When the latest entry in the Halloween franchise was released in 2018, it was greeted as a welcome bit of a reset button. By ignoring all the sequels to the classic original and bringing back the woman who gave the franchise its hero’s heart, it told a solid, engaging story while staying true to the roots of what made the original so beloved. It even added a few extra female protagonists into the mix, which was met with praise in most corners but condemnation from the rather toxically-masculine parts of the fan base. Terminator: Dark Fate is traveling almost the exact same path almost exactly a year later, with similar if slightly less stellar results.
The prologue starts shortly after the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day then quickly leaps forward twenty years to the present day. A new killer robot, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), has been sent back in time to terminate young Dani (Natalie Reyes). Also sent back is a cybernetically augmented soldier named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), whose mission is to protect Dani to ensure humanity’s future. They cross paths with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who has spent the past two decades hunting down the multiple Terminators previously sent back to kill her son John. One of those Terminators, who has since integrated into humanity and forsaken his mission, becomes a vital ally in their stand against the unrelenting Rev-9 and its mission to ensure humanity’s future demise.
And yes, said rogue Terminator is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. You can’t really have a Terminator film without him, can you? I mean, you can if you want. It’s just doomed to failure. Then again…
WARNING! REVIEW MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Dark Fate does the very wise thing of shunting all the films in the franchise after T2, as well as the TV show, into alternate realities. It also dials down the time travel aspects the series is known for a little, preferring to stick to immediate action. Well, most of the time. There are large stretches where very little happens except “plot stuff.” But when things do happen, watch out. You will be dodging shrapnel on this ride.
And “plot stuff” is the best way to describe the non-explosiony parts of the film. This is the first Terminator film since T2 to have any involvement from James Cameron, who has both producer and (sadly) “story by” credits. Cameron has an unmatched eye for scope, theme, and spectacle; but Aliens aside, the quality of his stories and scripts is often lacking. The best parts of the film’s plot threads are all theoretical; the true story isn’t what’s happening in front of us but what will happen if Grace and Sarah fail to protect Dani. It’s the nightmare future scenario aspect of the franchise that’s always been the most intriguing aspect of it, and that’s here in full force. More so than any of the films between Dark Fate and T2, this one feels like a proper, old-fashioned Terminator film.
That has its good side and its bad side, though. Director Tim Miller has done a great job of emulating Cameron’s style and beats…at times perhaps far too well. Too often, the wit and inventiveness that marked his direction of Deadpool is missing, appearing only in short bursts. The action scenes are remarkably efficient, and they deliver the thrills they’re supposed to, but he saves most of his best moments for the finale. And even then, the structure of the climactic battle is more than a little derivative of the final act of T2. Miller almost leans on that film like a crutch at times, as if he’s afraid to add too much of his own personality, intimidated by its legacy. The film still works, but it could have probably worked a little better. Even the nuances of Junkie XL’s otherwise propulsive score get lost in Miller’s dedication to replication.
What turns out to be the heart of the film, however, isn’t its action scenes or its future dystopia framing but its characters. There are not enough words to describe how much of a welcome presence Linda Hamilton is here. She arrives with a literal bang, firing rounds of heavy artillery into the Rev-9 during a standoff on a highway. Hamilton is still as steely as ever, her vulnerability and hope covered in layers of battle-scarred emotional armor. She’s the world’s most badass senior citizen, and she’s as here for it as the rest of us are.
Which is not to discount how much her co-stars bring. Mackenzie Davis’s Grace is an excellent contrast to Hamilton’s Connor. Whereas Sarah Connor is all cold rationality and tactics, Grace is mostly driven by emotion and desire. It can even be seen in their fighting styles, with Sarah using guns that rely on precise aim and Grace favoring melee weapons that require her to get personal. Natalie Reyes is also quite appealing as Dani, even if she isn’t given quite as much to do. Her character arc is largely unrealized in the immediate narrative, but Reyes has a natural charm and openness that draws you in. That the future of humanity here lies in the hands of a young Mexican woman and not a white man seems like both an awesome bit of progressive representation and an intentional stick in the eye to toxic fanboys who spend time hating on Mad Max: Fury Road and the 2016 Ghostbusters for daring to make female characters the focus of genre films.
The most surprising performance might actually be Schwarzenegger’s, who is very warmly subdued this time around. He doesn’t wink at the camera, and the script doesn’t require him to be a kind of musclebound comic relief. He’s a no-nonsense papa bear with a Vulcan-like sense of emotion. The Terminator is clearly a role he’s lived with for decades, and even this remixed incarnation of it comes off as organic and lived-in in the best ways. As for the new robotic menace, Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 isn’t quite as compelling as the original Terminator or even Robert Patrick’s T-1000, but Luna has a quietly intimidating presence. The Rev-9 is the most human-like Terminator yet, and Luna balances that aspect with the cold sociopathy necessary to be an effective and effectively-terrifying villain.
One of the film’s main drawbacks, however, is viewing it in the broader context of the previous Terminator films. While the opening scenes establish Sarah and John did stop Skynet from awakening and destroying humanity, the future is still bleak. As Grace explains early on, an AI called Legion was developed for cyberwarfare, and that’s what leads to the titular dark fate. On the one hand, it feels like a cutting commentary on humanity’s need to constantly sabotage itself thanks to our warlike tendencies. On the other, it seems like the plot of the original with a lazily-applied coat of paint.
It also mostly means that the ending of T2 was largely for nothing; Sarah’s victory there doesn’t actually save humanity. Again, however, the series has always had a fair amount of cynicism attached to it. The point of the original film was not to stop the machines from rising but to ensure that the person who leads the resistance is born. That’s a rather pessimistic shade of hope to sell audiences, which is probably why subsequent films shifted the focus from that to stopping Judgment Day from even happening. Though it robs T2 of its very-hard-won ending, the future-imperfect thesis of the film seems remarkably on-brand.
Even if the script and story has a few clunky moments—and even if it’s never as vital as it needs to be—when taken in its own context, Dark Fate delivers the goods. Anchored by a dedicated cast and by especially excellent performances by Hamilton and Schwarzenegger, it makes you forget all the films that came after T2. Which, granted, isn’t terribly hard, but hey. Let’s give credit where credit’s due. Even if it’s a bit too much of a blast from the past, this fate is a welcome one.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B