (a) boring stretches while we wait for the hero to turn up, or (b) shoehorning in fight sequences where they don’t belong just so that the action quotient is met upfront. Plus it allows for a few transitioning gags and flashback humour, which I’m not sure we’ve seen since Fight Club. It’s well-paced too, the story positively flying by. This may be somewhere else the familiar shape of the story works in its favour — we know where this is all going, so it doesn’t need to dwell on plot details. No one’s really here for the plot, so why not?

The jokey opening credits say that the writers are “the real heroes here”, the joke being they wrote the credits so of course they’d call themselves the heroes. But it’s also true. I mean no disservice to the producers who persuaded the studio to greenlight it, or director Tim Miller’s handling of the material, or Reynolds embodying the character so well — they’ve all undoubtedly contributed enormously to the film’s success (and I’m sure there’s a ton of improvisation in the final cut, so even more so) — but a lot of what makes the film really work, in a way that goes beyond just “it had some funny bits and some cool action”, is that structure, that pace, those gags… which, as just discussed, can well have come from the cast and director, and editors and stuff, too. So what I’m basically saying is: everyone’s a winner! Yay!

So what of that humour? It’s an R-rated action-comedy, you know what to expect: Swearing! Crudeness! Nudity! Throwing in four-letter words and assuming that counts as a joke! Well, Deadpool does have swearing and crudeness, but it’s not so completely mindless about it. It has violence and nudity, too, just like the good old days of R-rated action movies. But it doesn’t resort to throwing any of those in for cheap humour — they’re there because they are there and can be there, not as a get-out-of-actually-coming-up-with-gags card. Most R-rated comedies these days factor somewhere on a scale of “saying a rude word just to get a laugh”, that scale stretching from “just doing it once or twice” to “all the ‘humour’ in the film”. Such words are thrown around liberally here, but if there was an occasion where that was substituted for an actual gag then it didn’t stick in my mind. That doesn’t mean it isn’t crude, or using Rude Things for laughs, but it’s not just going, “I said the F word, at a time when I shouldn’t say the F word — isn’t that funny?!”

There’s one particular type of humour that Deadpool is most famous for, of course. From the self-parodying, Honest Trailer-inspired opening credits, to the Ferris Bueller-referencing, Marvel pillorying post-credits scene, Deadpool less breaks the fourth wall, more obliterates it, then stomps on the rubble until it’s in little tiny pieces, then grinds those under its shoe until they are dust, then snorts that dust and digests it, then… well, y’know. The film handles this really well: it’s not a non-stop commentary, but it’s also not isolated off in little clumps, like, “this had to be here but it’s kinda awkward to have him always talking to the audience”. It’s often used for irreverence, and I like a bit of irreverence. There are clearly some rules and/or considered choices with this fourth-wall breaking, though. In his commentary on the deleted scenes, Miller says that Reynolds kept wanting to pull the boom mic down from out of frame and use it to batter one of the villains, or something along those lines, but Miller thought this would be breaking the film’s rules. That’s a pretty fine line to tread — knowing he’s in a film, but not, like, using the fact he’s in a film… I guess it’s more of a “what feels right” set of choices than a little rulebook.

One of my favourite little fourth-wall breaks is Deadpool’s one-liner when he’s dragged off to meet Professor X, which brings me somewhat neatly to the film’s relationship to its franchise mothership. I think I’d assumed it would be kind of subtle about the fact it’s technically an X-Men movie, even though everyone knows Deadpool was in X-Men Origins and this co-stars Colossus who’s been in several X-Mens at this point. That expectation was cemented by the number of reviews/blog posts/etc that have continued to refer to Apocalypse as the 8th X-movie. But no: within ten minutes we have a scene explicitly set at Xavier’s School, and Colossus has dialogue about Deadpool refusing to join the X-Men. References and connections to the X-Men are too numerous to count from then on out. This isn’t a movie hiding away its connections as a technicality only comic book fans will know about, which is something the main X-franchise has arguably done at times (though Apocalypse marks a distinct change in that, explicitly making Cyclops and Havok brothers, and stating that Magneto is Quicksilver’s dad… but I digress).

One of the film’s best bits comes courtesy of that X-connection: stroppy teenage goth mutant Negasonic Teenage Warhead (excellent newcomer Brianna Hildebrand), and her immensely comic-faithful costume. Ironically, it’s not at all faithful to how NTW is portrayed in the comics (and you can find dozens of think-pieces about how the film changed her character and how that’s more than OK, if you’re so inclined), but it is generally like X-Men comic costumes, certainly ones that cropped up in the early ’00s. (I swear there was a Frank Quitely New X-Men cover showing a bald female in a costume really like NTW’s yellow-and-black X-Men uniform, but I can’t find it now. Maybe I imagined it.) Comic-faithful costumes are very much the MO of Marvel movies nowadays, but because the X-Men film franchise sprung from the “how do we make superheroes acceptable in movies?” period of the genre, the X-movies have never really done that before (though they do sort of, in passing, at the end of Apocalypse — I’m beginning to think we’re one day going to look back at that as a transition movie, assuming the next one goes super comic-book-y). I mean, this doesn’t really signify anything about Deadpool, I’ve just gone off on a geeky tangent.

Deadpool does have flaws, and other reviews have certainly pointed them out: it’s not always hilarious (well, how many comedies are?), it’s another origin story (I believe I mentioned this one), it mocks superhero tropes but ticks most of the same boxes (ooh, I did that one too!), it has a somewhat low-rent feel… which, actually, I don’t get. I mean, it cost $58 million — a sliver of the budget of most blockbusters nowadays, but only slightly less than Jurassic Park cost (20 years ago), and 33% more than Serenity cost (10 years ago). It actually looked bigger-budgeted than I was expecting. The action sequences are really good, for one thing. If it feels small compared to other blockbusters, that’s just a complaint brought about by too much money being spent on movies nowadays — go watch a Big Budget Blockbuster from the ’80s or ’90s and you might be surprised how low-key half of them are. Tsk, young(er-than-me) people.

Speaking of which, I do feel like I should be mature enough to have grown out of loving Deadpool… buuuut tough. It’s fantastic fun. Though, it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up to re-watches. I’ve read reviews which point out it doesn’t have the substance underneath the jokes that Kick-Ass does (did I mention that already? I didn’t steal that point from someone else, nope, noooo sir), so while Matthew Vaughn’s film is completely enjoyable on multiple go-rounds, any enjoyment to be found in Deadpool will ultimately fade once the novelty has gone. I mean, that’s possible — literally, only time will tell — but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a “first time is definitely the best” movie, if that first time is good enough. Heck, The Game made it into my 100 Favourites with exactly that experience.

Anyway, until I do re-watch it, I really enjoyed it. How much?

5 out of 5

That much.

Deadpool is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 8th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.