I’m about to say something I never thought I would. And this is something that might be a shock to some of you reading this, given everything that’s happened, so you might want sit down before continuing.
The new Terminator movie… is actually pretty good.
Yes, shocking I know. I wasn’t even planning on actually seeing this one, to tell you the truth. Yeah, the trailers looked alright, and the promise of James Cameron, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to try and recapture the old time-traveling, killer death-robot magic after several failed attempts was certainly encouraging, but I thought I had been burnt out on the series. But my family had gone to the movies to celebrate my brother’s birthday, and the film we wanted to see was packed to near-full capacity. So, we saw this one instead.
And I’m glad we did, because while it’s not perfect by any stretch, it might just be a step in the right direction for a series that was long believed to have peeked. Cameron and Deadpool director Tim Millar don’t just ignore the less than stellar entries that have plagued the franchise since 1991’s T2: Judgement Day, they de-canonize them outright. They don’t even bother trying to retcon them away with weird time-travel shenanigans like before, they straight up throw them out. For all intents and purposes, this is basically Terminator 3 if Cameron had stuck around. Trust me, it’s for the best.
The plot itself goes that after the events of T2, Skynet (the evil AI that conquered humanity in the previous films) has been truly prevented from rising in the first place. The disastrous Judgment Day never came to pass… or so it seems. Instead, humanity ends up creating an even more dangerous AI called Legion in the future, which sends a new model of Terminator called the Rev-9 back in time to take out a key player of the future human resistance, a seemingly lowly Mexican woman named Dani, in the grand old tradition of the series. (It’s not John Connor this time, and there’s a spoilerific reason for that). And, in the grand old tradition of the series, the humans send a protector, this time an “enhanced” cyborg named Grace, after it to protect her. This task proves to be difficult due to the Rev-9’s new ability to make a copy of itself from its human skin and Grace’s own overheating problem… at least until a very familiar and very ticked off survivor of this sort of thing arrives to even the odds. Sarah Connor. From there, it’s a frantic race to meet up with Sara’s mysterious informant in the States and gain the edge they need to take out the metal menace, leading to a fiery final battle at a military airport.
On the surface, the plot itself doesn’t really deviate from what’s come before, reading more or less like the first movie with a 2019 coat of paint, but it’s still decently executed for the most part, and there are a few new elements here and there to keep things fresh. A new AI with the same mission as Skynet seems a bit repetitive, but honestly I find it easier to swallow than Skynet just randomly being created some other way at a later date (*cough* Terminator 3*cough*). At least this way, things feel like humanity’s hubris leads it to make the same mistakes over again without completely undermining the sacrifices made to stop Skynet in T2. There’s one very shocking moment in the beginning of the movie that will no doubt send the fandom into a firestorm, but speaking candidly, in ways I can’t really elaborate on without spoiling it, the more I think about it, the more I get it from a narrative standpoint. I might need to do another article about it, so stay posted. Also, the movie touches up on a few recent issues like automation and detention of immigrants, but these feel more like background elements rather than any attempt at a political statement.
The acting is pretty solid across the board. The Rev-9 (played by Agents of SHEILD’s Gabriel Luna) is a worthy evolution of the killer robot, serving as a terrifying juggernaut for our heroes. Sarah Connor is as awesome as ever, with Linda Hamilton conveying her as a hardened survivor still deeply wounded by a personal tragedy. Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes carry themselves well as Grace and Dani respectively, and this movie’s version of Arnold’s iconic T-101 might very well be the best in the franchise. Without getting into spoilers, again, his backstory is surprisingly deep, and he has this whole “fish out of water that has since grown legs and lungs” vibe that is utterly hilarious.
One of the franchise’s strong suits has always been pulse pounding action, and this installment delivers that in spades. There’s this great car chase at the beginning that nicely establishes both Grace and Rev-9’s capabilities (the latter’s black ooze and arm blades reminds me of Prototype, I wonder if Cameron ever played it), all capping off in Sara’s return. She literally rams into one of the Rev-9 “halves,” then steps out all decked in guns and off brand military gear to fire off a missile at the other. “Hell yeah” doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling. The other action scenes aren’t quite up to that high note, but there’s an intense chase at a border detainment camp, with Rev-9 ruthlessly slicing his way through an oncoming crowd of guards and prisoners in pursuit of Dani, and a thrilling final fight at an air base where Sarah, Grace and Arnold all team up to take down the evil bot.
But the movie isn’t without its shortcomings. While most of the action sequences are well-done, there’s this one part set underwater. At night. It’s about as easy to see as you might expect. Not to mention the whole sequence on the plane gets a tad excessive after a point. Also, while I liked Grace overall, I found her decision to volunteer for cybernectic “enhancement” to be a bit spur of the moment for such a life-altering decision. While the effects used to de-age Sarah in the beginning were really good, I found the similar effort to reduce Edward Furlong’s John back to his T2 self to be Uncanny Valley. And finally, the “twist” with Dani towards the end is something I pretty much suspected going in already. I’m not sure why they even bothered trying to hide that.
Overall, this is a solid entry in the franchise. There isn’t a whole lot that hasn’t been covered already, but what’s on display here is really well-done. This is the first Terminator film since Judgement Day that isn’t at least half terrible, and the presence of Sarah after so long was a welcome factor. In a way, the movie itself mirrors its ending scene, bittersweet but cautiously optimistic for the future ahead as Sarah and Dani ride into the unknown. Kind of like the series after this movie.
© 2019 J Brodie Shirey