The open secret in Hollywood is that the Chinese market is changing movies. The American studio industry sees how influential to their bottom line it can be when a movie is a hit in China, so there has been a tidal shift in the last decade or so to make more movies that appeal to the Chinese audience. Don’t be fooled into thinking the conflagration of superhero movies is because of the power of the American fanboy. Nope, superhero movies are exactly what Chinese moviegoers want from the U.S.: big action, big heroes, big villains and not a lot of complicated dialogue. Oh, and visual effects…lots of visual effects.
So it can’t be a surprise to anyone to see all the reboots of action movie franchises happening. When you run out of original ideas, go ahead and find movies and franchises that were popular in the past and remake them. You gotta keep that pipeline full. So it seems only natural that there would be a reboot of one of the most popular action franchises in history, James Cameron’s Terminator, and that a Chinese movie company would actually be one of the companies producing it.
Before you roll your eyes at me for being too cynical about the movie industry today (which I most certainly am), hear me out. While I honestly feel this Terminator reboot was clearly motivated by money, I do have to say that, like Star Wars, it is a franchise that I don’t mind having another go—there actually was more to say and it had to be said in the right way.
If you are wondering what on earth I am talking about because the Terminator franchise has never really gone away, considering there have been five features films AND a television series? Well, that’s exactly why I think the latest installment, Terminator: Dark Fate, is so welcome. In the minds of any true Terminator fan, there were only two movies that mattered, the original Terminator (1984) and the FIRST sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which many, including me, consider to be one of the best, if not the best, sci fi action movies of all time. There were three movies that came after Terminator 2, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009) and Terminator Genisys (2015), three completely forgettable movies, unless you count Christian Bale’s infamous freak-out on the set of Salvation. When the thing you remember most about a movie is an actor laying f-bombs at the Director of Photography, there’s something wrong.
So, the Terminator franchise took a page out of Star Wars’ book and came back to its roots, and Terminator: Dark Fate not only picks up where Terminator 2 left off, completely ignoring anything that came after it, but it brings back the stars of the first two movies, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in starring roles. This pairing is the equivalent for Terminator fans of bringing Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill back was for Star Wars fans.
While Schwarzenegger had appeared in two of the three forgotten sequels, Linda Hamilton and Schwarzenegger have not been in a movie together since T2, and news of their on-screen reunion had fans buzzing. Add to the excitement the involvement of James Cameron, the original writer/director of the first two movies, who also hadn’t been involved with his own franchise beyond the cordial “characters by” credit since T2. With Cameron, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton’s active involvement in Terminator: Dark Fate, fans could rejoice in a reboot that seemed legitimate and might actually be good. Raising the stakes even higher was the hiring of Tim Miller to direct, fresh off the monumental success of Deadpool. It almost felt like it couldn’t lose.
Well, let me just say, this movie will be HUGE in China. It has everything they love: a famous American movie star, big action scenes and tons of special effects. For American audiences, however, it leaves much more to be desired.
Terminator: Dark Fate does pick up where T2 leaves off, in a cinema trick that is impressive, but then it jumps forward enough time to compensate for how much older both Hamilton and Schwarzenegger are. Screenwriters David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray do craft a relatively logical new story that stays true to the franchise’s personality, and they do find a way to introduce new characters into the familiar structure. Natalia Reyes and Mackenzie Davis play the new versions of the characters Hamilton and Schwarzenegger originated and Gabriel Luna plays the titular terminator, all beefed up with some of the most eye-popping special effects money can buy.
There is a ton of fan service in this movie, which is expected and fine, but those moments of nostalgia, sincerity and deadpan humor just aren’t enough to compensate for how loud, big and insane this movie is. The action sequences are as over-the-top as you can imagine. Forget physics, these scenes defy logic.
What literally saves this movie from termination is the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually very funny and that Mackenzie Davis is a star. Without Davis, this movie would have no heart or soul and the acting would be left to Linda Hamilton, which just might be a fate worse than death. Hamilton never became a superstar after the success of the Terminator movies for a reason, it seems. Her monotone delivery is such a distraction, it took me out of the movie with every painful line reading. While I applaud her lack of vanity and the fact that she looks like a real person, wrinkles and all—and yes, she is badass and clearly worked very hard to get in physical shape—her complete inability to say a single line without making me cringe was a real bummer. When Arnold Schwarzenegger is not the worst actor in a movie, you know you’re in trouble.
Davis does her best to carry the movie and make up for all its shortcomings, but it’s just not enough. I really wanted to love this movie, especially considering it’s a big budget action movie with THREE women as leads—one a Latina and another over 60—but I just cannot lie. While the mind-boggling special effects might be worth the price of admission to some and the chance to spend some time in the familiar Terminator universe might be appealing to others, the movie just has too many things that hurt it to make up for the few that help.
A sequel to this sequel has already been announced (two, in fact), so I guess it really doesn’t matter. As long as China likes it.