Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019.
Directed by Tim Miller.
Starring Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, and Diego Boneta.
Sarah Connor and a hybrid cyborg human must protect a young girl from a newly modified liquid Terminator from the future.
Recent years have aptly proven that no movie franchise need be permanently hobbled by a troubled entry – or ten – because if it doesn’t work, just throw it out with the bath water, draw a line under it and start again.
Last year’s table-clearing Halloween sequel radically ditched decades of (admittedly inept) franchise lore, and perhaps more relevant to the Terminator series, X-Men: Days of Future Past famously jettisoned several execrable movies via timey-wimey shenanigans.
Terminator: Dark Fate, then, has been hailed as franchise creator James Cameron’s return to the fold – receiving producer and “story by” credits here – and a supposed return to the form of Cameron’s last foray, the legendary Terminator 2: Judgment Day, to which this film is a direct sequel.
And while the sixth entry into the series is a marked improvement over the risible Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys, it’s tough to shake the feeling that Cameron and director Tim Miller (Deadpool) are dining out a little too voraciously on Cameron’s sci-fi action masterpiece.
Fans will have to ask themselves where the line between homage and cheeky self-cribbing is drawn, and whether they’re content to settle for a warmed-over retread of a classic film you could just watch instead.
Dark Fate takes place almost 30 years after T2, with young Mexican Daniella Ramos (Natalia Reyes) the newest target of a murderous robot, Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), which has the ability to split itself in two for greater combat efficiency. But as an attempt on her life is made, Dani is saved by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a nifty new Terminator sent from the future to protect her, along with a returning Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who has her own urgent motivations for helping to save Dani’s life.
It’s tough to gauge how this movie will play for fans who have patiently been waiting for a Terminator movie which isn’t either miserable or stupid, because while Dark Fate is neither of those things, it’s also a near-paradoxical mix of bold and disappointingly safe.
An instigating incident in the film is sure to send shockwaves throughout the fanbase, a re-arrangement of the chess board which, while brave, feels so utterly perfunctory to its commercial aims that some may feel it undermines the very essence of the first two movies.
Indeed, it’s probably fair to consider Dark Fate something between a sequel and a reboot, for while it is a continuity follow-up to T2, the aggressiveness with which it re-jigs the established lore while basically recycling T2‘s plot and action scarcely makes it feel like a true sequel.
If some may embrace the film as a kinetic love letter to T2, just as many are likely to take umbrage with the fairly empty, low-calorie callbacks to major action beats, dialogues and even precise shots from the series’ best entry. At least three or four set-pieces in the movie skim an indecent amount from T2; in particular, there’s a car chase that’s basically the second film’s viaduct chase 2.0, and a finale that nods a little too eagerly to the iconic steel mill showdown.
Yet none of the action in Dark Fate captures the efficient, tactile energy of Cameron’s two originals; even a film as exuberant and outlandish as T2 feels restrained compared to this, which overdoses on jerky, daft-looking physics-defying action, with blurry, video game-esque CGI approximations of our principal heroes. Miller’s shot selections are basically fine enough, but there’s absolutely nothing here that sticks to the ribs viscerally or otherwise.
Even taken on purely its own terms as a chase movie, outside of the action Miller’s film is handicapped by a ho-hum script which does just right enough by franchise heroine Sarah Connor, yet overburdens itself with explaining away its own wonky non-logic – and deploying some progressive flourishes which, while inherently welcome, are laid on toe-curlingly thick.
The simplicity of “protect the girl, save the world,” juxtaposed with Sarah’s own anguished existence are plenty to carry the movie in-between its glossy set-pieces, yet quite unexpectedly, the inclusion of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 – or as he’s known here, Carl – proves to be one of the film’s real storytelling missteps.
As charming as Schwarzenegger is here as a more “domesticated” character, he’s dropped into the movie with all the grace and necessity of, well, a 400lb machine, and the storytelling gymnastics required to explain his presence are, to put it lightly, howlingly silly. The film somewhat smartly doesn’t overuse Arnie, though, and above all else, he’s growing into his older looks wonderfully.
What keeps the film never less than watchable, however, is uniformly its tripartite cast of female leads. Hamilton, if back to the franchise under questionable auspices, is emotionally and physically plausible as the no-bullshit, three-decades-later Sarah Connor, certainly lending her a more dignified arc than the off-screen death and voiceover cameo she received in the third and fourth films respectively.
Mackenzie Davis is also magnetic (pun intended) as the new heroic guardian character, her slender frame counter to the typical rendition of a Terminator – even T3‘s curvaceous T-X (Kristanna Loken) – while her character’s unique physiology provides a just-unique-enough wrinkle to keep her interesting. If a plot element regarding her conditioning feels rather contrived – she needs to periodically consume drugs to sustain her metabolism – Davis’ physical commitment to the part can’t be denied.
And while Natalia Reyes’ new future hope proxy Dani is underwritten considering her gravity in re-shaping the series’ continuity, Reyes is easy to warm to and neither bunny-stunned to the point of comedy nor implausibly battle-ready. If Dark Fate does indeed lead to a new trilogy as Cameron is hoping, there’s clear potential for her to lead the way, no matter the film’s many narrative misgivings.
Sadly less good can be said for Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9, for while the part doesn’t want for Luna’s efforts, the shiny new Terminator just isn’t much interesting, and can’t even match the most basic, imposing dread of Robert Patrick’s T-1000. The added allure of an R rating does at least allow the killer cyborg to bore its way through fleets of humans with its bladed hands in gloriously gory fashion, but the character’s reliance on goofy, over-stylised CGI makes him feel less a practical threat and more a cartoon character.
If many are already hailing Dark Fate as the best Terminator movie since T2, that feels a touch disingenuous to 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which while itself a major step-down from the first two films, at least felt like a sequel that built on rather than undermined its predecessors. More to the point, it had the courage of its convictions to commit to a haunting downer of an ending, while this film, in all of its over-reliance on existing tropes and iconography, feels rather gutless as a successor.
But Cameron and co. do at least deserve a measure of praise for finally ironing out the series’ tone, which has been on the iffy skids since T3. Dark Fate certainly appreciates the fanbase’s desire for a side order of gallows humour alongside the drama and action, rather than, well, Arnie wearing Elton John sunglasses.
Terminator: Dark Fate is an avatar for the series’ overpowering identity crisis; it wants to provide an off-ramp for new possibilities, all while shackling itself to what came before by way of half-baked “homages.” Cameron can surely do better, though, than dubiously-motivated fan service aggressively playing whack-a-mole with all the nostalgia receptors in your brain. And above all else, is the film’s status as the 4th-best Terminator really worth celebrating?
A cynically calculated rehash of the series’ best entry operating under the guise of affectionate homage, despite game work from a grizzled Linda Hamilton.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.