Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"Zombieland: Double Tap" and "Terminator: Dark Fate":
two-fer review

I recently watched two movies with post-apocalyptic themes—"Zombieland: Double Tap" and "Terminator: Dark Fate"—so I thought I'd review them both together. Both movies also share the themes of family, trust, and teamwork.

If you love something, you shoot it in the face so it doesn't become a flesh-eating monster.
—Wichita (Emma Stone), "Zombieland: Double Tap"

2019's "Zombieland: Double Tap" is the sequel to 2009's "Zombieland." As before, this outing is directed by Ruben Fleischer* and stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and Emma Stone as a group of scrappy survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Wichita (Stone), and Little Rock (Breslin) have become something of a family in the years since we last saw them. Zombies still roam the land, and the survivors do what they can to deal with them. We learn that our group now classifies zombies in several categories: there are the stupid, bumbling Homers; the clever, tool-using Hawkings; and the silent, deadly Ninjas. A fourth type of zombie appears—first as a rumor, then as a confirmed sighting: the T-800: tougher, more agile, and far harder to take down. Our heroes wander over to DC and settle into the now-abandoned White House, but when Columbus expresses a desire to marry Wichita, and Tallahassee proves to be too much of an overbearing father-figure to Little Rock, the ladies leave, returning to their former life on the road. Little Rock, however, isn't looking to pair up with Wichita again: she's a teen, now, and she wants to strike out on her own, so she abandons Wichita, who goes back to the White House to enlist the boys' aid in finding Little Rock before she gets herself killed.

"Double Tap" could have been a simple retread of the 2009 film, but it adds some new characters to the mix. First up is Madison (Zoey Deutch), a stereotypically airheaded blonde who has somehow managed to survive the zombie apocalypse primarily through luck. Madison, lonely and horny, falls in with Columbus and jumps his bones shortly after Wichita's departure. Tallahassee finds romance in the form of Nevada (Rosario Dawson), a tough lady who keeps watch over a memorabilia-filled Graceland hotel (where Columbus discovers that his feet are a perfect fit for Elvis's shoes). Little Rock, having left the group, finds herself traveling with Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a "Namaste"-spouting hippie musician who takes credit for writing classic '60s songs. While in Graceland, our heroes encounter their seeming doppelgangers, Albuquerque and Flagstaff (Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch, respectively), who have exactly the same looks and mannerisms as Tallahassee and Columbus.

Aside from trying to find Little Rock and dealing with the new T-800 zombies, "Zombieland: Double Tap" doesn't offer much of a plot. Things finally gel when the group locates Little Rock in a hippie colony called Babylon, but a nighttime fireworks celebration inadvertently acts as a dinner bell that alerts thousands of local zombies to the presence of living humans. With the group's weapons having been confiscated and melted down as a condition of their entry into Babylon, our protagonists have to figure out some way to fight the approaching horde.

I didn't go into "Zombieland: Double Tap" with high expectations, and I was rewarded for my attitude. The comedy is generally funny, although not laugh-out-loud funny for me. The 2019 film's exploration of the four core members of the group from the 2009 film made for some interesting character development, but nothing about this movie was particularly deep—nor was it meant to be. "Double Tap" is just another opportunity to watch zombies get clobbered, shot at, mangled, and otherwise dispatched.** It's watchable, feel-good entertainment, guaranteed to put a smile on your face, but that's about as far as it goes. All the actors do a fine job in their roles, although I kept thinking that Abigail Breslin's voice, much more mature ten years later, reminded me of some other actress's voice; I simply couldn't figure out whose. Overall, "Double Tap" comes recommended. It's got some quotable lines (see above), a dash of self-aware humor (Tallahassee's old "Nut up for shut up" line is met with a snarky "That's so 2009" retort), plenty of gun- and tool-related violence, and two hilarious end-credits flashback scenes involving Bill Murray who, you'll recall, got killed in the 2009 film.

I'm reliable, a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.
—Carl the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), deadpanning, "Terminator: Dark Fate"

I didn't end up thinking that "Terminator: Dark Fate" was all that horrible a Terminator movie, but I have to agree that the movie's retconning of the past cheapens the events of 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." James Cameron is back and involved this time around, both as a co-writer of the script and as a co-producer, and the big news is that "Dark Fate" reunites Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton as the T-800 Terminator and Sarah Connor, respectively. We don't actually meet the T-800 until more than halfway through the movie, but when we do, the plot shifts into high gear.

"Dark Fate" begins with the intersecting stories of Grace and Dani. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a cybernetically enhanced human being sent back from the future to protect Daniella Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from a new type of Terminator called a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). The reason for the change in designation from "T" models to "Rev" models is that Sarah Connor, in altering the future and defeating Skynet by giving birth to—and later training—her son John, has inadvertently facilitated the rise of a different malevolent AI called Legion, which has the same goal of eliminating all of humanity, partly by sending Terminators back in time to kill people who might grow up to become leaders of an anti-AI resistance. Grace does what she can to protect Dani from the Rev-9, which has a metal endoskeleton and a liquid-metal exterior that can detach itself and function independently, thus creating two opponents. Grace's cybernetic enhancements require her to consume far more energy than a normal human does; she was designed for bursts of activity, not for sustained combat, and she is in constant need of food, water, and meds to stay capable.

Grace and Dani are attacked by the Rev-9 on a freeway in Mexico, and they receive help from an unexpected source: 60-something Sarah Connor, now a bereaved mother who lost her son John twenty-two years earlier when a final T-800 was sent back in time to kill the boy. Sarah tells the pair that she receives texts from an unknown, encrypted source that alerts her every time a new Terminator appears in the current timeline, and she has devoted her life to killing Terminators, each kill being a blow on behalf of her dead son. The unknown source of the texts, the group discovers, is none other than a Terminator that now calls itself Carl (Schwarzenegger). Carl had completed his mission, and when the future was altered by Sarah and John Connor, Carl was no longer connected to Skynet, thus freeing him to follow his own desires. Carl developed a conscience when he settled with a family and began to understand what he had taken away from Sarah when he killed her son. As a way to assuage his guilt and to give Sarah a sense of purpose, Carl began texting Sarah the coordinates of arriving Terminators, using his special abilities to sense and pinpoint each Terminator's chrono-energy signature. The Rev-9, meanwhile, has proved to be extremely difficult to kill, and when it becomes clear that Dani is to be the new leader of the new resistance against Legion, the group does what it can to create a trap into which to lure the Rev-9 and defeat it.

Where "Dark Fate" goes wrong is in killing off John Connor at the very beginning of the movie. This happens in a scene with some impressive de-aging special effects: we see a young Sarah and a preteen John (played again by Edward Furlong, who must be in his forties by now) at the beach, when a Terminator (de-aged Arnold Schwarzenegger) walks up and coldly blasts the boy in the chest with a shotgun before simply walking off. The movie is unclear on whether this event did anything to alter the future; somehow, we end up with the Legion/Rev-9 timeline despite the killing of John Connor, who was supposed to grow up to lead the resistance. In the meantime, this event cheapens the conclusion of "Terminator 2," in which the Terminator kills the T-1000, helps destroy the microchip that will lead to the development of Skynet, and then destroys itself to prevent anyone from harvesting the chip inside its own head. All these sacrifices turn out to mean nothing.

Of course, this is a narrative problem inherent to all time-travel stories: once you establish that people can go back in time with ease, then any amount of damage can be undone again and again. The constant jumping backward in time also produces problems in story logic, usually of the "Why didn't they jump further back in time?" variety. Aside from that gaping plot-hole, though, "Dark Fate" is a watchable story. It's not particularly original, though, and it confirms most viewers' feelings that the Terminator franchise has basically played itself out. In this sixth film in the series, a deadly Terminator is sent back in time, and a protector is also sent back: there's nothing new about this scenario.

The cast does what it can with what it's been given. Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, and Natalia Reyes all play their roles with grit and feeling, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born to play stoics with deadpan delivery, does a fine job as Carl. The cast is ill-served by the writing, though; I ended up feeling that there were some missed opportunities in terms of character interaction and development. For example, Sarah Connor can't get past her hatred of Carl, but Dani warms to the aging Terminator and empathizes with his efforts to become a caring human being. This would have been interesting to explore further. Also, the group must learn to put aside differences and function as a team, but the story doesn't move the contentious group dynamic in a clear direction. Alliances are formed because they're practical, not because they're infused with human feeling. Grace can't stand Sarah because she and Sarah are both vying for the role of Dani's protector; Sarah can't stand Carl because he murdered her son, and this emotional stalemate doesn't really budge for the rest of the film.

Carl adds some comic relief to the proceedings; he has been living the life of a drapery-service worker: someone who helps customers select drapes that he will install in their homes. He lives with his life-partner (or is she his wife?) Alicia and his stepson Mateo; when Sarah Connor asks him how Alicia hasn't realized he is a 400-pound machine, Carl deadpans that his relationship with her is not physical, and all she cares about is that he's turned out to be good at things like changing diapers and being a good listener. Carl also considers himself reliable and funny, and Schwarzenegger inhabits the role to a tee.

But despite these positives, "Dark Fate" doesn't really rise above the mediocre. As mentioned above, while the film deals with (or at least flirts with) the theme of family, it fails to explore the developing dynamic between and among the principals. Sarah Connor never really sheds her hatred for Carl (which may make sense given that Carl is not the same Terminator as the friendly one from "Terminator 2"), and Dani's warmth for Carl isn't examined very closely or developed into something more. Another problem is that Tim Miller's direction of the action sequences in this movie is nothing like what he did when he helmed "Deadpool." That may have been one of the most shocking and disappointing aspects of this film: "Deadpool" was Miller's very first feature-length effort, and he knocked it out of the park with some super-competent direction. "Dark Fate," by contrast, is something of an editing nightmare, with action scenes using confusing cuts that convey impressions and emotions, but not actual information. I had to wonder whether this was the selfsame Tim Miller.

In the end, I agree with everyone who said that the Terminator franchise really ought to have ended with "Terminator 2." Since no one seems to have come up with a better story for each movie, and since time-travel stories inherently pose certain narrative difficulties, the filmmakers really ought to have left well enough alone, or they should have done the ballsy thing and attempted to craft a Terminator story that didn't involve any time travel. Instead, we've got a franchise that is little more than a heavy, tired endoskeleton dragging itself toward the cliff's edge of its own dark fate.

Both "Zombieland" and "Terminator" deal with themes of family, teamwork, and the post-apocalypse. "Zombieland" does a somewhat better job of juggling these notions, and it also provides more self-consistent world-building. "Terminator" suffers from a slew of time-travel-related problems, as well as from sub-par scripting and surprisingly sub-par direction by a man who can definitely do better. The latter film is watchable, but only barely. The former film has its heart in the right place and will provide you with a chuckle or two. Plus, it's got another hilarious dose of Bill Murray.

*The word Fleischer is German for "butcher"—an appropriate surname for a man directing a movie about flesh-eating zombies.

**The zombies in this movie don't seem to be undead: when a character shoots them or lops off body parts, there's a great deal of spurting blood, which implies a still-living circulatory system. So zombiism is just a viral infection?

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