When it comes to movies in the Terminator franchise not named The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the bar has been set so low so as to be subterranean. After nearly two decades of terrible sequels and fumbled reboots, it comes as no surprise that Terminator: Dark Fate surmounts that bar easily. But with “The best Terminator movie since the first two” being a statement that has been thoroughly defanged and robbed of merit by now, I won’t use it to describe Terminator: Dark Fate. No, I’ll simply say that it’s good. Not great – most certainly not a timeless masterpiece of the sci-fi action genre like those first two films – but good.
Of course the big headline-grabbing news here is that not only is original creator James Cameron returning to the fray – even if just in a producing/story development function as he hands the directing reins to Tim Miller – but original star Linda Hamilton is stepping back into the combat boots of iconic heroine Sarah Connor for the first time since 1991’s T2. If you’re wondering how the latter can be, seeing as Sarah Connor died in the sequels, it’s simple: They never happened. That’s the central rub of Dark Fate, a direct follow-on from T2 that picks up 20 years after the events of that film and ignores everything in between.
This isn’t quite Hamilton’s movie though, even though her Sarah Connor thoroughly chews up large quantities of it with gravelly emotion and peerless snark, proving without a doubt that the franchise has sorely needed the spark she brings. The bulk of the running time is instead devoted to new characters Grace and Dani – the former is an augmented human soldier from 2042 played by a consummately badass Mackenzie Davis, all toned physique and hard will, while the latter, played by fiery newcomer Natalia Reyes, is the charge Grace has been sent back from the future to protect for mysterious reasons.
The “mysterious” descriptor there is more the movie’s intention rather than its actual execution as the script from David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray, is anything but clever or inventive. In fact, part of me is hesitant to actually call Dark Fate a sequel rather than a remix of the first two films. Cameron, Miller and their writing crew stuff the film with throwbacks and nods – some sly, a few oafishly lumbering – to the point where some might feel it slips from homage to derivative. In my opinion, they walk that line well enough though, and actually even find a reason within the narrative and the film’s overarching theme of predestined fate to make the repetition work.
Of course, the argument can also be made that the now-abandoned sequels and reboots sometimes tried to deviate massively from Cameron’s blueprint in the first two films and they ended up as limp failures. So borrowing from the franchise’s golden days and slapping those elements together under a fresh coat of paint is perhaps actually a good thing. That certainly is the case for Gabriel Luna’s new two-for-one special Rev 9 Terminator which is hunting down Dani. It can split its “mimetic polyalloy” exterior from its toughened metal endoskeleton and have both halves function autonomously, so it is literally the original unstoppable T-800 and liquid metal T-1000 (with a sprinkling of Terminator 3’s T-X) slapped together.
This new technological wrinkle, combined with Davis’ Grace and her substantial physical augmentations, makes for some thrilling, bone-crunching throwdowns, and Tim Miller directs the hell out of them. The Deadpool filmmaker proves that the breakout success of his record-breaking 2016 R-rated comic book blockbuster was no fluke as he puts all his substantial action choreography chops on the table. And in retrospect, given how Dark Fate evokes some of the most iconic set-pieces from the first two films, Deadpool was a great resumé for him. Multipronged highway chases, helicopter chases, architecture-destroying hand-to-hand action; it’s all here.
Miller doesn’t pull it all off without stumbles though. The CGI is particularly inconsistent, going from some impressively realized fully-digital characters (that I won’t spoil) to looking like approximations of human bodies made out of unbaked cookie dough being smooshed together. There’s also one entire night-time sequence that would definitely have looked better in more lit conditions and is sure to be a shadowy hell when viewed in 3D (I watched it in 2D thankfully). And it’s undeniable that occasionally some of the dialogue dips into cringe territory, while the painfully simplistic “grand plan” of our protagonists is sure to see a few foreheads being slapped.
Now I’m sure that some of you may have noticed that I’m nearly 800 words into a review of a Terminator movie and I’m yet to mention Arnold Schwarzenegger and there’s good reason for that. The story of how his old T-800 Terminator ends up in this film and the arc he takes throughout is one of the genuinely surprising elements of Dark Fate, so the less you know going in the better. I will say that it is without a doubt one of the film’s strongest beats, bringing plenty of emotional heft, and Schwarzenegger nails it in the role he was born to play. Like Hamilton, this isn’t his movie, but as the progenitors of this franchise, both demand your attention when they’re on screen. This is even in the light of the statuesque Davis – who often steals the show here with a supremely cool action-heroine turn.
Where the film leaves their characters is also rather refreshing. While Cameron has already hinted at this being the start of a potential new trilogy, Dark Fate doesn’t really reflect that. It’s way more focused on being good by itself in an enclosed, finite fashion rather than setting up some fuzzy conflict over the horizon. Of course, the franchise’s very motto ingrained right down to the building blocks of its DNA is “I’ll be back”, so if this is a commercial success, it definitely will be. The most important thing though is that Dark Fate is good enough on its own that I’ll be happy irrespective of whether this is a new genesis for more or the closing salvation the franchise needed to close out the story of the rise of the machines.
Last Updated: November 1, 2019