***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
starring Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes
screenplay by David Goyer & Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray
directed by Tim Miller
by Walter Chaw There's a moment in Terminator: Dark Fate--the sixth entry in the long-running franchise but a do-over in terms of narrative continuity--where a woman, mortally wounded, gives consent for things to be done with her body after she's gone. It's a small moment, and one that works to move the film's exposition, but it speaks volumes to how carefully the script, by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray, has endeavoured to be at least partly a conversation about how women are reduced to their physical function and appearance. "He's not here for you, he's here for your womb," says a grizzled Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) to frightened, on-the-run Dani (Natalia Reyes)--but "he," a killer robot from the future called a "Rev-9" (Gabriel Luna), isn't. He's there for something else. The picture opens with Sarah's videotaped therapy session from Terminator 2, in which she recounts her dream of nuclear Armageddon--a reminder of how her carefree party-girl character from the original had transformed through the trauma of losing a lover and escaping a monster from the future, only to be branded crazy by an unctuous male therapist and imprisoned in a facility where we witness her further humiliation and assault. Dark Fate shows what happens to Sarah and her son, the saviour of the future and a target of two assassination attempts, while in hiding in Guatemala, then hops forward into our present to the arrival in a ball of blue lightning of Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who, upon proving her battle-worthiness (and artificial augmentation) against a trio of adversaries, clothes herself in a man's attire even though a woman's is available. Function, the decision suggests, over appearance.
In a way, Dark Fate can be read with profit as three steps in the evolution of feminine power: an archetypal construct of Furies or, yes, Fates that provides a framework for understanding how women characters work in narratives. "The Golden Girls" is this with its Virgin/naïf, its Whore, its Mother, and its Crone (who embodies elements of the other three). In Dark Fate, the naïf is Dani, the "Whore" or empowered element is Grace, and the Mother remains Sarah, still operating after all this time in the role of ferocious protector/avenging angel. Traditionally, the goal of each personification is to ascend to the next personification. Not everyone survives the change. It's a beautiful touch that, during the final confrontation in the film, the key to the defeat of Rev-9 is something that appears to be implanted in the vicinity of Grace's womb. Beautiful, too, is Grace objecting to a body scan as an attempt for her adversaries to view her "private parts." The bulk of the picture consists of conversations and arguments between Dani, Grace, and Sarah as they try to escape the Rev-9 until they can figure out how to destroy it or until it destroys them. Early on, the three are in a car for an exposition dump that's impressive because it clarifies their three roles in relation to one another. Power dynamics are established alongside the interpersonal politics of these women. At one point, Grace pulls up her shirt to reveal how one of her superiors has tattooed coordinates to her side so she won't forget them, then makes the tired aside "as if I can't remember shit." She's a super-powered soldier, courageous and resourceful, and her male boss assumes she's a dingbat who can't read a map.
Dark Fate is also about the American surveillance state and its imaginary border crisis, ginned up by a pathetic piece of flatulent white supremacy as an excuse to build concentration camps and control his flock with fear of imaginary coyotes. Our heroes discover that they need to smuggle Dani, an undocumented 'illegal,' into Laredo, where someone will later explain their massive collection of firearms as protection against the inevitable disintegration of civilization. ("And also, this is Texas.") They spend time in one of our proud nation's prisons for refugees and children, where an official objects to the term "prisoners" and "cages" before being beaten to a cheer that used to be reserved for Indiana Jones punching Nazis. The Rev-9, at the end of this sequence, gains the instant trust of a pair of good ol' boy Texas policemen by affecting a chicken-fried southern accent and saying that, in fear of unarmed, starving, and terrified immigrants, he'd "prayed more in five minutes than I have my entire life." Of the few things Americans lead the world in, adults who believe in angels is one of them. Curious, given Americans' proclivity for ignoring every single thing taught in the book they so love that mentions angels a lot. As in Children of Men, the movie that predicted this indelible stain on all our souls, the saviour of all of us happens to be one of the "fugees." As in the Bible, too, come to think of it.
All of this to say that Dark Fate is a deep and complex satire of contemporary gender roles, the danger of massive lurches in military and surveillance technology, and the broken state of our national politics. It will reward an aggressive read and repeat viewings, but it's also an able and well-constructed action vehicle, as well as a science-fiction featuring a handful of thorny questions about time travel it gratifyingly declines to answer. (Asked what she's doing at a particular juncture, Grace says, "Future stuff.") Director Tim Miller (Deadpool) frames the set-piece fight sequences with logic and clarity. Married to the film's investment in its characters, even jumbo jets ramming each other in the sky and machines not hurt by bullets or punching getting shot and punched feel like they have stakes. The third act is driven by the reintroduction of Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his iconic roles--maybe the iconic Schwarzenegger role. In his dotage, Arnie's proven himself an inimitable, irreplaceable presence. He's confident and assured here--hilarious, too, as he makes fun of his own deadpan, Conan the Barbarian persona. There are a lot of corollaries between Dark Fate and Sylvester Stallone's Rambo: Last Blood: aging action stars dealing with their legacies in stories about how we've lost our ideals and hope, and how our heroes may not be around for much longer to help us get them back. More, it suggests that the old guard has failed and it's up to the new: the girls, the minorities, the hated and the underestimated, to take the lead. Dark Fate is fantastic. Originally published: November 3, 2019.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bill Chambers The last time a Terminator sequel came out on 4K UHD disc the results were less than ideal, so I'm pleased to report that Paramount's release of Terminator: Dark Fate on the format offers no unpleasant surprises. Encoded for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision playback (this review pertains to the former), the 2.39:1, 2160p transfer was sourced from a 2K digital intermediate but is marginally sharper than its 1080p counterpart, especially in the shadows and during Terminator-vision shots. These latter POV shots are also the most aggressively HDR-enhanced, with blazing scanlines that make them feel genuinely subjective and machine-generated. Elsewhere, HDR is applied with a light touch, reserved mainly to give security lights or the high-beams of government vehicles a realistically intense glow that cuts through the night. The colours are more expressive in HDR as well, dropping the teal lean of the SDR palette. Like other Paramount titles before it, the 4K image is notably dimmer than the alternative, but it looks more cinematic (read: expensive), too, with none of the blown-out highlights that mar the brightest scenes in the HD presentation. The attendant Dolby Atmos audio is fantastic, even distilled to its 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core. This is a vintage Terminator mix that balances complexity and thunder; what's especially impressive is how the explosions and gunfire not only rock the casbah but also create phantom blast radiuses that scatter debris around the viewer with unsettling believability. No action sequence ever becomes white noise, though the sound effects sometimes smother the Junkie XL score.
Only the accompanying Blu-ray contains any supplementary material, starting with Mob Scene's "A Legend Reforged" (20 mins.), which sheds some light on the development process--first sci-fi writers were brought into workshop ideas, then screenwriters were hired to shape the story--and features more James Cameron than the other featurettes on board. He talks about courting ex-wife Linda Hamilton back to the franchise ("I actually wrote her a very logical email about why it would be great for her to do this") and Hamilton remembers much discussion of who Sarah Connor would become in this incarnation. "I suggested that she be fat, 'cause then I wouldn't have to work so hard," she says. Not surprised that she "kind of [wanted] to hug [Schwarzenegger] all the time," incidentally--he's adorable in the role and in these makings-of. Meanwhile, "World Builders" (33 mins.) is all about location, location, location, breaking down how Madrid doubled for Mexico City and so on and so forth. ("We couldn't go to Mexico for a variety of reasons," says director Tim Miller, tiptoeing around the big fat Trump in the room.) One vignette touches, with frustrating brevity, on the digital doubles of Sarah and John that ILM fabricated for the prologue; another takes us behind the scenes of the highway chase, where actress Mackenzie Davis shows off the dune buggy attached to each vehicle that allowed stunt doubles to do all the driving. As a sort of companion piece, "VFX Breakdown: The Dragonfly" (3 mins.) demonstrates with before-and-after comparisons how computer sorcery conjured the future war seen in flashbacks. (Or are they flash-forwards?)
Last but not least, "Dam Busters: The Final Showdown" (8 mins.) visits the enormous set that was built for the climactic battle and ultimately extended further digitally. Hamilton insists the scale of Dark Fate's production dwarfed anything she'd previously worked on, including T2. Virtually every member of the stunt team gets a little time in the spotlight here, and we see previz of the fight choreography shot with real people but embellished with crude CGI. Apropos of nothing, every time production designer Sonja Klaus appeared I momentarily mistook her for Hamilton. Rounding out the bonus features is an 8-minute block of six deleted scenes, all of them polished to a degree that suggests they were dropped late in post-production. One of them is achingly sad in retrospect: "Carl's" wife seems to reveal that she knows precisely what her husband is and begs Sarah to let him return from their mission when it's over. On the other hand, a moment where the Rev-9 skips out on his bill at a coffeehouse is immanently disposable. Paramount bundles the two platters with a voucher for a free digital copy of the film.
128 minutes; PG-13; UHD: 2.39:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10; BD: 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core), French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free; Paramount