Thursday, 24 October 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate

With James Cameron out the picture - the writer-director still beavering away on his forever project, the Avatar sequels - the task of resuscitating the Terminator franchise falls to Deadpool's Tim Miller. Although not ideal, you can see the thinking. Miller has experience with the elasticated damage expressed at the higher end of blockbuster age ratings; the kind of action that positions the human body as an unyielding doll, to be crushed and stretched as it hurtles around a film's set-pieces. While his X-Men spin-off never fully dialled into this invincible anatomy conceit, Terminator: Dark Fate gives it a good go, assembling and reintroducing all manner of bodies that can soak up inhuman levels of punishment in sequences that seesaw between weightlessly balletic and a satisfying crunch.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton are back, both in supporting roles that speak to their legacy status within the series as much as their advancing ages. Sarah Connor and this T-800 share a complementary fate, each having denied the other the life they expected. Schwarzenegger taps into threads left dangling at the conclusion of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, examining how a couple of decades spent orphaned would affect the T-800's emerging simulation of fatherhood (not to mention the Model 101's gift for aesthetic arrangement). Hamilton gets to play the old hand, an expert with no clear direction, seeking out a glorious death. Although she begins the film understandably sour, Sarah quickly folds herself into a new collective, adding a layer of firm, maternal protection.

Given that the prevailing genre for big budget entertainment these days skews superheroic, it's fun to examine the ways in which Dark Fate's writing team (consisting of no less than David S Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray, Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman and, most happily, series creator James Cameron) have interpreted that suffocating set of demands. Fortunately, since the franchise is rigged around clashing, indestructible machinery, it's certainly an easier fit than most. Mackenzie Davis' Grace represents the biggest alteration; a human resistance fighter from an altered, but no less desperate, future who has willingly allowed her body to become infected with technology. She mixes flesh and machinery, not as a walking abomination blurted out by an unfeeling computer, but as a flawed synthesis.

Grace's augmented identity suggests humanity has made a claim on seized extermination hardware, turning it back against its unseen originator. Conceptually, although she's essentially operating with Logan's adamantium skeleton, it's still a world away from the anti-machine invective heard from The Terminator's Kyle Reese, up till now the only human perspective on our collapsed tomorrows. His memories of a now subverted apocalypse depict humanity as subterranean and struggling to survive. The idea of willing symbiosis with captured enemy science never even seemed possible, never mind preferable. Everything's different now, species lines are deliberately blurred and recontextualised, allowing Dark Fate to have another human agent, someone not only acutely aware of the threat barrelling towards them but also genuinely invested in the target they've been assigned to protect.

Schwarzenegger's all-conquering, star-making, bluntness has been consistently fun in this shield role but there was value in the icy anxiety Michael Biehn brought to Reese. Why shouldn't that performance be revisited? Davis gets to channel Kyle's nervous, emotionally engaged energy, equally at home pummelling stunned cops as she is sternly telling Natalia Reyes' Dani to buckle up when head-on collisions seem likely. Grace's humanity allows a physical vulnerability to bleed into the action too, changing the shape and procedure of plot. Grace fatigues, her enhancements only allowing her to fight in short, sharp bursts, necessitating the ice baths and drug cocktails of the Universal Soldier series. These flaws weave imperfection into the character's skill-set, necessitating the collaboration that forms the film's thematic backbone.

The adrenal shock that Grace suffers permits Dark Fate's quarry character, Dani, an early opportunity to assert herself in the physical realm, rather than simply rely on the mild hectoring she's perfected in her personal life. Unlike the passive Sarah Connor of pre-intervention 1984, Dani is not only used to taking care of loved ones but also equally capable of confronting anyone who tries to mess with them. The Terminator charts Sarah's growth from a lonely, dissatisfied waitress into the sainted icon of a future militia. Dani is already a couple of steps further along this path, a Mexican citizen close to being nudged out of her job on a car assembly line by the factory's creeping automation.

Not only is Dani used to dealing with a robotic, imperialist regime, she has already assumed the caring, motherly role key to many of James Cameron's heroines. She looks after her spaced-out brother and infirm father; she argues with her American boss, taking other people's responsibilities onto her shoulders when she recognises it is too much for them. She listens to what she's being told then executes on that advice, whether that be hurried compliance or pointed dissent. Dani manages all of this while being unfailingly polite too. She doesn't shout or scream, everyone is spoken to as an equal, never a subordinate. Past Terminator films have talked about their human characters in terms of their destination, usually a role that seems only vaguely fathomable based on their current incarnation.

Dani is different, she explicitly possess most of the character traits that will, eventually, power her destiny. Dark Fate then is more interested in discussing saviours in terms of their innate greatness being prevented by uncaring, inhumane systems. About how a messiah could be thwarted by the gross overreach of a corrupt sitting power in a bloated, neighbouring country. Dark Fate's America is depicted as a vast, technologically advanced prison. A country that perpetuates an idea of siege as a way to divert feeling and basic human empathy in its populace. Over the course of their adventure, Dani and her cohorts are required to illegally cross the border into the United States. Having already anticipated this move, Gabriel Luna's enemy assassin, the Rev-9, uses drone cameras and overeager ICE agents to thwart their progress - there's even a sense that this Terminator has no objection to the very real possibility that these jackboots could end up completing Rev's mission by proxy.

Much like T2's T-1000, this cyborg has quickly recognised that a law enforcement uniform will allow the wearer to violently pursue their human targets with impunity. What's chilling about these moments is how easily the Rev-9 folds itself into the bureaucratic machinery of border control, functioning as an extension of, and answer to, the practice of mass human data gathering. Where Robert Patrick's mercury man tapped and caressed to gleam data from his analog environment, the Rev-9 couples, regressing to its oily, fibrous form to ooze into the circuitry of surveillance. Although at this point Skynet is a banished phantom, it's sobering that Immigration and Custom's objective both here and in reality - to herd hungry, impoverished people into cages - is functionally identical to the orderly disposal Reese warned us about in the first film. Both systems deny individuality and view mass, trapped humanity as vermin to be catalogued.

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