At the start of Terminator: Dark Fate, old and new come crashing together. The former comes in familiar doses of clips, both vintage (we once again get Linda Hamilton’s terrifying monologue about the end of the world) and reconfigured (a beach provides a Normandy-like robot invasion). The latter is served in a startling introductory scene, in which everything the main characters fought for in Terminator 2: Judgement Day is undone one single, horrible moment. Years later, we meet Dani, a new female protagonist (played by Natalia Reyes), living in Mexico, whose day swiftly becomes a living nightmare; under the protection of a warrior from the future (played by Mackenzie Davis), Dani is on the run and being relentlessly pursued by a new Terminator (played by Gabriel Luna). Joining the chaos is Sarah Connor, again played by Hamilton, whose latest last major film role was in Dante’s Peak 22 years ago. Oh yes, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is, as he always promises, back, again, as Terminator numero uno.
Arguably even more noteworthy than the participation of Hamilton and Schwarzenegger is the return of James Cameron, whose The Terminator and T2 created a franchise Mount Everest that the subsequent (and not always welcome) sequels have had to climb. Terminator: Dark Fate is the sixth in this series and, while it’s pretty good and one of the better entries in the series, it’s still middle of the road.
Despite Cameron’s participation (as a co-screenwriter and co-producer), this doesn’t feel entirely up to his high standards. Dark Fate is overly dependent on digital effects to provide settings and character movement, which doesn’t always look convincing. Throughout his legendary career, Cameron used CGI and digital special effects in general as a storytelling tool. What we get here is CGI over-reliance, with settings and character movements that sometimes appear blatantly fake. In fact, there’s so much CGI, it mutes the suspense. Case in point: an action scene set on a crashing airplane, with actors flying around as the aircraft plummets. It’s kind of fun to watch but cartoonish in how it plays out. Odd as it might be, Cameron’s other 2019 contribution, Alita: Battle Angel, which he also contributed to in a writer/producer capacity while someone else directed his ideas, is a smaller but better film.
There is the novelty of seeing a lavish studio film carried by three women (most of the film is devoid of Schwarzenegger), though this series isn’t quite as progressive as it thinks it is. While Sarah Connor is unquestionably a compelling and strong character, most of the women in this franchise have required saving and protection from the former Governator. Clear efforts by the filmmakers to make this latest installment contemporary and socially relevant have mixed results. The feminist angle is well defined but having a large portion of the film set in Mexico and dealing with border patrol isn’t a slam dunk. If anything, this is a very-2019 movie.
While the film is ably carried by two forceful leads (Davis gives a star-making performance and Hamilton is fun to watch in her iconic role), Luna, as good as he is here, lacks the opportunities Robert Patrick had in T2 to make his role scary. As much as the busy screenplay copies the narrative, pacing, and character arcs of T2, this one is ambitious enough and fairly successful at adding fresh touches (particularly those involving Schwarzenegger’s character).
The dialogue is often lousy, though fitting in a B-movie way (Ah-nold, as usual, gets all the best lines). Unlike the last two Terminator sequels, which didn’t stick the landing, this one does, with a climactic battle that is tremendously exciting and emotionally satisfying.
While Terminator die-hards often deride me for defending any series follow-up not made by Cameron, I do enjoy T3 (with its astonishing fire truck set piece and daring final scene) and the uneven but muscular Terminator: Salvation. However, Dark Fate is good enough to terminate any total recall of Terminator: Genisys, and put an eraser to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It feels like this series has finally reached its ending but never count Schwarzenegger out: He has at least 10 movies ahead of him where, whether motivated or not, he’ll say “I’ll be back.”
Two and a Half Stars
Rated R/128 Min.
Image courtesy IMDB