Saturday, November 02, 2019

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron) was the first R-rated movie I saw in the theater. It’s also the last movie I saw where I suspended disbelief. I was wholly immersed in its world and believed what I was seeing.

All of the sequels after T2 are garbage. Is it because Cameron left? Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow) attempts to replicate T2, except the T-1000 is a blonde woman—it doesn’t work. Terminator Salvation (2009, McG) is set in the Skynet resistance—it’s kinda cool, sucks the least of them. Then there’s Terminator Genisys (2015, Alan Taylor), which is so overly convoluted and silly it feels like an episode of Rick and Morty without the edginess though and messier.

Was Terminator 3 the first sequel to overtly copy its predecessor? I’ve only began to think about this recently, having considered both Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams) and Halloween (2018, David Gordon Green) as examples.

T2 is the movie that inaugurated the modern age of big budget vfx. And not only does it still hold its own, but I think it’s one of the best movies of the nineties; and maybe one of the best action movies of all time. And if I’ll just cite a couple of key factors, first, there’s JOHN CONNOR (Edward Furlong) and his delinquent pal rebelling and having so much fun. (By the way that pal is played by Danny Cooksey, who I knew at the time as BOBBY BUDNICK, star of Nickelodeon’s teen summercamp comedy Salute Your Shorts. Like in T2, Budnick sports the same red mullet, but also plays something like a teen version of Problem Child, another favorite of my little brother and I’s.) John wears a Public Enemy t-shirt, owns a dirtbike, robs atm’s, and spends all his time at an arcade in the galleria.

The other factor is how dark and violent T2 is, and still, the subsequent sequels pale in comparison. Particularly the opening scenes of the apocalypse and seeing all the innocent children turned to ashes, along with similar images recurring later in SARAH CONNOR’S nightmares. That opening sequence explodes from idyllic tranquility into that war-torn future beginning with the metal terminator skeleton crushing a human skull under its step, followed by intense pulsing electronic ominous score and lasers blasting with giant airships menacing overhead.

James Cameron returns as producer for Terminator: Dark Fate (2019, Tim Miller). So, whatta we got workin’ in this one? For starters, the opening, in rough degraded video images over the Paramount logo is Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) speech from T2: “You know the dream's the same every night. Children look like burnt paper. Black. Not moving. And then the blast wave hits them. And they fly apart like leaves. It's not a dream, you moron. It's real. I know the date it happens. On August 29, 1997 it's gonna feel pretty fucking real to you too! Anybody not wearing two-million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day. Get it? You think you're saving a life? You're already dead, everybody, him, you, you're dead already. This whole place, everything you see is gone. You're the one living in a fucking dream, Silberman. Cause I know it happens. It happens.”

And as early as possible, devastating depictions of mass human extermination fill the screen. These images are followed by the metal terminator skeletons with laser rifles invading. So, we’re off to a good start here. (Notice the T2 font is back.) Then we see the iconic staple of the franchise, a naked figure that appears human, in a light sphere arriving from the future. This time it’s an androgynous blonde woman. And another trend in modern movies that’s as prevalent as vfx is the physical appearance of stars after months of intense working out to look excessively fit, which Mackenzie Davis exhibits Cameron style for most of the movie: in a tight tank top.

Something else common to the franchise is a good terminator and a bad terminator; or a protector and an attacker. Both are concerned with the same target. And in Terminator: Dark Fate it seems they’ve decided to pander to the four quadrant bullseye because the primary cast features old characters, Mexican characters, young characters, and a badass teen dykes can root for. It’s 2019, why not, right?

The action is there. The pace is as relentless as T2. And Sarah Connor is as salty and cynical as ever. In contrast to the other sequels, this installment is way better, but is it a true return to form? Sadly, I doubt any sequel can be as good as the first two. Terminator: Dark Fate has a danger that the other sequels lacked, which also made me think it might live up to its expectations. And I realize this might make me sound like a homicidal maniac, but another thing I think the sequels missed was innocent civilian casualties. Terminator: Dark Fate realizes this, and by including scenes with this type of violence the tone is indeed darkened. A key example is when GRACE (Davis) escapes custody in the detention center and the way she assaults the law enforcement officers is something that I think audiences cheer for, with a disavowal of moral guilt because she’s the hero. Like when she asks that woman for directions then slaps her down and knocks her on the floor. Is that funny? I laughed, hard.

Yet while Terminator: Dark Fate manages to have a dark tone it still isn't as bleak as the ones directed by Cameron. Take the good guys for example. In Terminator: Dark Fate, the Mexican family is squeaky clean, functioning as one big happy loving whole with jobs, passions, bright futures. But T2 opens with John Connor stuck in a foster home life with no love (Xander Berkeley is great as TODD), and his mother is incarcerated without hope of parole.

I think it might be due to Cameron that the level of detail involving the Mexican border, and all of the military bases, choppers, airplanes, and vehicles is included. It definitely feels like it’s all been researched by someone who really knows about all this stuff. And the Mexican take on this franchise recalls the scenes in T2 when Sarah takes refuge there with her friend ENRIQUE’S family in Baja. But as someone born and raised in Texas (and one of those people who are proud of it), and being half Mexican, I got a huge kick out of Terminator: Dark Fate. A nice touch is the way the Mexican terminator assimilates his voice to a Texas accent once they get to Texas. Even the words he uses are authentic.

So, I regret to say Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t the second coming or anything. But it’s got amazing action, pacing, and everything is riveting and holds you in. (And it updates the biblical undertones by replacing Cyberdyne with Legion i.e. an army of demonic forces.) It just feels like it followed the recipe of the first two close enough yet somehow there's still something off about the way it tastes.

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