Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May
YIN: Terminator: Dark Fate
Look, I get it. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was quite frankly a masterpiece. It had it all; it was lighting in a bottle and became the gold standard for action movies ever since. And for the past three decades, the franchise has continued to pump out sequels promising to live up to that legacy—and to most audience’s eyes, have failed miserably. So you’re gun shy. You’ve been burned before. You’re tired. Arnold’s old. Why can’t we just leave it be?
But hear me out.
While Terminator: Dark Fate may not be as good as T2 (it’s honestly completely unrealistic to think it could be), the rumblings you’ve heard are true: it IS the best of the four subsequent sequels—by a wide margin—and delivers a strong story that spins the series in a new direction while staying true to and expanding on what was established in both Terminators 1 & 2.
First and foremost, let’s get something clear. Yes, Dark Fate does recycle previous story elements from the first two movies. Some see that as derivative and a negative. Normally I might agree, but not in this case (and not just because of my admitted bias as an Arnold and franchise fan). That recycling has been a hallmark of the series since T2 derived its core story from its predecessor, simply swapping Sarah as the target for John. In addition, unlike, for instance, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there is a legitimate reason to retrace our steps here. We’re dealing with the elements of time travel, fate, alternate timelines, etc. One of the major themes of DF is that changing circumstances does not necessarily change human nature, and without that, can you really hope to truly change the future? Or are you merely delaying the inevitable?
These philosophical questions are part of what makes this particular franchise so endearing. It’s a large part of why people were excited to have James Cameron return here as not only producer in name (as on Genisys), but as an active participant in the crafting and editing of the story. Cameron brings back his personal interpretation of the fictional future and the development of the characters who must deal with it. That is why Dark Fate is a worthy sequel, because we’re seeing the best of the old and the new and answering questions while raising all-new ones.
As you surely know, years ago, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her son, John (Edward Furlong), stopped the artificial intelligence network Skynet from being created and destroying the world. But the new future that took its place led to much the same outcome, and now the machines of that timeline have sent back its own unstoppable killing machine, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), to hunt down seemingly inconsequential factory worker Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). As tends to happen, the “resistance” has sent back a protector, an enhanced human fighter named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). Along the way, they get some assistance from grizzled veteran Sarah Connor and an equally aged T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Granted, that all sounds old hat, but stories are made in how they are told, and unlike the last time round, the marketing hasn’t blown its wad in the trailers, so there’s still plenty of plot and character to be revealed.
The narrative has some significant twists, with arguably its biggest coming in the first 5 minutes. I won’t spoil it, but it will be the moment that likely divides fans and either sets you on pace to enjoy the rest of the film or not. If you stick with it, you’ll see that the bold choice has major repercussions—some obvious, some quite subtle—in particular for two of the main characters. I think given the story being told here, it’s a risk that pays off; and in my humble opinion, it does not truly affect or diminish the previous films as some have argued (in a multiverse of possible futures, their actions still succeeded).
While the basic journey has our group of heroes racing to keep one step ahead of the Rev-9, the simplicity of that plot leaves plenty of room for both character development and action. One of the biggest draws is the return of Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and she’s not here for show. This is the same battle-hardened, tough-as-nails, takes-no-shit Sarah we’ve grown to love, but the scars that made her that way run deep. She’s still very vulnerable at her core, and somewhat rudderless after the future she was built for never came. When the opportunity to protect the woman who must endure the same trials and loss Sarah once did, she finds something of a renewal. Hamilton slips back into the role with ease, finding that beautiful balance between Sarah’s humanity and her cold, mission-driven detachment. Sarah treads that line between human and machine, making her interactions with both fellow humans and Terminators unique and often wrought with delicious friction. Though I can’t reveal why, her relationship with Arnold’s T-800 is something completely new and provides an impressive depth of drama between them.
Arnold’s return is nothing new, having stuck with the franchise through each film (even if in likeness). We’ve previously established that a Terminator’s skin ages like any organic structure; hence, we can accept Arnie’s age without too big a leap in logic. But having played a variety of Terminators over the years, keeping it fresh has been an ever-increasing challenge. But “Carl” may be the most intriguing take yet; there’s a humanity to him we’ve not seen before, allowing him to make his own choices away from his programming. Some of these elements likely derive from aspects of the former television series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles (if you haven’t seen it, do it—it’s brilliant!), which makes sense given that series creator and showrunner Josh Friedman helped craft the story. Suffice to say, Carl is an ingenious take on the role and a significant highlight of the film; and his fate, I’m not ashamed to say, brought on as many tears as the T-800’s did back in 1991.
As Grace, Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) certainly earns Hamilton’s mantle as a believable badass. Aside from putting in the obvious gym time, Davis has her own brand of no-nonsense intensity, balanced by a deeply rooted emotional sincerity. Like Sarah, she’s a character caught somewhere between human and machine, but unlike Connor’s maternal drive, Grace is fueled by a soldier’s loyalty and sense of purpose (along with some other hidden motivations). The combination of familiar and unique aspects makes Grace a worthy addition to the pantheon and one of the most original and interesting franchise characters in a long while. I was especially impressed how such a formidable warrior was given vulnerabilities that made her struggle to protect Dani all the more heroic.
Columbian actress Natalia Reyes storms onto the American scene by finding her own niche within the trio of formidable females. Though Dani is seemingly destined to share Sarah’s fate, not everything is set in stone. Reyes establishes Dani’s strength of will early on, and despite her tragedies, she mines that will to persevere and drive toward hope. She’s an inspiring character, and Reyes has both the endearing sweetness and underlying resolve to raise Dani above a simple damsel in need of saving. In fact, in many ways, she ends up saving her protectors, a beautiful and powerful sentiment.
Lastly, Gabriel Luna (best known as the Ghost Rider from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) brings a new dimension to his killer robot. While certainly staying true the stoic relentlessness of his machine brethren, this new Terminator has several novel abilities that make him the most formidable yet. We’ve seen, particularly from Robert Patrick’s T-1000, that Terminators can mimic human affability with disturbing precision. The Rev-9 takes that to another level, with Luna getting the chance to be a bit playful in certain scenes. But when needed, Luna nails that physical menace, doubled by the fact this version can separate his oily liquid-metal skin and his underlying endoskeleton. That gimmick serves a direct purpose, allowing for multiple threats requiring the combination of heroes to overcome.
That teamwork comes through in spades as each character brings something the others don’t, and both the smaller, personal moments and the epic-level action scenes serve to reflect their unique contributions. And when the action gets going, it’s relentlessly paced and visceral in its intensity. Director Tim Miller (Deadpool) knows how to stage amazing sequences that keep the audience on the edge of their seats but also feel organic and earned. No set piece feels shoehorned, and the action comes regularly and with plenty of thrills. One of my favorite aspects is the speed with which the Rev-9 moves in comparison with the previous models. He’s fast, vicious, and it takes a hero equal to the task to keep up, making the danger feel far more immediate and threatening, and the calls coming much, much closer.
For 35 years, fans of the Terminator franchise have been clamoring for a worthy sequel to T2, and for my money we’ve finally gotten it. Dark Fate reenvisions Cameron’s universe while staying true to its original roots and effectively utilizing the best of its hallmarks. Sure, some will cry foul and use the seeming repetition as an excuse to pan or flat-out skip it. But first off, I ask you to please give it a fair shake. Audience scores have been coming out consistently high. If you view the series as simple popcorn escapism, you’re surely to leave satisfied. And if crave a little more substance, then I ask you secondly to look deep at what the movie is trying to say. The question of fate has always loomed large, as has the question of how much we can impact it. I think what this film purports to say is that without careful consideration of our basic nature, we may indeed find our ruin inevitable—but by the same token, our redemption may be as well. For every Judgement Day, there is a leader representing our salvation, the indomitable spirit of humanity to counter our destruction, and that may be our “Dark Fate.”
But hope looms large, as the ending here leaves the door open for a potential break in the cycle. Personally, I hope we get the chance to see that come to fruition, but it starts now. Get out to your local theatre and strap in for some fun—it may be your last chance!
YANG: Dolemite Is My Name
Whether you know the name of Rudy Ray Moore or not, you’ve likely at least heard the name of his legendary alter ego: Dolemite! Of the Blaxploitation-era films of the 70s, the first Dolemite stands somewhat in infamous glory as a crass, low-budget, poorly acted kingpin lording over its bigger, better, and more recognizable contemporaries. And yet, it may be the most influential of them all, precisely because of its all-out, unapologetic absurdity. But despite where it’s ended up, it was a hard road to get there. And now, nearly 45 years from its release, one of the men Moore influenced—the illustrious Eddie Murphy—is finally bringing Moore’s story to life in the Netflix-released Dolemite Is My Name.
Eddie Murphy and Rudy Ray Moore have a lot in common. Both have been accused of being overly crude—hell, downright filthy—in their attempts to make people laugh. But while Murphy’s success came rather quickly and fed his ego early on, Moore had nothing but his ego and drive to will himself into success much later in life. And perhaps that’s why now is the perfect time for Murphy to tell Moore’s story. Despite having tried to make the film for over a decade (including before Moore’s death in 2008), it feels like the world is finally ready for his tale, and Murphy is old enough and perhaps now humble enough to tell it.
The films recounts Moore’s classic American journey from a poor nobody struggling all his life until he was able to pull himself up by the bootstraps and achieve his dream. While that might be a slight romanticism, it’s not far off. When we meet Moore, he’s a man who can’t even get his songs played by the DJ at the record store where he works! Now that’s low. His nighttime gig as comedic intro to a club band is equally dismal until Moore stumbles on (you might as well say stole) the narrative rhymes of a homeless bum who recounts the tales of the urban legend Dolemite. And from there, Moore finds the character that will finally take him places. But as with all great stories, there are plenty of bumps along the way. As Moore parlays Dolemite into club and underground record success, he’s still not where he wants to be. Realizing that the African-American community isn’t being given the comedic films it craves, Moore decides to take go all in to bring Dolemite to the big screen!
Naturally, Murphy has no problems expressing Moore’s hilarious eccentricities, bringing that unabashed exuberance and energy both as the character Dolemite and in Moore’s no-holds-barred determination to do whatever it takes to capture fame and glory. But Murphy is no dramatic slouch either (he’s an Oscar nominee, after all), and it’s in the quieter, more contemplative and self-doubting moments that Moore as a human being really comes through. He’s a man aware of his shortcomings (not especially handsome, “doughy” around the middle, can barely act, and with a humorous style that sends record and movie execs cringing), but rather than try to change himself, he tries to change the world around him.
And that’s really the message here. The story is larger than one man’s ambition. As Moore tries to show the world why they should accept him, he does the same for those around him as well. This is especially true for Lady Reed (Empire’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a large woman who suffers no fools and gets caught up in the whirlwind of one of the biggest fools of all. Like Moore, Reed might not have found success—or her joy in life—without the belief that she had something to offer and as a representation for those like her in the audience. Randolph infuses Reed with panache and fire, but also with humble doubt. Her scenes, especially with Murphy, are some of the most beautiful and emotional of the film.
Likewise, we see the effect on writer and actor Jerry Jones (played by Keegan-Michael Key). Jones presents himself as a true artiste, a man of substance using words to shine a light on his community’s troubling issues in order to affect real sociological change. Being asked to write a silly comedy about pimps, kung fu hookers, and over-the-top violence was, needless to say, an eye-opener. But it also speaks to a larger theme of art. Jones wanted to reach his people, and did handfuls at a time. But here was this unlikely comedian offering him the chance to reach millions! Key balances out the conflict and eventual buy-in with intelligence, sincerity, and comedic aplomb as only he can, and at the same time provides one of the great audience perspectives to the whole ridiculous scenario.
As the film goes on, we see the same sort of idea play out over and over again. How Moore’s enthusiastic naiveté changed those around him for the better. But he didn’t stop there. Moore also influenced generations of guerrilla filmmakers who simply went out there with a camera and a dream. And believe it or not, his unique rhyme style is even said to have kicked off rap, paving the way for subsequent legends such as Snoop Dog (who cameos as DJ Roj).
Perhaps the biggest irony, however, is that a film starring some of the best African-American comedians and performers out there and about one of the biggest and most revered African-American icons is written and directed by three white men. Screenwriting duo Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander have an impressive pedigree through Big Eyes, Ed Wood, and The People vs. Larry Flint, so they know how to tell strong, emotional, and eccentric stories. And Craig Brewer has a long history with bringing black stories to life with Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan, and the series Empire. And you can’t argue with the end results. But one thing I know for sure is that despite his persona, I doubt Moore himself would have had issue. He was willing to work with anyone and everyone to get ahead, and in this sense, we watch art imitate life all over again.
In the end, Rudy Ray Moore was more than failed comedian whose inherent belief led to eventual national acclaim. And Dolemite Is My Name is more than a film about just him. Both highlight that when a door slams in your face, you find another, and another, or a window. All you need is the willpower and a hook that resonates with the larger world. No one wanted what Rudy Ray Moore had to offer, not the record execs, not the movie houses, not even the Blaxploitation studios. But people and history are the true judges, and nearly half a century later, Moore sees one of the biggest comedic names in history, along with some of the best and brightest stars alongside him, telling his story and hopefully influencing yet another generation. I think Moore would have dug the irony, but I doubt he’d have been the least bit surprised.