Terminator: Dark Fate rebirths a franchise in molten feminist form

Movie review: Terminator: Dark Fate

The saga of Sarah Connor picks up in the present day, where the robot apocalypse remains a looming threat, but the unbridled power of fearless women proves too potent to crush.

Terminator: Dark Fate

4/5

Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Luna

Directed by: Tim Miller

Running time: 2 hrs 8 mins

Rating: Restricted

Opening Wide November 1, 2019

By Katherine Monk

We’re just a decade away from the end of the world as we know it, at least according to pop culture prophecy. In James Cameron’s Terminator gospels, first issued in the portentous year  1984, the Earth was an ashtray by 2029 — a smoking, post-apocalyptic ruin laid to waste by intelligent machines who saw humans as inferior and disposable.

Humanity’s only hope was Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a woman who would give birth to a son named John, who in turn would lead a successful resistance movement against the machines and the evil SkyNet. Sarah didn’t know she was the modern mother Mary until she found herself chased by multiple robotic assassins from the future, all of which made that first Terminator voyage so compelling. None of us knew what would happen, or how it would all end.

In the years since, it seems we’ve played out practically every possible scenario through multiple Terminator movies and TV shows, draining the franchise of its originality, its ability to surprise, and more importantly, turning the key characters into two-dimensional reference points in a sprawling, profit-driven universe powered by licences and sales more than the creative urge.

As a cultural icon who carved out a place for women in action movies, the character of Sarah Connor deserved continued attention, but by the time T2: Judgment Day came around in 1991, the story wasn’t as much about Sarah’s survival as it was a meditation on the problems of “the white man.”

In his essay Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster (printed in the Oxford History of Cinema), Joseph Sartelle argues T2 belongs to the era of “the modern blockbuster” — a time when traditional Hollywood genres started to morph, combine and hybridize with the addition of computer-generated effects. “It is a period marked by a unusually strong and self-conscious convergence between American popular culture, especially in Hollywood movies, and American political culture,” Sartelle writes.

As a cultural icon who carved out a place for women in action movies, the character of Sarah Connor deserved continued attention, but by the time T2: Judgment Day came around in 1991, the story wasn’t as much about Sarah’s survival as it was a meditation on the problems of “the white man.”

“The most highly successful and broadly popular movies of this era are best understood as ideological fantasies about the relationship of the American nation to the realities and implications of its own recent history…. In all of these movies, we were meant to understand that the success of the white male hero lies in his capacity to have faith in his own abilities…. or what Reagan’s favourite economist George Gilder called ‘the necessity of faith’.”

In the pop lexicon, this ‘believe in yourself’ white male faith translated into “Feel The Force.” T2: Judgment Day seemed to reaffirm the idea of a chosen one through the future saviour, John Connor, even as it featured two potent white males tearing each other apart, limb by limb. We believed in John Connor, even though we were forced to question the idea of destiny at the same time, since time travel could easily alter the future.

That’s where Dark Fate finds its entry door: in our assumptions of what will be, and our faith in the prophesied saviour.

Beginning in the present day, we watch a familiar electric orb appear in Mexico, and out pops a naked human — or something that appears human. We’ve seen this before, Arnold Schwarzenegger as reborn Adam emerging from the ether, looking for clothes in a biker bar. This time around, it’s Vancouver glamazon Mackenzie Davis as an enhanced human warrior named Grace, sent back from the future to safeguard against another apocalypse triggered by intelligent machines.

That’s where Dark Fate finds its entry door: in our assumptions of what will be, and our faith in the prophesied saviour.

Shorty after Grace gets some clothes and kicks some cans, we watch another lightning bubble appear. A masculine form appears, but he soon morphs into a weaponized black blob, a shape-shifting Terminator clearly out to destroy a target. The only question is which one? Who is going to suffer the interminable harassment of a lethal machine capable of perfect camouflage and Swiss Army knife limbs?

It’s not the traditional Hollywood hero, or even a pint-sized Terminator movie standby. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is just an ordinary woman doing what she can to help her family carry out the daily grind in Mexico. She’s involved in workers’ rights, but she’s never seen herself as an activist, let alone a latter-day messiah, so when Grace declares she’s been sent back to protect Dani, we have to recalculate the franchise GPS.

We also have to make room for Sarah Connor, who reappears at a crucial time, and offers her own take on the situation: “It’s about your womb!” she tells Dani with unmasked bitterness. Sarah has been conditioned to believe her only purpose was to give birth to John, and her only worth was therefore anchored in her reproductive organs.

Hamilton’s hard-edged expressions here are priceless, because she communicates a simmering rage stopped by personal ambivalence. Sarah Connor sacrificed everything to change the world, and now that’s it’s all screwed up again, she’s just pissed off.

It’s a feeling just about any one can relate to, but it’s especially near and dear to the female psyche because after men make war and destroy the world, it’s up to women to gather the bricks and rebuild. Women are the ones left behind to clean up the mess, and that’s exactly what we end up watching in this refreshed Terminator franchise as Grace, Dani and Sarah power up their appliances and start mopping up after the human race.

It’s a feeling just about any one can relate to, but it’s especially near and dear to the female psyche because after men make war and destroy the world, it’s up to women to gather the bricks and rebuild.

We can give a bit of the credit to James Cameron, who inevitably brings a slice of Canadian social justice and human diversity to every project, but the female focus in Dark Fate feels closely linked to this particular moment in time.

It’s more than a nod to #MeToo or a response to recent encroachments on reproductive rights. Dark Fate actually gives women ownership of their own destinies by “augmenting” their physical capacities with technology, but more importantly, accessing and enhancing their human capacity for love.

Sure, it all collapses into a pile of sizzling schmaltz by the final frames, but how better to defeat an amorphous black blob of evil? Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t reinvent the war between humans and machines, but by inflecting the whole film with a feminine world view, it exploits a new power surge coursing through the body politic as the whiney problems of the “white male” are drowned out by a chorus of multiculturalism and the siren calls for gender equity.

@katherinemonk

Main image (above): Mackenzie Davis as Grace and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate, courtesy of Skydance, Paramount. Photo by Kerry Brown.
THE EX-PRESS, November 1, 2019

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Review: Terminator - Dark Fate

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Sure, it all collapses into a pile of sizzling schmaltz by the final frames, but how better to defeat an amorphous black blob of evil? Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t reinvent the war between humans and machines, but by inflecting the whole film with a feminine world view, it exploits a new power surge coursing through the body politic as the whiney problems of the “white male” are drowned out by a chorus of multiculturalism and the siren calls for gender equity.-- Katherine Monk

1 Reply to "Terminator: Dark Fate rebirths a franchise in molten feminist form"

  • Wally November 12, 2019 (9:27 am)

    You say it was the men who “make war and destroy the world”? The way I see it, the future is going to be feminists who make war and destroy the world, while the men just want to be left alone instead of blamed for the entire set of human history. When defending ourselves with speech equates to “whiney problems of the white male”, the only thing you encourage is verbal abuse and prejudice against men instead of trying to understand why they have a point of view that differs from your own. You might be surprised to find out that when you spit venom at someone, they are more likely to retaliate than if you were to rationalize with them and try to reach common ground. You want equality? Well guess what, so does the majority of the US population including men. If you want to pick a fight with someone, aim for the right targets. The corporate overlords that run the world. Most of them are white males, yes, but that doesn’t make the rest of us like them… We suffer under their thumb as well. I guarantee you Skynet wasn’t born from some malicious white male that wanted to inflate his own ego. There was money involved somewhere. There always is. Greed is the real evil.

    Also, you may not want to use the term “siren call” to represent a good thing. None of the interpretations are favorable unless you are calling for bad results or the deaths of many men. The latter of which would be rather extreme.

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