Terminator: Dark Fate bombed at the box office, was woke messaging to blame? (Update)

I went to see Terminator: Dark Fate at the theater this weekend. Apparently that makes me part of a semi-exclusive club. The film underperformed on its opening weekend and is now set to lose the studio a boatload of money:

“Dark Fate” cost $185 million to produce. Variety reports the movie’s marketing and distribution budget was in the $80 million and $100 million range, which means the movie would have to gross in the $450 million range in order to turn a profit. For comparison, “Genisys” tapped out at $440 million worldwide in 2015 after opening in the same margin. Box office analysts tell Variety “Dark Fate” is heading to a final worldwide gross between $180 million and $200 million, which would result in a loss of $100 million or more.

What’s odd about this is that Dark Fate is definitely a better movie than the previous installment. It’s currently got a 70 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 85 percent from viewers. I don’t think it’s nearly that good, but it’s watchable. In fact, some of the early action sequences are very good. And then the movie slows down and gets political.

I’m not going to spoil all the surprises in the film but I have to give some description of the plot for this to make sense, so if you don’t want to know anything, now is the time to click elsewhere.

So, early on we get two terminators coming back to the past, one good and one bad, this time in Mexico. They are fighting over the fate of Dani, a seemingly ordinary girl who works at a car plant. There’s a big battle and eventually Linda Hamilton aka Sarah Connor shows up and helps Dani (and her enhanced female protector, who turns out to be mostly human) escape the villain. For reasons that seem thin even for a Terminator movie, the three female heroes decide they need to cross the border into America. There’s a joke line about trying to cross the border with two “gringos” and then the heroes climb aboard the roof of a train to begin their journey.

The terminator figures out where they are going and takes on the persona of a border patrol agent. The heroes get captured as soon as they cross into America and locked in a detention facility. Then there’s a big fight as the terminator comes to kill them and they try to escape. Lots of border patrol agents get murdered trying to stop the terminator in what feels like a callback to the siege on the police headquarters in the first Terminator film. The difference is that this time it’s not clear we’re really rooting for law enforcement. They all seem expendable. None of them are quite real people.

None of the border trappings in the movie seem important to the plot. The writers made Dani Mexican and then created a need for the characters to enter America so they could make the border patrol an obstacle in the film. As a viewer, it feels like we’re being punished with a lecture for having come to see an action movie. And lest you think I’m overstating any of this, here’s Slate making the point that none of this is accidental:

Its killer bot, the Rev-9, spends the most memorable section of the movie impersonating a type of lawman whose stock is even lower now than the LAPD’s was in 1990: a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent…

The makers of Dark Fate haven’t said anything that would suggest they want their movie read as some kind of allegory pleading for a more humane approach to immigration and border enforcement. Many critics have dismissed the notion that Dark Fate has any political worldview at all—but that’s the franchise fatigue talking…When smart genre filmmakers are doing their best work, they build in this sort of plausible deniability. Playing coy is better than unambiguous moralizing, because that way lies, well, Avatar.

Avatar is a good comparison, actually. That film has a very heavy message about indigenous people that’s its trying to deliver, but the entire film is designed to tell that story. It’s the core of the film from the start. It’s Dances with Wolves in space.

By contrast, Dark Fate isn’t a story about Mexicans crossing the US border. It’s really all incidental to the plot about AI and robots taking over the future. Dani could have started anywhere. She could have been targeted in Toronto and traveled south across the border and nothing would have changed…except you wouldn’t have the opportunity for the filmmakers to moralize about border politics.

To put it another way, I’m sure there were hospital staff who didn’t like how hospital staff were depicted in T2, but I don’t think anyone walked out of that movie thinking it was a message movie about psychiatric hospitals. That wasn’t the point. But in Dark Fate, it feels like the filmmakers expended a lot of energy making space for this commentary.

And there’s more. I won’t spoil it but one of the big reveals in the film is a female empowerment moment which you’ll see coming about 45 minutes before it happens. Again, it doesn’t seem that important to the story except it was meant as a moment for feminist Terminator fans to cheer I guess.

So much of this film feels like it was crafted to appeal to progressive moviegoers that after a while anyone who isn’t cheering for the not-so-hidden messages will probably feel unwanted in the theater. Of course this film bombed on opening weekend so it can’t all have been word of mouth about the woke elements, can it? I’m not sure. Maybe people are just tired of giving this franchise another chance, sort of like the Aliens franchise that also has become a mess in recent years. If so, this definitely isn’t the movie that is going to turn things around. It’s not Lady Ghostbusters levels of bad, but it seems to be competing for the same woke audience at times.

Update: This rather brutal review is nothing but spoilers for the entire film, but if you’ve seen it (or don’t care about seeing it) this makes the case there are lots of problems with the film beyond the woke messaging: