Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

When anticipating the new Terminator movie, I had two sets of expectations as to how it would play out. Interestingly enough, these expectations map almost seamlessly onto two modern entries into the first person shooter genre of computer games, DOOM (2016) and the Wolfenstein series. These represent two radically different takes on the same genre, thus serving well as a template for expectations for what a new movie in a roughly adjacent genre might play out.

The old DOOM, of 90s fame, was an unabashed feast of running, gunning and rock music. When you did not run, you gunned. When you did not gun, you sure did run. At higher skill levels, the player did both at once, in a non-stop action romp accompanied by the most rolling of rocks. To call it a cerebral experience would be an insult, given its heavy duty focus on running, gunning and nothing else. See the thing, shoot the thing; nothing is too big to blow up, preferably by gun.

This trend continues in the 2016 incarnation, which manages something as seemingly contradictory as an intelligent take on the shooter genre. Rather than trying to smarten things up with an intricate storyline, sophisticated dialogue or morally ambiguous gameplay choices, the developers intentionally pushed all that aside in favor of even more running and gunning (and ripping and tearing). Cleverly, they chose to express this through the actions of the player character, who at times react to the increasingly over the top story beats in either of two ways: blowing it up or tearing it apart. The most iconic expression of this is a passage where the antagonist lays out how to carefully disassemble a complex device, so as to be able to put it back together later, and the player character responding by simply smashing it to pieces. DOOM is not a game about careful deliberation or consideration; let there be no uncertainty on this point.

Naturally, this is an expectation which fits neatly onto the prospect of a new Terminator movie. It would be all too possible to make a deliberate decision to go all in on the action aspects of the franchise. Big guns, big robots, even bigger explosions, even longer car chases. Drop all pretenses of plot and polish, in favor of a big badaboom spectacle rumbling and tumbling, going back to the series bad to the bone origins, all the while knowing that this is exactly what’s what.

As a contrasting template, we have the Wolfenstein series. The originals played out much like the DOOM series, albeit with slightly less rock music and way more Nazis. See a bad guy, shoot a bad guy. See a suspiciously spaced section of wall, press suspiciously spaced section of wall; three times out of ten, it was a secret door leading to a hidden chamber. Whilst generally slower paced than the DOOM series, those having a rough recollection of computer games from the time would place them in the same overall category. Bang bang.

The modern installations of the franchise, however, are a surprisingly nuanced take on what it means to engage in a sustained campaign of resistance against an overwhelming force with every advantage on its side. The big plot points – with time travel and Nazi moon bases and mecha troopers and the rest of it – are as over the top as all get-out. The discussions amongst the groups of people the player character belongs, and even more so between player character and said groupings, tell a story of resigned hope, sustained subversion of the new order, and of a perpetual iron will to affect change despite everything. It also, between the lines, serves as a critique of the idea that one person, no manner how ridiculously overpowered in terms of computer game conventions, can truly change anything by rampaging through the societal institutions defining our time. The world is ever so slightly too large for a one man fix all solution, and in order to affect institutional change, numbers are needed.

This rejection of the great man theory of history, too, could serve as a template for expectations of a new Terminator movie. Whilst acknowledging its past as a big badaboom spectacle, it would be very possible for it to distance itself from the assumptions inherent in the genre henceforth and strike out in a new direction. Either in terms of simply adjusting the numbers on either side – no longer one robot vs the world, but a whole host of robots against a slightly smaller subset of the world – or by introducing subtle complexities into the concept of killer robots which turn everything on its head. The potential for making things cerebral is, as the case of Wolfenstein has showed, very possible to realize indeed.

The new Terminator movie tries to have it both ways, and partially succeeds. Those expecting a traditional escapade of explosions and excitement get their fill, with some room to spare. At one point, there is a fight in a rapidly descending airplane on fire, because of course there is. At another point, the movie goes out of its way to depict scenes from domestic life in a Hispanic neighborhood, with a quiet dignity and somber pace quite at odds with the aforementioned explosions. As it unfolded, I found myself thinking: this is a Terminator movie?

Make no mistake.  It is a Terminator movie. Only, it’s thirty years later, and the movie makes great efforts to acknowledge this. The world has moved on. Skynet belongs to a bygone era, a timeline which has ceased to exist. No one remembers it other than a select few involved with stopping it; the new killer robots have no names, no known motivations, no known backstory. Their only defining feature is that they are legion, and that they are out to get us. Their sheer anonymity makes them that much scarier – Skynet might be the devil we know, but at least we know it. We do not know what fate ails us in the coming apocalypse, and that makes the old apocalypse stories less interesting. The coming apocalypse will not be instigated by something with a name, and thus we need more nuanced stories to foretell its arrival.

In conveying this message, the new Terminator movie succeeds. As to what comes next, there is no fate but that which we imagine ourselves.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

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