All but one of the Terminator movies since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day have been billed as proper sequels to that movie. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) was an actual sequel, so it didn’t need to be explicitly advertised as such. Terminator Genisys (2015) seemed to view both Terminator 3 and 2010’s Terminator Salvation as mistakes in the timeline, basically telling fans to forget those movies happened and get back on board the Terminator train after T2. Four years later, following another flop, now we get Terminator: Dark Fate, which bolsters its case of being “the one true sequel” by bringing both Linda Hamilton and James Cameron back to the franchise for the first time in 28 years, the latter with a story and producing credit rather than as director. They’ve finally accomplished what they set out to do, though it may not matter, as audiences didn’t show up, seemingly tired of giving this franchise one last chance. Even though this time it really deserves it.
Terminator: Dark Fate cements its connection to its predecessor by beginning with images of Hamilton as Sarah Connor from 1991, when she delivered her batshit crazy rant under the watchful eye of prison psychiatrists, and talked about anyone not wearing one million sunblock on August 29, 1997 having a “really bad day.” The feral rage Hamilton brought to that scene is a powerful place for this newest Terminator to start, preparing us for the return of a threat that maybe hasn’t seemed quite as formidable in the past few films. It also prepares us to welcome back Hamilton herself, who hasn’t forgotten a bit about how to play Sarah Connor. It’s not something we’ve been able to say about every actor returning to an iconic role after multiple decades away, but Hamilton is a different story. She may be 63 years old, but you still believe she can kick somebody’s ass, even if he has a metal endoskeleton.
Connor doesn’t enter into the story right away, as we begin on new characters arriving in their trademark “time bubbles.” Emerging from the future, in Mexico City this time, are an augmented human, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), and her technically advanced rival, a shape-shifting REV-9 terminator, who most frequently appears in the form of actor Gabriel Luna. It’s a footrace to be the first to get to Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), whom the REV-9 wants to eliminate, and Grace to protect, for reasons we don’t yet know. Grace can take a licking like a terminator, but because she’s human, she needs various drugs injections to keep her machine parts from crashing. The REV-9, meanwhile, has a nifty trick that none of his predecessors has enjoyed: The liquid metal part of him can separate from the standard terminator robot core, creating two antagonists where once there was one.
Sarah and her son, John Connor, did prevent Judgment Day through their actions in T2, but guess what? Humanity continues to find ways to doom itself via technological apocalypse. Machines took over anyway, as other scientists invented other types of AI and put them at the wheel. (Let’s not ponder too much that they ended up producing the same design of terminator robot in both timelines.) That mankind will continue to sow the seeds of its own destruction time and again, regardless of who intervenes and how successfully, is a pretty dark fate indeed.
Dark Fate is kind of the Force Awakens of this series – without the massive box office success, that is. Cameron and director Tim Miller (Deadpool) seem quite content to deliver us another generous helping of what worked so well in T2, and we’re happy to lap it up. The fight sequences are exquisitely choreographed and pulsing with adrenaline, and they owe a tonne to similar sequences in T2. As it turns out, there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead of Robert Patrick driving an 18-wheeler, it’s Gabriel Luna piloting a gargantuan yellow construction vehicle in hot pursuit of the fleeing good guys. The details of these chases deviate from one another, but the electricity and the sense of menace are the same.
Like Force Awakens, Dark Fate offers up the good kind of fan service, one that helps introduce us to the new characters who may be our standard bearers going forward. Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger (entering the narrative even a bit later than she does) are on board to put asses in the seats, but they’re meant to hand the baton to younger actors who could sustain future instalments of the franchise.
Davis, who also appeared in the Blade Runner reboot, is carving out quite the promising little career here. As the augmented human Grace, she brings a blend of badassery and fragility that makes her easy to root for. (Screenwriters may want to retire that character name, though, as the metaphorical value of it is pretty played out at this point.) Reyes as Dani, on the other hand, is more in the role Hamilton played in the first Terminator movie, obliviously living her life until an unrelenting killing machine starts trying to wipe her off the face of the planet. Too bad the movie’s poor performance may prevent us from seeing this character grow into the kind of character Sarah Connor became.
And yes, it is fun to have Hamilton and Schwarzenegger back, as they share a chemistry that the movie usually plays for comedy. It’s a different relationship between Connor and the terminator he played in T2, though, as that one sunk into the molten metal and was destroyed. Cameron and screenwriters David Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray have concocted a believable way to get Schwarzenegger back into the series, as don’t forget, that wasn’t the first Arnie terminator either.
In general the story stays on the right side of plausibility, at least within the implausible realm of a narrative fuelled by time travel conundrums. It lacks the type of true cleverness that blew our minds back in the early days of the franchise, perhaps because excess cleverness has gotten some of its lesser entries in trouble. A couple plot reveals are the “ho hum” equivalent of the central conceit referenced earlier, that even though Skynet was defeated, a similar threat cropped up in its place nonetheless. And while that may be a tad disappointing from a screenwriting standpoint, it’s also kind of an admission that the plot is not as important as the character relationships, the action and the overall themes.
All of which are in fine form. Terminator: Dark Fate really does find the ideal balance most modern reboots are seeking, delivering the familiar elements we love with a sprinkle of just enough new to avoid seeming lazy. That this wasn’t enough begs the question as to whether the Terminator has any more lives remaining. If finally assembling the perfect sequel to Terminator 2 was not sufficient to keep the series going, maybe nothing will be.