Terminator: Dark Fate — As franchise's possibilities diminish, its continued future requires infusion of imagination
Schwarzenegger may be the best thing about Terminator: Dark Fate but it is still difficult to identify with him. It is the human element that the earliest films had — apart from their inventiveness — that is missing here and that’s a huge loss.
It is evident that the Terminator franchise, while evidently depleting in interest, still retains enough both for the public and its creators.
Its future success, however, would necessitate the involvement of people with imagination.
As it is, this latest addition to the series is virtually devoid of any creative spark; it is all sound and fury.
'Science Fiction' (SF) is a term often misused in relation to cinema; all films that use vaguely scientific notions cannot be justly subsumed under it. As instances, Spielberg’s ET (1982) is simply a humanistic film about a child admitted into a family deserted by the man of the house, and therefore needing warmth. The alien child might have been replaced by a supernatural creature (an elf) or even a carnivorous animal (a tiger cub) without seriously altering its emotional thrust. The important thing is that the child must suggest a threat of some kind, eventually shown to be false. Predator (1987) is also not SF; the alien is someone simply armed with superior technical capabilities to make him a fit match for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
To be called science fiction, a film must deal with future likelihoods engaging the world at that moment, and is essentially a way of extrapolating a historical possibility to an imagined future.
Science fiction came into visibility first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects, and there are two key responses to colonialism that take the guise of science fiction. The first is that science fiction becomes an extension of the Victorian adventure novel — having no place on Earth left for the exoticism of unexplored territories, the writers invent places elsewhere (for example, H Rider Haggard). The second kind of novel is a radical reversal of hierarchies in which invaders treat earthlings the way the colonialists treated “savages”, a way in which HG Wells’ SF novel The War of the Worlds (1898) is interpreted.
James Cameron’s Terminator (1984) was classic SF since it expanded on the notion of the ‘millennium bug’. At a point in the late 20th century there was a widespread fear of a problem with some computers arising from an inability of the software to deal correctly with dates of 1 January 2000, or later. The film extrapolated the apprehension into a narrative in which computers disobey human commands and begin acting on their own. The film was about a future in which humankind is battling cyborgs controlled by an agency called Skynet; since humankind’s resistance was led by the implacable John Connor, a robot was sent back in time to assassinate his future mother. When Cameron made a sequel — as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) — the film was repeating a scientific possibility already narrativised and therefore lost its speculative edge. The Terminator series subsequent to this is not even SF, but merely action spectacle. We have, similarly, other films routinely incorporating ‘distant galaxies’ and ‘time travel’ in their narratives today and none of them are describable as SF.
The Terminator series up to now has dealt with the doings of John Connor and Skynet and Terminator: Dark Fate lets us know at the outset that most of that is irrelevant since it begins with the boy John Connor killed by a cyborg from the future (Arnold Schwarzenegger), when he is with his mother Sarah. Once you start mucking around with time travel, it opens up a host of possibilities. There was a time travel story I read years ago about a safari when people travel to the past to shoot dinosaurs due to die anyhow, since the past must not be altered if the present is to be protected; but after a ‘time hunter’ accidentally kills an insect, they return to an unrecognisable present. The moral is that when one alters the past in the smallest way, they no longer return to the same present they left to travel back in time.
Terminator: Dark Fate, being popular entertainment, does not entertain philosophical possibilities of this kind. Still, there is some complexity introduced when the assassin is sent out to kill another young person, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), because she is the Resistance’s future commander in 2042. Skynet, from which John Connor saved humankind, is now forgotten and a new cyber enemy called Legion is bent on destroying humans. Dani has to be removed and an assassin is therefore sent back to today. Following on the heels of the cyborg assassin is a woman from 2042 named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) who is augmented by technology and required to protect Dani. What has interest here is the suggestion of different futures, one leading to John Connor’s heroism in the not too distant future and the other train commencing with his death as a boy in the 1990s, killed by a cyborg, leading altogether somewhere else.
This is essentially the focus of Terminator: Dark Fate but Sarah Connor has to be brought in along with a role for Schwarzenegger. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) knows the whole scenario but the issue still to be resolved is how she and the cyborg played by Schwarzenegger can be on the same side when the latter killed her son. This is something the reader can find out for himself/herself.
If one were to name the best film of the Terminator franchise, I would without hesitation name Terminator2: Judgment Day, one of the high points of digital animation effects in cinema, and still to be bettered. The idea of a cyborg working with liquid metal that collects on its own each time it is destroyed was spectacularly realised. Of course the thought did strike me that since liquid only flows downward and cannot climb upwards, it should be easy to separate pools of liquid metal to prevent them from collecting as a single pool; such a thing could even happen accidentally. What if the cyborg made of liquid metal started losing bits of metal each time? Would he be gradually reduced in size (and wouldn’t that make for good comedy)?
It is evident that the Terminator franchise, while evidently depleting in interest, still retains enough both for the public and its creators. Its future success, however, would necessitate the involvement of people with imagination. As it is, this latest addition to the series is virtually devoid of any creative spark; it is all sound and fury. The new cyborg REV-9 (Gabriel Luna) is liquid metal once again and the film abounds in action sequences in which the combatants are mostly invincible. The excitement in action sequences, I would argue, arises because even strong people are vulnerable and the discovery of a weakness makes us anticipate a twist. We also identify with vulnerable people because we see ourselves in them. How are we then to feel excitement over a battle between two cyborgs, neither of them vulnerable as we understand the term?
Schwarzenegger may be the best thing about Terminator: Dark Fate but it is still difficult to identify with him. It is the human element that the earliest films had — apart from their inventiveness — that is missing here and that’s a huge loss. Technology may drive the storytelling but human beings are what films are about; that may be something Hollywood is forgetting.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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