By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)
Warning: Spoilers in this review.
It’s not too often that two films which share so many similarities are released within weeks of each other.
Even to a viewer unacquainted with the original films, it’s apparent that Terminator: Dark Fate and Charlie’s Angels have a lot more in common than one would expect from two properties owned by two different entertainment companies. Both are reboots of beloved franchises that our parents’ generation grew up with. Both feature a group of strong female protagonists, one of whom is a naive person-of-colour who is thrown suddenly into a tense situation by forces outside her control, but quickly shown the ropes by her more-worldly teammates. Both films take the characters on a chase around the world. And in both, the conflict is driven by an advanced piece of technology.
Despite the modern feminist and technology messages, Terminator and Charlie’s Angels are far from fresh franchises.
The first Terminator film was released in 1984, presenting the intriguing premise of a relentless AI from the future, on a mission to kill a woman before she gives birth to a son who will save the world. Terminator: Dark Fate manages to avoid the pitfalls of previous Terminator films—whose box office performances failed to live up to those of the first two films—by serving as a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, retconning the last three Terminator films entirely. Hollywood veterans Linda Hamilton (who has not appeared in a Terminator film since T2) and Arnold Schwarzenneger reprise their roles as Sarah Connor and the T-800 respectively, throwing in some old-school star power.
The Terminator (1984) vs Terminator Genisys (2015): What happened?
Meanwhile, Charlie’s Angels began as a television series which ran from 1976–1981, getting its silver screen debut only at the turn of the new century with Charlie’s Angels (2000) and its sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). The franchise revolves around three beautiful female detectives who work for a wealthy mystery man named Charlie. The detectives, the eponymous ‘Angels’, are masters of disguise, espionage, and the martial arts.
Both Terminator: Dark Fate and Charlie’s Angels (2019) bank on capturing old viewers’ nostalgia to varying degrees. While it’s Dark Fate which is undeniably the more nostalgic of the two, returning to old stars and continuing the story from the last critically-acclaimed Terminator film, Charlie’s Angels also features subtle nods to past films, with dresses from the original Charlie’s Angels movies being shown in the Angels’ walk-in closet, the character John Bosley, and the Townsend agency.
At the same time, both films have a decidedly-modern, feminist slant, each featuring three strong women as the protagonists, with few male characters. This is especially unusual for the action film genre, which has long been dominated by men, as seen in the popular Mission: Impossible, Fast and Furious and Transformers franchises.
Rectifying the sexist premise of the original films that “you’re not the threat; it’s your womb”—that the only reason worth sending a supersoldier back to the past to save a woman would be because of what her son would do in the future—Dark Fate boldly casts Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) as the Messiah instead of Mother Mary.
“Dani, you are not the mother of some man who saves the future. You are the future. That’s why Legion wants you dead.”Grace, the cyborg supersoldier sent back in time to protect Dani
Charlie’s Angels also dabbles with a similar sort of messaging, with Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) pointing out in the film’s opening minutes that it takes seven minutes longer for a woman to register as a threat than a man. Through humorous moments, Charlie’s Angels also exposes the many hypocrisies of casual sexism: male supervisors who take credit for the work of their talented female subordinates, the insulting assumption that products marketed for women have to be in pastel colours, and the seemingly-innocuous ‘don’t forget to smile!’ that will have female audience members nodding their heads with knowing smirks. The cherry on top is a mid-credits scene which reveals that Charlie is actually… a woman.
However, where Terminator: Dark Fate and Charlie’s Angels diverge most significantly is precisely in their treatment of their strong female characters.
In Dark Fate, leading ladies Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and Grace (Mackenzie Davis) carry the action of the film, wielding a dizzying assortment of assault rifles, handguns, and launchers while peripheral male characters like Dani’s brother, Diego (Diego Boneta), quickly succumb to fatal injuries. Rocking cropped hairstyles and clad in muscle shirts which show off their bulging biceps, these action women curse like sailors, throw hard punches, and slice fruit flies in half with their superhuman reflexes.
Similarly, Charlie’s Angels’ female leads Sabina, Jane (Ella Balinska), Elena (Naomi Scott) and Boz (Elizabeth Banks) are involved in a great deal of action. They tie up crooks with curtains, shoot at assassins from the backs of cars, drive ambulances, ride horses… the list goes on. Unlike in Dark Fate, however, these fast-paced action scenes are balanced out with lighter female-bonding moments between the team, and the magnificent clothes in the Angels’ shared closets. While it’s made clear to us that these characters are consummate professionals, Charlie’s Angels takes the time to show us that they are also people with character traits beyond being badass spies.
This, in my opinion, is the greatest difference between Dark Fate and Charlie’s Angels. Grace and Sarah are hailed as tough, macho, pseudo-men who conform to typical male-driven ideas of strength coming from having a high kill count and protecting the physically weaker members of the team; the Angels, while great fighters, are portrayed as also being strong in other senses of the word, solving problems with their creativity, quick thinking, and looking out for one another. In other words, while Dark Fate celebrates women who are strong because they act like men, Charlie’s Angels celebrates women who are strong because they are women.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a strong female character who ‘punches stuff and shoots stuff’, what could be problematic is if these stereotypically masculine ideas of strength come to dominate the discussion on what a ‘strong woman’ should look like. This could cause female characters who display other kinds of strength (like socioemotional strength, strength of character, or strength in terms of being intelligent) to be discounted from being seen as ‘strong’ in their own right. ‘Strong’ shouldn’t be a character’s sole defining trait. And ultimately, a strong female character should be more than just be a gender-bent version of a strong male character.
Take Dani and Elena, the newbie ‘non-fighters’ of their respective teams, for example. While both exemplify ‘naive everywoman’ in the beginning, Elena is a lot less passive of a character than Dani. Though Elena isn’t as physically fit as the other Angels, she’s able to show her strength in a different way as a systems engineer, hacking into various systems to assist the other Angels throughout the mission. She displays strength when she seeks help from the Townsend Agency upon realising a problem with the Calisto technology; when she steadfastly refuses to transfer root access to the villains; when she reprograms the Calisto device to ‘light up and make noises’ instead of actually going off.
On the other hand, it was a lot harder for me to see what was special about Dani. There were several moments in the film where I just stared at the screen, incredulous that this was the girl who was going to save the world. She seems to lack agency, instead constantly being shepherded around and saved by her buff ‘bodyguards’. And when she is making the decisions, she’s usually putting herself in harm’s way without first thinking through the consequences. For instance, jumping off a helicopter to save Sarah and shoot at the Terminator (useless) despite Grace’s repeated warnings that “everybody dies if you don’t make it”.
Admittedly, though, Dani does seem to become a much wiser character by the third act of the film, proclaiming: “I’m not going to live in fear the rest of my life. I want to stand and fight.”
And out of fairness, it’s also possible to see how Dani is strong in other ways even at the very start of the film: taking care of her father and her brother, and talking to the manager in Diego’s stead when he is about to lose his job to a robot. So here’s a gentler reading of Dark Fate: that it attempts to deconstruct the ‘strong woman’ trope, showing instead how a strong woman is built and the journey she takes to get there.
Speaking of technology: while technology advances the conflict in both films (the Rev-9 in Dark Fate and Calisto in Charlie’s Angels), Dark Fate is the one with the considerably more anti-technology message.
Dani’s brother is fired from his job at the factory when a robot (of the non-murderous variety) comes to take his place at the assembly line. Sarah Connor keeps her phone in an empty bag of potato chips to prevent government agencies from tracing her. “Can’t go through this world without leaving behind a digital trail,” she says. Grace, the cybernetically enhanced soldier, repeats emphatically throughout the film that she’s human, unlike the Rev-9. Even Carl, the repentant T-800, achieves redemption only because he chooses to settle down with a human woman in a little cottage in Texas, spending 20 years learning how to be human. And at the end of the day, it’s the two mechanical ‘good guys’ who perish while the human protagonists survive. The subtext is clear, and it has all the subtlety of a rifle butt to the head: Machine, bad; human, good.
Meanwhile, the technology message in Charlie’s Angels is a lot more nuanced. The protagonist herself is a techie: Elena, one of the good guys, is a systems engineer who graduated top of her class from MIT. Calisto, the device at the centre of the conflict, becomes a threat to the world not because of deliberate malice, but due to the unintended exploitation of a design flaw. And from communicator bangles/tattoos to tablets, the Angels use various gadgets on their missions. Here, the message isn’t ‘tech is bad’ but ‘tech can be bad if controlled by bad people’, which seems like much fairer position to take. In this age of automation, where the fear of AI taking away jobs runs rampant, it feels important to ensure that audiences walk out of cinemas knowing that technology, like a knife, isn’t inherently good or evil. Blame the wielder of the weapon, not the weapon itself.
There are many times when the plot of Dark Fate feels protracted and draggy, since the many rounds of ammunition exhausted on the Rev-9 cannot ‘kill’ it, only slow it down. No matter how many bullets the protagonists empty into the Rev-9, no matter how badly injured they are in the process, and no matter how badly injured the Rev-9 itself seems to be, it’s only a matter of seconds before the liquid Terminator respawns. All the protagonists can do is run away. It feels like a fight that can only be postponed, not won. And while this endless chase might simply be part of the appeal to die-hard Terminator fans, I personally felt very frustrated watching the protagonists toil fruitlessly on screen. By the time the Rev-9 confronts the trio in the hydro-power plant, I’m ready for it to end, one way or another.
On the other hand, Charlie’s Angels presents the protagonists (and the audience) with new challenges each time. The conflict proceeds in a systematic fashion, where it’s clear that with every obstacle they overcome, the Angels are slowly but surely getting closer to their goal of retrieving Calisto. It’s this dynamism that makes the fight scenes (although considerably less gory than Dark Fate’s due to the film’s PG13 rating) more engaging to the audience. And the fact that the Angels are fighting other human beings instead of an invincible AI also opens the opportunity for highly-entertaining trash talk during the fights, adding an element of fun to the danger. Charlie’s Angels’ central villain, John Bosley, who refuses to go quietly after 40 years and take up gardening, has clearer, more relatable motivations. This makes him a much more compelling villain than the inscrutable Rev-9.
In the end, what made Charlie’s Angels a stronger, more enjoyable film for me was the humour. Unlike Dark Fate’s action scenes, which mostly features explosions and running away from the indestructible Rev-9 while shooting bullets which had little to no effect, the fight scenes in Charlie’s Angels are genuinely engaging, with lots of witty banter and displays of camaraderie between the girls. Kristen Stewart, in particular stood out in her portrayal of Sabina, the deadly spy with a silly side.
That is not to say that Charlie’s Angels was perfect. The film’s twists bordered on predictable (it’s safe to assume that all female characters are good) and seemed to promote the inequitable and overly simplistic message that all men were either villainously unscrupulous or hopelessly incompetent.
While my enjoyment levels of these two films certainly differed, it was nice to see female characters take centre stage in an action movie instead of just being there to serve as eye candy, or as a male character’s romantic interest. If nothing, Dark Fate and Charlie’s Angels have at least proven that it’s possible for a film with a predominantly female cast to be engaging, without having an unnecessary romantic subplot thrown in for drama.
With Birds of Prey slated for a February 2020 release, it looks like female-centric action movies might just be on the rise as a new Hollywood trend. But will this be good or bad? We’ll just have to wait and see.