Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself.  This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option.  For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town.  Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again.  As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them.  Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here.  Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.

Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore.  The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo).  In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3.  Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all.  One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline.  This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000.  To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie).  Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.

Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers.  We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor.  Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut.  Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins.  Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin.  At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with.  The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.

As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional.  Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation.  I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile.  I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world.  Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.

-Brandon Ledet

Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe (1991)

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three star

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As a fan of both Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot ’em ups and films of questionable quality starring pro wrestlers, I had very little choice but to partake in the doomed-from-the-start prospect of watching Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe when its cheap DVD sleeve caught my eye at the second-hand store. As a Z-Grade Terminator knockoff starring Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Abraxas had almost zero potential to be a decent sci-fi cheapie, but almost all of the potential in the world to be a fabulous trainwreck. Its plot synopsis of about “intergalactic police officers” & “a hybrid being that has the power to destroy the universe” boasted a special sort of promise for a campy mess. What was most surprising about Abraxas, however, was not exactly how irredeemably bad it was (it was pretty bad) but what it happened to get right & wrong about the Terminator franchise.

The original Terminator film from 1984 has a lean efficiency to it that makes it feel like an especially well-funded Roger Corman production, right down to the Dick Miller cameo in the gun shop. Part of what James Cameron does so well in that film is keep his audience in the dark. He allows questions about the exact nature of Schwarzenegger’s time-traveling robot assassin to hang in the air until they need to be answered. The gradually unfolding plot creates an feeling of dread & mystique that makes the original film a fun watch to this day (four sequels later), at the very least in admiration of how a familiar, but complicated story gets laid out in an unfamiliar, but understandable way in its initial telling. Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe has no patience for this sort of gradual roll-out & instead blurts every idiotic idea it his on its mind directly to the audience in its opening exposition.

In just a few short minutes of Jesse Ventura’s helpfully explanatory grumbling we learn that his protagonist (the titular Abraxas, of course) is an 11,000 year old intergalactic supercop, known as a “Finder”, who has to renew his vows to “defend all life” every 100 years. His latest mission is to “find” (read: “terminate”) an ex-partner, Secundus, who has gone renegade. Secundus’ evil plan involves impregnating an “Earth woman” in order to give birth to some sort of cyborg anti-Christ with the power to destroy the universe. Before Abraxas can leave for this mission, however, he must undergo a painful “reinforcement” of his skeletal & muscular structure through “short-wave irradiation” & “ozone layering”, a highly risky process that requires him to (I’m not kidding) play word association games with an A.I. surgeon (that helpfully give us some background info on his home planet of Sargacia) so he doesn’t lose his mind from the pain. If this sounds like a lot of info to lay on the audience in a single soliloquy, that’s because it is. The whole ordeal is nearly as exhausting as the restructural “ozone layering” or whatever the Hell he was babbling about.

As wrongheaded as Abraxas is about rolling out a Terminator-type plot in an understandable way, it’s also oddly prescient about where the series would go in its second installment, T-2: Judgment Day. Released just weeks before T-2, Abraxas has way too many similarities to the cult classic to not have been a direct mockbuster version of it. It’s as if the entirety of the film were written based on the promotional materials of what Judgement Day was going to be about. For some strange reason, the ad campaign for T-2 made no bones about the fact that Schwarzenegger was going to be returning as a “good guy” in the second film, despite that twist’s potential to make for a fun shock for an unsuspecting audience. Abraxas mirrors T-2‘s basic structure of two superhuman warriors fighting over the fate of a young child, except that it muddles the details of which warrior (good or bad) would be structurally superior & what the good guy’s relationship with the would-be victim’s mother would look like (I don’t remember Schwarzenegger’s cyborg falling in love with Sarah Conner, but Abraxas totally falls for her thousands-of-years-too-young-for-him equivalent in this dreck; typical male-female Hollywood age differences, right?).

Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe certainly does very little to hide the fact that it exists solely to wean off some of those sweet, sweet Terminator bucks. The film shamelessly uses the word “terminate” at least three times, there’s a scene where the evil “Finder” Secundus vaporizes a dude just to steal his clothes, and both Secundus & Abraxas are more or less directly impersonating Arnold’s very recognizable accent throughout the film (with Secundus’ attempts being a much more accurate interpretation than Ventura’s). Given the obscene cheapness of the film’s sets (warehouses, camp sites, offices, wilderness, etc.), the fact that the futuristic laser guns that don’t shoot visible lasers (they just set off sparks & explosions), and the batshit insane repetition of certain (costly, I’m guessing) identical explosions shots in the film’s montages & final conflict, it’s entirely believable that Abraxas was created in a rush as a composite of ideas from the original Terminator film & ideas lifted from the promotional material for the second. Their weeks-apart release dates pretty much seal that thought completely.

As for the film’s camp value outside of a Terminator-imitator, there are several things worth a chuckle. The repetition of the identical explosions is maddening, but also amusing. There’s also a completely needless side plot about space alien bureaucrats bitching about being assigned to “a planet no one’s ever heard of,” an over-the-top scene where not-Sarah Conner becomes pregnant & gives birth in the span of a minute at the wave of a hand, and an out-of-nowhere cameo from Jim Belushi as a befuddled principle that left me scratching my head. Most of the film’s non-Terminator camp value comes from “The Body” himself, though. Ventura could be a menace in the ring & on the mic ringside in his heyday, but in the early 90s he looked more like a bald stepdad confused with what to do with his gigantic body. As he tries to reconcile the super-serious “finding” mission at hand with his newfound tender feelings for an Earth woman, it’s pretty funny to watch Ventura try to make Abraxas out to be anything but a coldhearted robot, which the film often forgets he’s not. It’s not a knee-slappingly funny performance, but it’s definitely a fascinating one & definitely worth a look for a bored Terminator or oldschool WWF superfan looking to kill 90 minutes on an especially boring afternoon.

-Brandon Ledet

Terminator Genisys (2015)

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In the recent flood of reboots, remakes, reimaginings and good, old-fashioned sequels that have effectively taken over Hollywood, there’s been an occasional uproar about what these films are doing to the credibility of the films they’re resurrecting. A few rehashes of long-dead properties have been lauded as critical darlings (such as the fever dream action monster Mad Max: Fury Road), but a lot of them have been met with aploplectic rage, such as Paul Feig’s not-even-released-yet take on Ghostbusters. Part of what Feig is getting flack for is tampering with the original formula, trying his damnedest to give his reboot its own reason to exist, and being met with a resounding opposition that claims he’s “ruining their childhood.” It’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t endeavor, creatively speaking, since studios are pouring so much money into these retreads instead of fresh material, but it’d also be entirely pointless to just remake the original film faithfully, except with temporal markers like smart phones & drone-operated cameras to provide modern context (like in the utterly useless Poltergeist remake).

Terminator Genisys has a fun time not only acknowledging the fact that reboots & sequels have a tendency to tarnish the memory of the films that came before them (according to a hypersensitive few), but it revels in the idea. Using the time travel paradox theme from the first couple films in the series, Genisys tinkers with & dismantles its predecessors in a dismissive, disrespectful way that feels alarmingly bold for a film that eventually amounts to a long string of chase scenes. The first hour of the film features a jumble of timelines that interact not only with the 1984 & 1991 stories told in The Terminator & T-2: Judgement Day, but also fleshes out some of the 2024 revolution, makes a pitstop in 1972 that changes the whole game of the first film, and sets up an entirely new Skynet timeline that needs to be dismantled in 2017. It’s a doozy of an opening sequence that features cheap, literal imitations of exact scenes from the earlier movies & repurposes them for its own ends, the implications of how it unravels the first two films be damned. I respect its moxy in this respect, even if the execution was far from flawless.

There’s a televised news report in Terminator Genisys that features the hilariously self-aware headline “Has Genisys gone too far?” This plays like a direct nod to how the film is not only disrespectful to its audience as Terminator fans, but also calls them out as a bunch of technology-obsessed dolts who would allow a computer program to end human existence as long as it promised to make their lives easier. The idea of a killer app that links all of the world’s smartphone technology into one conveniently vulnerable control is far from unique. At the very least, I’ve already seen that concept play out twice this year in Furious 7 & Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s still interesting to see it tie into an action movie’s larger overriding idea that its own audience is worth disdain. There are so many shots of people emptily gazing into their smart phones as a doomsday scenario swirls around them that even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s give-the-people-what-they-want one-liners like “I’ll be back” feel like a dig at the audience’s expectations. It’s so weird to see a film both fulfil movie-goer’s desire to see an old scenario play out yet again & subvert that desire by tearing apart the timelines of the original films by making them irrelevant, or as Schwarzenegger’s cyborg says of himself in this film, obsolete.

Speaking of Arnold, he’s the only enjoyable member of the film’s cast, performing with a weary, but endearing charm that says both “I’m too old for this shit” & “This is all I know how to do”. As a lifelong fan, I’m delighted by the idea of Arnold stretching himself to try new things, but if that means more snoozers like Maggie instead of the one-liner-fueled killing machine performances like in Genisys & the surprisingly enjoyable The Last Stand, I’m also more than happy to just see him filling this role for the rest of his life. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression at all, which (along with a who-cares 2017 climax sequence) tampers my enthusiasm for the film a bit, but that’s okay too.

Look, this is a franchise that’s already been dragged through the mud. Its first two entries are undeniable classics, but Terminator 3 & worse yet, Salvation weren’t exactly memorable cinema. Although I admire Terminator Genisys‘ mission to go back in time & effectively murder its predecessors, it’s an impossible mission. No matter what, those movies still exist & they’re still great. You can revisit your un-ruined childhood anytime you want through Netflix or blu-Rays or murderous smart phone apps or whatever you like, really. They’re still there. We just now also have a serviceable sequel that jumbles the timelines of those films into a barely-coherent mess just to watch its audience squirm under the pressure. I happen to find that tactic pretty hilarious, even if it did have trouble sticking the landing.

-Brandon Ledet