Saturday, November 09, 2019

Wills and Fates

Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

"Our wills and fates do so contrary run" -- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

There's a philosophical problem buried in the second half of Terminator: Dark Fate (2019, directed by Tim Miller) that's new to the series. The Terminator films have always dealt in metaphysics, questioning whether the universe is deterministic or whether it can be affected by free will. This is the dichotomy between the first film in the series and the second. The films since then have mostly tried to have it both ways because if the end of Terminator 2 holds sway, there can't be any more Terminator films going forward. There's too much money at stake for that to derail future films, so these questions mostly get addressed in ways that permit the new films to take place at all, without too much thought about the original dialectic. The new film is mostly unnecessary, as all of the subsequent Terminator films have been unnecessary, except for a brief moment when it veers away from the series' metaphysical dilemma into the realm of epistemology. It asks: "What is the purpose of a killing machine once it has fulfilled its mission?" Then it asks a similar question. "What is the purpose of a mother of the future when that future no longer exists?" It also touches briefly on what it means to be a human being once a trans-human singularity drastically changes the physical bounds of what human beings actually are. It even interrogates, however briefly, the function and moral worth of work in a world where humans are not actually needed to perform that work. All of these questions have been lurking in the underlying structures of the Terminator movies, but this one brings all of them to the surface. It does not, however, dwell too long on them because there's stuff it needs to blow up real good.

The story finds two time travelers arriving in Mexico city. One of them is Grace, an enhanced human supersoldier, sent to thwart the other, a shape-shifting killing machine sent to kill one Dani Ramos, a factory worker of seemingly no great importance. The two time travelers converge on the floor of the factory where Dani works and the battle is joined. Soon, Grace, Dani, and Dani's brother, Diego, are in a high-speed pursuit from the terminator, a chase that results in Diego's death, and ends with Grace and Dani cornered. They are rescued by an older woman who is armed to the teeth. This is Sarah Connor, who has spent the last two decades or so hunting time-traveling killing machines after a terminator killed her son, John. Sarah's future, in which Skynet wages war on the human race, was averted when Sarah prevented its creation. Her Judgment Day never happened. But Terminators still keep appearing and someone has been sending Sarah to deal with them. Dani, Sarah presumes, will be the next John Connor, the one who will give birth to the resistance in Grace's future. In Grace's future, the rogue AI is called Legion, and the terminator it has sent back is almost unkillable. Her strategy is to take Dani somewhere that the terminator can't find her. This is increasingly difficult in a plugged-in world. Grace has help, though. There's a location coordinate tattooed to her abdomen where she can find help, a location that Sarah deduces as the location of her mysterious guide to killing time travelers. This turns out to be an unexpected benefactor, a terminator from Sarah's original future, one that she knows all too well. Dani, for her part, has no desire to hide. She wants to take the battle to the terminator rather than live out the rest of her life in fear...

Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

This film is a direct sequel to Terminator 2. It solves the problem of the series intersecting timelines by the simple expedient of ignoring them. Further, it severs itself from the motivating event of the previous films: the assumption of leadership by Sarah's son. This greatly simplifies things from the convoluted knots one finds in the plots of Rise of the Machines or Genisys or The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It hits the ground running and assumes an audience that knows what happens in Terminator movies, so it doesn't need to explain too much of its basic plot. We've seen this movie before. Because it doesn't need to explain its plot overly much, it is able to take some time to grab some of the other threads of narrative one finds in the original films.

One such thread revolves around the humanity or lack thereof of a killing machine from the future. In Terminator 2, John tries to teach his terminator protector how to be more human and "less of a dick." In the extended cut of that film, John and Sarah reprogram him to become a learning machine, capable, perhaps, of a sentience beyond the narrow confines of its mission. The film allows that terminator to comment on the nature of the human race ("It is in your nature to destroy yourselves," for example, and "I understand now why you cry."). The question of the humanity of its characters is central to Dark Fate, rather than questions of determinism or free will. It's also a meditation on purpose. It approaches these threads from several directions.

The first is Grace herself. Grace is as much of a cyborg as the terminators themselves, only she is going the other way. She started as an ordinary human being who suffers horrifying injuries in her war. She is rebuilt as a supersoldier, faster, stronger, and "better" than before, able to meet her machine enemies with a better chance of survival. But she's also inculcated with her mission to the exclusion of all other motivations. In terms of what she is, there's not a lot of difference between her and a terminator, save for an emotional connection between herself and the woman she is tasked with protecting. Grace also figures in the film's minor theme of bodily autonomy. She volunteered for the job rather than having it thrust upon her, knowing what they would do to her body, and she continues to hack her body to enable her to continue her mission. Her body is hers to do with what she will, and when she demands that her friends turn her body into a weapon to defeat the enemy, it's the logical conclusion of her character arc. She pursues her mission of her own free will, even unto the very end.

As a purely personal interpretation, Grace strikes me as character than can be interpolated into the trans experience, since she maintains her bodily integrity with a regular dose of a drug and has hacked her body well outside of its original specs to match her identity and in order to function in the world. The design of the character (to say nothing of the actor playing her) reads queer, too, although some of that might be residual from Mackenzie Davis's other roles in other films. Your mileage with this will vary, of course, but there's a shock of recognition for me as a trans viewer.

Gabriel Luna in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

The terminator sent back to kill Dani is at the other extreme. It's a pure machine, committed to its mission with such single-mindedness that it allows our heroes to manipulate it to where they want it. They can use its mission against it and do so in the film's last act. This creature is a slave to its purpose, too, and when Dani tries to convince it that it can be more than its mission, it shrugs her off, obliging our heroes to find a way to destroy it. To quote Kyle Reese, it cannot be reasoned with. It is a slave to a determinist creator who does not permit it free will.

Carl, the terminator who killed John Connor, is a different matter all together. In fulfilling his mission, he's adrift in a world where his future never happens. He has to find a purpose to replace his mission and he finds it, surprisingly, in human beings and family. He makes a life for himself, improbably working as a home-decoration salesman. He even feels some need for redemption once he comprehends the magnitude of his crime. His willingness to protect Sarah, Grace, and Dani is motivated by a desire to do penance.

Sarah, for her part, no longer has a purpose in her life, either, and having become a notorious criminal limits her career opportunities. She's spent the last twenty years hunting for time travelers, guided by a mysterious benefactor who sends her her missions. She sees herself in Dani. Of course she does. "I was you," she tells her, if the motivation isn't clear enough. Protecting Dani offers her as much redemption as it does for Carl, and it breaks her out of the existential dreariness of her life.

While the film raises all of these points in no uncertain terms--no need to interpret subtext in this film--it never loses its forward momentum when it stops to examine them. This is a film that has clearly defined action beats at the accustomed intervals of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, some of it spectacular, some of it familiar. As an action film in the abstract, this is positively old fashioned, untouched by either the Hong Kong New Wave, chaos cinema, or the current John Wick-style of filmmaking. This is not a film that re-invents the wheel. Indeed, it's opening movement is specifically designed to echo the truck chase at the start of Terminator 2. Like many franchise films, it knows that part of the game is selling the audience something they've seen before, and that extends to its action sequences.

Linda Hamilton and Natalia Reyes in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

But how it decorates these sequences adds a sense relevance to the present moment in a way that the last couple of films in the series have lacked. First: it refocuses its concerns on women. The main thrust of the original film was to strip way everyone who could help Sarah survive against the terminator and show her rescuing herself. The second film--echoing Cameron's Aliens--is at least partly a film about motherhood run amok. The remaining films are about men (Genisys is ridiculously revisionist, recasting elements of the first two films for an audience of dudebros who might have felt cheated that Kyle Reese wasn't the actual hero of the first film). Three of the four protagonists in Dark Fate are women, which is remarkable enough in a contemporary blockbuster, but this is a film that casts an older woman--Linda Hamilton is 63--as an action heroine. As the most badass character in the film, no less, taking her character from T2 and distilling her down to something even more hard boiled than before. Dark Fate articulates the central politics of The Terminator in Sarah's voice, when she tells Dani that it's all about her womb. That's what matters to the future. If they can't control or destroy that, they can't rule their world. There's a core of feminist rage in this statement. Dani, for her part, rejects this and asserts her own agency for the future. The film's politics extend beyond feminism, though. In setting the film in Mexico, and on the US/Mexico border, it comments on the brutality of the current immigration policies in the United States. Where Terminator 2 found the T-1000 impersonating a police officer (in early-nineties LA) in order to smuggle in a critique of that era's authoritarian impulses, this film dresses its terminator in the uniform of the border patrol. The technological future posited by these films has always been predicated on the increasing abuse of authority by the military-industrial complex of the present. This film has a clear understanding of this. Its images name names. They speak truth to power.

Gabriel Luna in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

It's a kick to see Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger still game for this film, and it amuses me that Hamilton is billed first in the credits for the first time, but both of them are very much supporting players here. I like both Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes as Grace and Dani, respectively, the series' next generation of heroes. I think they look to the future in a way that recasting Sarah and Kyle Reese (or John Connor) in Genisys looked to the past. The film trades on nostalgia, no doubt, but it's the first film since the Terminator 2 that looks to a different future, that doesn't relive past glories, or that doesn't only regurgitate past themes and past images. It may be completely unnecessary, but it's not bad for all that.

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