*** out of ****
(for violence throughout, strong language, and brief nudity)
Released: November 1, 2019
Runtime: 128 minutes
Directed by: Tim Miller
Starring: Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Diego Boneta, Tristán Ulloa
For a sixth film in a franchise that completely ignores the existence and implications of the third, fourth, and fifth installments, Terminator: Dark Fate is the Ctrl+Alt+Del the series needed.
The saga’s narrative quickly lost its visionary bearing when writer / director / creator James Cameron moved on to other record-breaking blockbusters. Progressively, each episode went from self-serious to too dark to desperately retconned.
Watching Arnold Schwarzenegger continue to riff on his most iconic role in Rise of the Machines and Genisys offered some entertaining if fleeting fan service, but each sequel proved to be an instantly forgettable exercise in IP futility.
What they did demonstrate, however, is a point that Terminator: Dark Fate cements: Linda Hamilton is what was missing.
I stress Linda Hamilton and not simply Sarah Connor (who Emilia Clarke did her best to embody in Genisys). At its core, what resonates most within this mythology is the evolving dynamic between Sarah Connor and the various T-800s as portrayed by Hamilton and Schwarzenegger. To have either of those two missing, and to not have them in some sort of conflict or tension (even when they’re working together), turns the Terminator series into just another disposable sci-fi dystopia, which is exactly what it had become.
Terminator: Dark Fate brings back that Hamilton/Arnold energy just enough to make this sequel-reboot eminently worthwhile, even for casual fans, but not quite enough to hold much promise for what future installments may have in store.
Picking up somewhat directly where T2: Judgment Day left off, Terminator: Dark Fate opens with the most convincing de-aging I’ve ever seen (I mean, like, really) along with some Alien3-level audacity that’s fairly ballsy (not to mention ironic, coming from Aliens director James Cameron).
Fast forward to today: two of those familiar time-transporting orbs deliver their cybernetic travelers in all of their ripped, glistening, naked glory. Even here, however, something is different, as evidenced by how and where the orbs appear.
The Rev-9 Terminator (Diego Boneta) is the latest model on a mission to murder, while Grace (Halt & Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis) is an enhanced human cyborg. She’s trying to reach and save Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), the latest Resistance savior of the future, before the Rev-9 can kill her.
Sound familiar? Sure does to Sarah Connor, who intervenes at the climax of an early action sequence. But to the rest of them this is all new because, fortunately, Dark Fate doesn’t rewrite or retcon Terminator history. Sarah and John did save the world from the 1997 Holocaust and the apocalyptic future that Skynet set in motion. And yet, as the title Dark Fate suggests (which is an ominous twist on Sarah’s “No Fate” credo of self-empowerment), so long as there is A.I. in the world, well, we’re doomed.
The ragged, hardened Connor teams up with Grace to help protect Dani, and Schwarzenegger’s latest Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 (who’s aged) joins them about halfway through. Together, they all deliver the kind of terminating action you came for.
Even better, much of it unfolds with legitimately thrilling stakes. The Rev-9 is, by all accounts, truly indestructible, and action set pieces are set up with such daunting peril that the means of escape is rarely self-evident. Consequently, that leads to a couple of easy (if still credible) outs, but on the whole the plot machine is smartly constructed. Plus, having the narrative driven by a trio of women gives the franchise a fresh, needed boost.
The characters themselves, however, aren’t as fully drawn as you’d hope and, as scripted, are often flat, especially the new ones. Davis, to her credit, imbues Grace with a traumatized depth that her backstory only superficially provides, but Reyes can’t quite elevate Dani (a.k.a. the new John Connor) much beyond a serviceable embodiment of the stock archetype that’s on the page.
A big part of what Dark Fate is trying to accomplish is the same thing that The Force Awakens did for Star Wars: introduce new characters for audiences to connect with alongside the familiar ones that they love. Unfortunately, despite Davis’s best efforts, director Tim Miller (from a script co-written by Cameron, who also produced) isn’t able to deliver as effectively as J. J. Abrams did.
Inevitably, the best moments (both dramatically and comedically) revolve around Sarah’s tortured relationship with Terminators. That subtext permeates Hamilton’s entire performance, and it’s magnified when Schwarzenegger finally shows up. For his part, Arnold brings back the kind of dry nuance that works equally well for laughs and pathos.
Due to how rich their dynamic is, there’s an even better movie waiting to happen, one that revolves entirely around that Sarah / Terminator duo, but it seems unlikely to ever be made given where this story ends.
Within this film’s backstory of what Sarah has been doing for the last 25 years, there lies a nugget of the movie I would love to see. Its very premise could be play off of, examine, and magnify Sarah’s tortured relationship with T-800s, in a way that would provide Linda Hamilton her biggest showcase yet and Schwarzenegger a possible range of variations on the T-800. (And per this movie’s prologue, the de-aging tech needed to make it convincing is fully there.) It could be the best character study of the saga to date, and one that would also aspire to the series’ highest ambitions, both technologically and thematically.
Alas, the fate of that actually happening seems dark as well, which is why this entry should serve as the final chapter. Terminator: Dark Fate may not be the riveting restart we were hoping for, but it sure is a welcome coda to two landmark films that have long deserved one.