Terminator: Dark Fate. 2019
Directed by Tim Miller.
Starring Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta, Enrique Arce, and Edward Furlong.
Sarah Connor and a hybrid cyborg human must protect a young girl from a newly modified liquid Terminator from the future.
With the anticipated return of Linda Hamilton to the Terminator franchise, what better way to start Terminator: Dark Fate than a clip of Sarah Connor’s intense warning about Judgment Day. It’s a reminder that Linda Hamilton is a much better actress than she ever got credit for and that her character drove a lot of the emotion behind these films (the good ones anyway). Additionally, listening to the urgency and fear emanating from her loud and desperate pleading sets the stage that this Terminator sequel (which eliminates everything after Terminator 2: Judgment Day and for good reason) promises to be a return to tone and form. When the dust settles, all one can do is look back on the opening and question the point; this is mechanical and formulaic blockbuster filmmaking that can’t even get by on inherent positive qualities such as diversity, racial commentary, and girl power.
More jarring, this depiction of Sarah Connor doesn’t even gel well her past character. And that’s not a reference to her now being a battle-hardened machine slayer (she receives anonymous text messages tipping her off on the entry points for future machines about to be dropped into the past), but rather turning her into a Marvel-style quipper that has a fascination with potato chips (it’s like a few unused jokes from Deadpool made its way in here). There is the occasional moment that gives Sarah something dramatic to do, but it’s both surprising and offputting how much goofy humor is injected into a no-nonsense badass.
Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t take long to doom itself, using a critical scene early on to establish a game-changing plot element. To clarify, the gall from Tim Miller and the writers (it’s worth noting James Cameron has one of the FIVE story credits, which certainly wasn’t productive towards helping notable writer David S. Goyer and others put t to paper coherently) to shake things up is admirable; we need franchise resurrections that are actually going to mix it up. The problem is that how this event goes down is rushed and finished in 30 seconds with no believability. It’s a damn mess.
Shortly after, the film introduces us to two new models of machines; Mackenzie Davis’ augmented human Grace (basically, she has elevated strength, resilience, and speed with a real conscience) and Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 (a bargain bin T-1000/Robert Patrick that can make a shadow copy of himself during combat, steal the identity of anyone who comes into physical contact with, and appears to have black sludge standing in for liquid metal). Of these new brands of protectors and programmed murderers, Mackenzie Davis fares better given that this particular series has never seen a human/machine hybrid before, and from having a personal connection to her mission. Meanwhile, the Rev-9 is wasted, easy to kill compared to the genius numerous fakeout scenes involving Terminators from the first two movies, doesn’t always take advantage of his powers (how the hell did one of the writers not come up with a way for him to assume the appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger to move in for the kill), and appears to be fairly relaxed when it comes to getting the job done.
For such a supposedly destructive and invincible force, one would think that the Rev-9 would take the bull-in-a-china-shop approach to kill Dani (Natalia Reyes plays the young Latina woman integral to preventing an updated Judgment Day). Eschewing the nonstop action that helped make Terminator 2: Judgment Day the greatest action movie of all time (an adrenaline rush you think a film already bordering on plagiarism would also want to mimic), the filmmakers decide to have the Rev-9 go through an elaborate process to get Dani (who at this point in the story has now teamed up with Sarah Connor and Grace) locked up into an undocumented immigrant detention center, presumably for dividing and simple conquering. Now, there are legitimately some horrifying things going on inside these establishments (there are many glimpses of people in cages), but a Terminator movie doesn’t seem the best place to shove something like that so deep down the throat of an audience. There is no way to say something meaningful about our political climate with zero subtlety, all while severely crippling the pacing of the narrative to do so. The setup and sequence itself inside the detention center meander and are somewhat boring; it’s 20+ minutes dedicated to woke pandering (I can’t believe I’m actually saying this) to cover for how god-awful the story really is.
This is not to say that Terminator movies are obligated to be brainless exercises in action; the best installments of the franchise weren’t and Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t have to be that either. The film actually does bring up ideas such as human nature destined to repeat its same mistakes (Skynet is no more as Legion has risen in technological advances to inadvertently screw over the fate of the human race), how traceable and large of a digital footprint technology is, robots taking over manual labor, and finding purpose in life (there are elements to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character here that I would watch an entire movie on alone, not for the reasons you might think), but Tim Miller never expands upon any of these concepts. Terminator: Dark Fate is too busy rolling out long-winded dialogue exchanges that somehow go nowhere towards building characters and action sequences that are determined to visually rip off nearly every damn thing you can think of from Terminator 1+2.
Linda Hamilton is top-billed and absolutely deserves it, but what’s frustrating is that Terminator: Dark Fate never fully picks up until the group meets up with Arnold Schwarzenegger (it’s best left unsaid what kind of human or machine he is). The dynamic between him and Sarah Connor finally adds a dramatic heft worth investing in, plus some terrific comedy (there are some wild jokes and truly WTF plot beats with Arnold). By extension, the chemistry from them rubs off on everyone else, although it’s difficult to say the climax is worth emotionally caring about.
Natalia Reyes will hopefully not be failed going forward, as there are mighty potential and endless possibilities for Dani’s future. There are also more future war segments than usual, although it’s unfortunate that they function as exposition rather than harrowing battles. The silver lining here is that, for once, there are intriguing avenues to explore following a Terminator sequel; the new introductions to the cast just need better material to work with. Some original action sequences would also go a long way, (I certainly won’t be back if I see one more Terminator conceal another shotgun for a surprise shootout) considering it’s impossible to take what James Cameron did and replicate that meticulous staging, urgency, and thrilling electricity. Terminator: Dark Fate is neither the best nor worst of the sequels; it’s a hollow blockbuster masking itself as a fresh and thoughtful continuation of the story. You can use footage from Linda Hamilton in T2 all you want, but that mask dissolves quick.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com