The Terminator series continues to prove itself as a tough nut to crack. Of course, that’s not for a lack of trying. After James Cameron’s acclaimed Terminator 2 in 1991, additional films ranging from ‘meh’ to ‘eh’ have tried to continue the franchise by either shamelessly aping the original, creating an arrid and boring futuristic hellscape, or by including Nick Stahl. Suffice to say, none of these films inspired much confidence in the future of the series.
After the lukewarm reception of Terminator: Genisys, producer David Ellison pulled out the big guns for Terminator: Dark Fate and talked Linda Hamilton and series creator Cameron back into the mix, the latter of which only with a producer and story credit. Thanks, upcoming seventeen Avatar movies. Directing duties were handed over to Deadpool’s Tim Miller and of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns. With a spunky new savior of the human race in Dani (Natalia Reyes), good guy protector from the future Grace (Mackenzie Davis), and robotic killing machine REV-9 (Gabriel Luna), all the ingredients are here for a kick-ass, and proper, continuation of the series. As has been the case with these later sequels, the future foretold in the first two films does not quite come to pass. There are still armies of robots directed by an evil artificial intelligence hunting down human survivors after a nuclear apocalypse. But it’s now called Legion, rather than Skynet. And instead of John Conner being the wasteland messiah, it’s Dani. Yeah, otherwise it’s basically the same though.
Following the template that’s been firmly ensconced for this series, Grace comes back to present day Mexico City, quickly followed by REV-9, they locate Dani and duke it out, Grace telling Dani that you cannot beat a REV-9, only run from them. They meet up with an older, even more jaded Sarah Conner, meet up with an older, sweeter T-800, and the film ends in an industrial site where the big battle rages for the future of mankind. Surprisingly though, even with the familiar formula, this movie more or less pulls it off.
Miller is a somewhat odd choice to helm a $200 million, balls-to-the-wall action film considering his only other feature directing credit was the much more modest, and far less practical from what I’ve learned, Deadpool. But by and large, he does fine with the responsibilities of juggling all the character beats between the three leads and giving us something more than a two hour Michael Bay nightmare of quick cuts and indistinguishable “action.” The script from David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray features a lot of heart and some genuinely funny moments, especially coming from Arnold’s “retired” T-800 as he learns to behave like a human.
Alas, even with elements that all seem great on paper, the execution is still wanting as evidenced by a big collective shrug at the box office. Perhaps it is that all future Terminator films have been unfairly compared to the knock-out punch of the first and second films. Or perhaps it is that the past three films in the series (including this one) have been intended as trilogy starters and were big, wet farts requiring different approaches. Or maybe, we just don’t want Terminator movies anymore. Schwarzenegger has been pretty much the one constant in Terminator movies but the story has jumped from current to future to past with nary a connecting thread between them. In fact, short of quick cameo from Edward Furlong here, we haven’t seen the same actor play John Conner in more than one film. Between the sort of quick turnaround and roughly the same crew, the first and second films have an edge that any film almost thirty years later cannot compete with.
In spite of the general tenor of this review, I actually kind of dig the film even if it seems to play more like a band re-recording their greatest hits without doing much else differently. Hamilton is great as always, Schwarzenegger’s T-800, or Carl, brings a different twist on the classic cyborg, and Davis and Reyes both get their moments to shine even with the returning fan favorites. If anything, I am trying to wrap my head around the seemingly toxic reaction this film has received since it was released just three months ago. Critical and fan seems on par, if not better, than the previous films. And while it certainly lost money for those involved, Dark Fate is not a Cats-like flop. There is a section of internet whiny babies up in arms about it that I don’t have much to say about other than ... sorry not every movie can have a white man saving the world.
In short, for many people my age who grew up with overworked copies of Terminator 2 on VHS, this is a fine continuation of that film, as long as you aren’t looking for anything groundbreaking.