#4 in my ranking of the Terminator franchise.
Bare competence. That’s pretty much all we get from Tim Miller’s entry in the Terminator franchise produced by James Cameron, basic competence. Aside from a couple of large decisions, this is almost a complete remake of the first film for a new era. It’s far from perfect, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it good, but it sort of works as a whole. Except that it’s got two competing storylines that they never really merge into one.
This franchise is a mess. It was relatively cohesive through the fourth movie, though the constant recasting of John Conner didn’t help things. There was a story through the four that you could follow, and then the fourth was a financial disappointment and the studio decided that it was a disappointment because it wasn’t the same as the first movie. So, they made a movie that was sort of a recreation and remake of the first that was incomprehensibly bad and abandoned any plans for a future in that scenario. The rights went back to James Cameron who decided that Tim Miller, the director of Deadpool, was a good choice for helmer, and they were off to the races.
The film begins a little while after the events of the second film where we watch de-aged Linda Hamilton get pushed aside helplessly as another Terminator shows up in Cabo and kills her son John. Jump ahead a couple of decades or so to Mexico City and we meet Dani, a very well put together poor girl who keeps her whole household in order and shuffles her brother off to work along with her at a manufacturing plant. Before she’s even done confronting their boss about her brother’s sudden replacement with a machine (in just about the most heavy-handed attempt at foreshadowing I can imagine), the action starts up with the new Terminator (the REV-9) showing up as Dani’s father and just killing everybody.
The reason these early scenes feel so stunted is because there’s a shocking number of characters that need screentime to get their arcs. First is Dani who, I assume, is supposed to be the main character. Second is Grace, the future warrior sent back to protect her (the Kyle Reese role). That’s the number of protagonists we got in the first movie. Then add in Sarah Conner. And Carl. This is an action spectacular that’s right at two hours long, and there are four characters with major arcs. None of them get the kind of time they need, and that’s because this is really two movies in one.
As Dani and Grace, who fights off the REV-9 in the plant, escape down the highway, they come to a stop and meet Sarah Conner, who shows up with heavy weapons and a nonchalant attitude as she pushes the REV-9 back with relative ease, obviously having done this a lot. Having gotten away, Grace crashes, needing injections of stuff to get her going again, and the three end up in a hotel room as Grace recovers. It’s here where Sarah starts her own little arc. Ever since a few years after John was murdered, she’s receive mysterious, encrypted text messages with coordinates and a time where a Terminator was going to appear. She shows up and kills the Terminator, waiting for the next one to show up.
Pump the brakes. That sounds like an awesome movie. Can we get that movie? Because it sounds awesome.
Because we don’t get that movie. Sarah tags along to marvel at the changes to the timeline that were wrought because of her actions in the second movie. Skynet never happened, but Legion arose. Judgment Day didn’t happen in 1997, instead it happened in the 2020s. Essentially, this is Terminator 3, but with Sarah Conner showing up. She has to deal with John’s loss, the involvement of the T-800 who killed John and is still around, and the fact that she’s not that important to the future anymore. I suppose this intersects with Dani’s story best when Sarah discovers that Dani isn’t the mother of the future, but she’s the future leader herself, a twist the movie revels in but feels perfunctory at best because we’re several decades into badass female protagonists being just so amazingly awesome in movies.
The arc that Dani goes through is far too long for the amount of screen time she actually has. She goes from sassy girl who can go to bat for her brother in a work environment to full-on ready to lead soldiers into battle by the end. I think of the arc that Sarah went through in the first movie where she started as a typical young woman just entering the workforce and ended up as a soldier, veteran of a single battle that robbed her of her new love. She became the hardened warrior between the first and second movie after a decade of learning and hardening. Dani gets too hard too quickly. I don’t buy it. Maybe if they had decided to take the full reboot route instead of the sort of sequel route, we might have had enough time with Dani early to establish her more fully and give her more opportunities to actually grow. When her growth amounts to her, out of the blue, offering to play the bait in a trap to kill the unkillable machine from the future, a reality she seems to accept shockingly easily. She seems to jump into this new reality really easily.
Another problem with Dani is the casting. Natalia Reyes is fine as Dani in the present day, but there’s a flashback that shows her in the future, bringing the beginnings of the future resistance together, and to watch this five foot nothing girl with a weird haircut give a halfheartedly written speech with gusto is unconvincing. Part of it is the speech itself, but the other part is that Reyes just doesn’t sell it that well. She’s giving it her all, but I don’t see her as the kind of person that these attempted murderers and rapists would suddenly give up their nihilistic path to follow her on to fight the machines after about fifty words.
There’s another issue with the story’s competing storylines, and that’s Sarah’s background. She has some air force contact that just hands her a top secret EMP with words about how he’s committing treason, and he’d been mentioned before a single time in the movie. And then he’s shot moments later, living just long enough to get the group onto a base and into an aircraft that the air force just lets them take. It’s not that all of this improbably happens, it’s that the backup to the actions is so thoroughly thin that it makes the experience feel jagged and random.
Now, Carl. Carl was the T-800 that killed John. Left in our time with no direct orders, and being a learning machine, he actually ended up growing sympathetic to humanity and to what he had done to Sarah through his marriage to a woman and adopting her son. He also sells drapes. This is an interesting idea, that the learning computer comes to naturally side with humanity, but very little ends up happening with it. The same thing can be said about Grace and her enhanced abilities. It’s interesting that she can become super strong for short bursts and needs to crash afterwards to recover, but there’s no time given to her talking about how this affects her personally. It’s a neat idea to see and little else.
The new Terminator is an extension of the idea of the T-X in Terminator 3 where it has a solid metal endoskeleton and a liquid metal exterior, except here the liquid metal can separate completely from the skeleton and, essentially, become two terminators at once. A neat idea, and enough for the antagonistic killer robot. It’s neat.
Overall, I like the action as well. It’s good stuff, my favorite being the plane crash as the REV-9 crashes one plane into another, climbs onto the other plane, and the good guy shave to fight him off as they get into a Humvee with a parachute. It’s chaotic and amusing.
Ultimately, this movie is really hobbled by the fact that it tries to tell two stories at once and never really connects them that well. Both have the potential to fill a movie completely on their own, but together they clash. At least it doesn’t follow the Genisys problem and leave a bunch out for sequels, though there was obviously a plan for more story that’s not going to get followed through on because of the movie’s poor box office showing. It’s a heavily mixed bag with good ideas being far outweighed by subpar storytelling.
Originally published here.
Further Reading: Dave Huber’s review here.