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What is Terminator: Dark Fate?

The title is a genuine question I’ve been struggling with since I saw the movie last night, and I’m not baffled by the concept or the genre; I’m simply pondering the most easily solvable dilemma when it comes to movies: Is it good or bad? I’m not talking about other people, fans of the series, as an artistic endeavor, or as part of a franchise; I can’t figure out whether I think this movie is good or bad in my own opinion. On the one hand it’s a good action movie that relies too much on visual references from previous entries in the franchise and overuses CGI elements, which makes the movie feel like something I’ve seen before and is trying to thrive on elements that I’m completely fatigued by; on the other it’s a poorly written story that is nonsensically disregarding and relying on the franchise’s history, but makes interesting and bold choices, as well as bringing back focus on characters and depth beyond typical action movie writing. None of these positives or negatives outweighs the other, which leaves me in the peculiar situation that I’m in now: I want to talk about this movie and I want to discuss the merits and flaws it has, but I don’t have the necessary starting point of a solid opinion on it. So I’ll write about it, and hopefully by the end, I’ll know where I stand for future reference.

I’ll start with the facts: Directed by Tim Miller, executive produced by James Cameron, and starring Mackenzie Davies, Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Natalia Reyes, and Gabriel Luna, Terminator: Dark Fate has the same premise that every other Terminator movie has had: A future robot and a future person are sent back in time to kill and protect, respectively, a human target that will be vital in the future. Moving on to the basics: As I’ve said the story is bad. It’s fixated in differentiating itself from previous movies and attempting to carve its own path, but simultaneously it would be impossible to enjoy this movie without having seen the previous entries in the franchise; that’s not an issue because of the popularity of Terminator 2, but when the movie is actively messing with previous entries and trying to rattle a few nerves in order to essentially present the same story and stakes as previous entries, then it becomes bad. That first scene dropped my jaw to the floor, but the real pain came from that and other “bold” choices being used to create nothing new or of interest that could not be achieved in any other way. On the flipside, this is a good action movie that deals with the extensive use of CGI very well and naturally, as well as being the ‘poster-boy’ for the phrase “action-packed” with lots of really fun set pieces. However, it’s also the movie that I feel has alerted me to the approaching fatigue that I will definitely suffer with action movies that have too much CGI; the CGI elements on their own are stellar in Dark Fate, however something about looking at convincing CGI models of people and vehicles in increasingly ridiculous and over-the-top situations made me loose interest. At worst it was time to turn off my brain (which is never a good sign) and at best it was fun, but not very engaging.

Which brings me to the halfway point of the article and having made zero progress; honestly, the bad story and good action simply cancel each other out for me, so with the big two out of the way and no better off for it, it’s time to look at everything else and hopefully reach a conclusion. Behind the camera, everything seems well made; the movie looks pretty good and was happy to see a Terminator movie resist the urge to make the movie as dark and gritty as the previous two entries, the directing was very solid not only for the action segments, but also for the character moments. In front of the camera, most of the actors are really good with the exception of Mackenzie Davis and Linda Hamilton who are both superb and are the best thing about the movie; Mackenzie Davis is a bad-ass cyborg with an interesting backstory (nothing too good, but way better than Salvation and Genysis’ protagonists) who brings a lot of physicality and intensity to her character that make her likeable and fun, while Linda Hamilton portrays a grumpy Sarah Connor whose past haunts and torments her in an entertaining and appropriate way, without steering into annoying or off-place at any point.

So what is Terminator: Dark Fate? Is it a good movie that tries new things and a new direction that regardless of its shortcomings manages to deliver a “good” entry in the franchise? No. Is it a bad movie that reeks of a production aiming to squeeze the good will of fans for a few extra bucks before it fades away? No. In the short term, I think this movie is ‘fine’, but in the long term (especially if there is no sequel or the sequel is also ‘fine’) I think my view will sour, and it’s really because of one key issue: Despite the ‘bold’ choices, I feel like this entry is the least interesting and does not try to do anything risky with the franchise. If Terminator 3 was about turning John Connor from a survivor to the leader of the resistance, if Salvation was about the future wars we all wanted to see, and Genysis was about messing with the timeline and using time machines to create new scenarios and conflicts, Dark Fate doesn’t really introduce anything new – it simply tries to do most of the things previous movies got wrong and do them better, but since it doesn’t really do that, it ends up feeling like it reuses ideas and concepts.

In the end, I think Terminator: Dark Fate had to be decent enough to claim the title of “the 3rd best Terminator movie” and it manages to do that. I think the answer to my dilemma of whether Dark Fate is a good or a bad movie is simply overcomplicating things and the answer is actually pretty simple: It’s neither. It isn’t open enough to actual risks and when it does take risks, it isn’t confident enough to follow through; every single thing it does right gets cancelled by a thing it gets wrong and vice versa. After all this searching on whether the movie is good or bad, I actually neglected the most important feeling when it comes to the success of a movie, which was pretty clear for me: I was not satisfied, I was mildly disappointed, and I would rather stop thinking about this movie while and after watching it.

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