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Front Page - Friday, November 15, 2019

Critic's Corner: Not even Cameron could save this ‘Terminator’ chapter

I had a good reason to be optimistic. Twenty-eight years and three wretchedly bad sequels after the release of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” series creator James Cameron was returning to the franchise that first displayed his considerable talents for storytelling, world building and nail-digging action.

Cameron opted out of the series after “T2” to make “Titanic” and “Avatar,” but after seeing the “Terminator” story mishandled in a string of notoriously bad reboots, he was returning – and he was bringing actress Linda Hamilton as heroine Sarah Conner back with him.

Doing so meant ignoring the third through fifth films in the series. Since most fans of Cameron’s “Terminator” films want to forget those movies anyway, I had no issues with this; I was just excited about Cameron being involved with the series again, even as a writer and producer and not the director.

It therefore pains me to say Cameron should have left well enough alone. Instead of three forgettable sequels to two classic sci-fi action films, we now have four. Worse, “Terminator: Dark Fate” obliterates the triumph of the second film, retroactively rendering that film pointless.

This happens soon after “Dark Fate” opens. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but it angered me to the point of wanting to walk out. “No,” I told myself. “Cameron had a good reason for doing this. Give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Before long, however, I realized the opening scene existed simply to allow Cameron and the five other writers credited with the story and screenplay (never a good sign) to set up a new film that tells the same story as the first two “Terminator” films, only with different characters.

In other words, like the machines that keep sending Terminators back in time to slay the mother of the human resistance before she gives birth to him, Cameron and company kill the past to rewrite the future.

They should have known better. After seeing the lackluster narrative of Disney’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” in which the studio basically retold the original “Star Wars” film with a new cast, they should have conspired to do something new and compelling.

Instead, “Dark Fate” features Dani, another feisty female who must escape a shape-shifting machine that was sent to eliminate her before she stirs up trouble in the future. In other words, Judgment Day happened despite Sarah’s heroics in “T2,” and now the cycle is starting all over again.

Who cares? I didn’t. After the infuriating gut punch at the beginning of the film, “Dark Fate” tells a predictable story that comes to life only when Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as an aging T-800 late in the movie.

This is the role that made Schwarzenegger famous, and even though I dislike “Dark Fate,” it warmed my heart to see him bookend his career by once again slipping on the Terminator’s trademark black leather jacket and grabbing a giant gun. (He thankfully doesn’t don a pair of dark shades.)

The rest of the cast is good, too, especially Mackenzie Davis (from AMC’s fantastic but barely watched “Halt and Catch Fire”) as an enhanced human sent back in time to protect Dani. Unfortunately, everyone’s efforts are wasted on the uninspiring material.

The often shoddy-looking special effects also sting. Although the computer animation in “T2” seems primitive today, at the time, it was a jaw-dropping advancement that changed the industry. But “Dark Fate” commits the same sin as many other modern genre films in cutting corners.

Although the first shot of the new Terminator duplicating itself is impressive, this is marred by many stiffly animated shots of characters jumping, running and rolling. A few of the computer-generated stunts are so inferior, I couldn’t imagine Cameron saying, “Good enough.”

Director Tim Miller (“Dead Pool”) does a decent job with the action in “Dark Fate,” but he’s no Cameron. None of the chases or fights in his film have the firepower of the first two movies in the series.

Cameron plans to write and produce two more “Terminator” films, but I’ll be surprised if this happens. The absence of money talks, and people aren’t showing up for “Dark Fate.” If audiences don’t care about this series anymore, why should the studios that keeping making these movies care?

Instead, I believe “Dark Fate,” in which Schwarzenegger sadly says, “I won’t be back,” will serve as the fitting final nail on the coffin of this formerly ground-breaking series.