Once More Unto the Time Loop
Let me tell you a story about the power of a great movie. It was late summer 1991 and my family had gone away en masse, leaving me alone in the house. I was in my mid-late teens and they were a bit twitchy about leaving me to my own devices for so long, so they had arranged for someone to look in on me . This was Doris, a senior citizen of our acquaintance, not exactly family but closer than 'friend of the family' implies; the mildest, nicest, kindest person you could imagine. Fond though I was of her, I was a bit narked at being under supervision (even of the gentlest and least intrusive sort), but as she was driving past the house of a friend of mine to come and check on me I made the most of things and got her to pick up a VHS tape I was particularly keen to see.
She duly arrived with the tape, we said all the usual things, and then I said I was going to watch the movie on the tape. Doris didn't fancy driving back home just yet and decided to stay and watch the start of the film. I wasn't sure it would be her cup of tea but, as noted, I was particularly keen to see the movie, as the sequel opened a couple of days later and I wanted to watch them in the right order. The movie was, of course, James Cameron's The Terminator.
107 minutes or so later we stopped and sat back. Doris had found herself unable to contemplate leaving before the end of the film and had coped with the violence, profanity and sex scene with admirable aplomb. 'That was very good,' she said. I agreed and promptly forgot about it for a couple of months, until we were having lunch with her one Sunday.
'Do you remember that film we watched, about the man who came back in time,' she said.
'What – oh, yes, Terminator,' I said. I remember my father looking slightly thunderstruck as I had neglected to mention our movie night to him on his return.
'Well, I noticed there's another one, and I wanted to go and see it – but none of my friends will come with me,' she said, looking slightly pained.
Well, septuagenarian members of the Women's Institute are hardly James Cameron's target demographic. Gallantly, and also because I quite fancied seeing Terminator 2 again myself, I volunteered to take Doris to see it. And so a tradition was forged, where every time Arnold Schwarzenegger had a new movie out either I or my sister would take Doris to the cinema. A poster of the big man appeared on her bedroom wall, and she was able to talk quite knowledgeably about the different entries to the canon – Predator was 'a bit gruesome', for instance. I recall a very congenial evening round at her house watching Raw Deal on VHS over a plate of sausage rolls (hospitality was one of those things she never neglected). Her interest never quite extended beyond Arnie's work, though – I lent her Highlander, and I think she enjoyed it, but not to the point of wanting to take it any further.
By the time Terminator 3 came along, Doris wasn't really able to go to the cinema any more, and she had moved on to the next plane of existence when Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys were released. I saw them all, of course, and I always wondered what she would have made of them all – not very impressed by Salvation in particular, given it is the most Arnie-light entry in the series, I would imagine. Perhaps it is for the best that she never saw them, for the consensus is that the quality of the Terminator series dropped off a cliff after James Cameron departed following the first sequel.
But now, of course, Cameron is back on board, as producer and storyliner at least, so could a revival in the franchise's fortunes be on the cards? The answers lie in Terminator: Dark Fate, directed by Tim Miller. The first thing to be said about the new movie is that it doesn't fall prey to that problem whereby the whole plot ends up in the trailer. The film opens with a game-changing sequence which none of the publicity even alludes to, which certainly made me sit up and wonder if, against all odds, this movie was going to do something genuinely surprising and distinctive with the Terminator mythos.
After this, we basically go back to a bit of history repeating, but done effectively. A young Mexican girl, Dani (Natalia Reyes), finds herself the target of a robotic assassin from the future (Gabriel Luna), with her hopes of survival largely dependent on a cyborg protector who has likewise come back in time (Mackenzie Davis). Soon enough the various parties come together, and the fight/chase sequence that ensues is an absolute cracker, rolling through a factory and out onto the local freeway. However, Dani and her guardian soon find themselves hard-pressed, not least by the new terminator's ability to be in two places at the same time, and things look bleak for them. But wait! Who is this turning up to help with a dizzying array of heavy-duty weaponry? It's Theresa May!
Oh, hang on, no it's not – it's Sarah Connor, another woman of a certain age with a history of finding herself trapped in endless, futile battles. On-the-ball readers may recall that in recent instalments Sarah Connor has either been dead or Emilia Clarke, but now she is once again Linda Hamilton (the continuity has been rebooted, for whatever that's worth). Soon the trio are on the run from the terminator, following a trail of clues which leads them to an unlikely ally whom Sarah kind of has history with…
The last couple of Terminators have been so dismal that it really wouldn't take much to improve upon them, and so to suggest that Dark Fate is the best film in the series for quite some time isn't necessarily to say very much. Certainly, the plot is of the breathe-on-it-and-it-collapses variety, the writers operating on the principle that if you start at speed, then keep going and accelerate, no-one will have time to notice the various contrivances and implausibilities in the storyline. The fact that it is generally very good-humoured and you're never very far from another top-notch action sequence also helps a lot.
There are a couple of noteworthy creative choices along the way – the plot entails a sequence where the characters are obliged to sneak across the border between the US and Mexico, tangling with the relevant authorities along the way. This can't help but come across as feeling a bit politically charged in the current climate, but you can sense the movie working hard to stay on the fence (or possibly the wall) about this. Any suggestion of implied pinko-liberalism is surely offset by the general Second Amendment-friendliness of the film (characters trundle about with automatic weapons and rocket launchers and no-one bats an eyelid).
Needless to say, the Progressive Agenda Committee also appear to have had some input into the shape of the film, which presumably explains why your actual biological human males are entirely peripheral to the story. I know I'm probably slipping into thunderous misogynist mode, but one of the distinctive things about James Cameron's scripts is that he's always written strong and resourceful female characters, without the films seeming heavy-handed or on-the-nose or trying to push any kind of agenda. Compared to them, Terminator: Dark Fate feels leadenly reductionist in its gender politics.
And one consequence of this is that the eventual appearance of Arnie almost feels like it's unbalancing the film. You can't do a proper Terminator film without the big man, after all, and there is a sense in which the film doesn't completely feel satisfying until he turns up. But when he does, it's so late on that he barely counts as a main character – yet he is still given lots of important stuff to do.
One mustn't grumble too much for this is Arnie's best outing in ages. Not only can he still body-slam someone to the floor and then machine-gun their face off like nobody else in the business, one is reminded of his underappreciated talent for comedy – he turns up in the unlikely role of Carl, a T-800 terminator who has now reformed and spent the last couple of decades living a quietly domestic existence while working as an interior decorator. There is, obviously, vast potential for humour here, which Arnie plays to the hilt, making the most of delivering lines about hanging curtains and bringing in groceries, but also quieter and more reflective moments where he does not let the film down.
I don't think you're ever going to make a sequel as good as the original Terminator; all that these subsequent films have done is to play with the component parts of that film, occasionally buffing them up or reorganising them, but never quite managing to have the same effect. (The success of this one largely stems from the fact it has identified the one easily reproducible element of the best sequel – Sarah Connor's transformation into a slightly unhinged bad-ass – and really run with it.) Maybe it's time to just bite the bullet and do a straight remake. And while Dark Fate does not disgrace the memory of that first film, it's hard to see where else they can take this particular riff on the story that won't feel contrived and repetitive. Still, on its own merits, this is an effective and enjoyable SF action movie – I think it would certainly have won Doris' seal of approval, and that's good enough for me.
Also This Week...
...another three-and-a-half hours of La Flor (the end is nearly in sight as there is only one more instalment to go). Possibly the best chunk of the movie so far, although its tendency to go off at weird tangents and generate digressive sub-narratives remains undiminished. This time around we had the end of the spy-thriller section of the film (distinguished by a very accomplished flashback to Laura Paredes' time as an international assassin in an understated romance with a colleague) and then a very La Flor-esque change of pace to a self-parodic metafictional comedy, concerning a film director six years into filming a wildly over-ambitious avant garde movie starring the same four actresses throughout. (La Flor's leading quartet play the four actresses in the film-within-the-film, naturally). The women have become very demanding and almost impossible to work with, so the director goes off to just film trees instead, resulting in... well, a lot of scenes with only trees in them.
This is very strange, but also extremely funny, especially if you've been along for the previous eight hours of the film: the self-referential jokes nearly all hit the mark and there is some terrific deadpan comedy. However, quite what any of it means or is actually achieving remains elusive, and by this point one knows better than to expect any kind of resolution from one of La Flor's episodes. It remains quite watchable, in its own special and exhausting way.
...and, some weeks, one challenging South American quasi-drama clearly isn't enough, for I also saw Monos, from Colombia. On a remote mountainside, a group of child soldiers known only by nicknames (Bigfoot, Rambo, Swede, Boom Boom, etc) guard an American hostage. All is well until they are placed in charge of a cow, which they are under orders to keep safe. Sadly, excitable teenagers and high-powered semi-automatic weapons are not a recommended mix, which turns out to be bad news for the cow – and everyone else, eventually...
Not so much a thriller as a rather oblique drama, with an obvious debt to Lord of the Flies (which it duly acknowledges). The film has considerable power, derived from strong performances from many of the young actors, a terrific visual sense, and a striking soundtrack. Engrossing to watch even if what it all means isn't entirely clear. Not the easiest or most cheerful film to watch, but still worthwhile.