November 2022

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

DIRECTOR: Tim Miller

CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna


And now in the latest of far too many examples of Hollywood’s dearth of original ideas, the long-running—and long-suffering—Terminator franchise once again proves itself even harder to kill than its titular killer cyborgs, despite the fact that it passed its sell-by date quite a while ago (for my money, all the way back in 1991). While Dark Fate‘s promotion made much ta-do out of the “return” of James Cameron (who gets a producer and co-writer credit but did not retake the director’s chair, which is occupied by Deadpool‘s Tim Miller, leaving it questionable how much direct involvement Cameron really had) and Linda Hamilton (who hasn’t taken part in the franchise since 1991’s Judgment Day, turned down a chance to reprise her role in 2003’s Rise of the Machines, and should have turned this one down too), neither Cameron nor his ex-wife’s names in the credits signals a return to the quality of the first two installments, which slipped after Cameron moved on and has never been regained. Dark Fate ignores the existence of every entry since T2 and acts as a direct sequel to the first two and the first two alone—which many fans would likely have been okay with—but alas it doesn’t replace them with anything superior. It’s probably better than its immediate predecessor Genisys (no great accomplishment), but finds its own new ways of dumping on the series mythos.

Dark Fate follows the basic Terminator formula. Two almost indestructible agents are sent from the future, one to protect and the other to assassinate a “nobody”, in this case a Mexican girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). The “twist”, such as there is one, is that Dani’s protector, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), is neither a normal human nor a Terminator, but an “augmented” human, part-machine and with superhuman strength and speed, capable of fighting a Terminator hand-to-hand. The “bad” Terminator is a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), who can separate his T-1000-esque liquid exoskeleton from its metal frame and basically split himself in half into two independently-functioning bodies. Grace and Dani get help from a surprise arrival: the aged Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who is alerted to the arrivals of Terminators by mysterious text messages giving their coordinates. As will surprise no one in the audience, tracing these mystery text messages leads the band to an uneasy team-up with “Carl” (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a Terminator who was left without a mission and now sympathizes with humanity.

If most of the above sounds like a rehash of narrative beats from The Terminator and Terminator 2 with some different names thrown in and some plot elements given a “new” paint job, you’re exactly right, and that’s part of the reason for the lack of freshness or excitement. Dark Fate reaffirms how there’s basically nowhere to go that hasn’t already been covered (almost like they should have stopped making Terminator movies a while ago). The movie arguably makes a “daring” move in its opening minutes when SPOILER WARNING it peremptorily kills off the young John Connor, but it also renders the movie a non-starter; rendering all the heroics and sacrifices of the first two movies essentially pointless not only feels like a slap in the face to the original franchise, but the movie also adds insult to injury by, having unceremoniously disposed of John, replacing him with a pseudo-John Connor stand-in. Columbian TV star Natalia Reyes is adequate, but the movie killing off such an integral character to the Terminator mythos only to replace him with a pseudo-John stand-in feels borderline insulting. And that’s not the only example of the movie slapping a new coat of paint on an old plot element and thinking it freshens things up. Sarah and John’s actions in T2, it seems, changed the future but basically only so stuff has new names. Grace has never heard of John Connor or Skynet, but that’s because, in her alternate future, resistance leader Dani Ramos leads the humans against “Legion”. Sorry movie, but replacing John Connor with a pseudo-John Connor and Skynet with Skynet-by-another-name doesn’t cut it for originality.

The only plot elements that could have been interesting—examining how Sarah has become a bitter shell of herself, her face weathered by both the years and her loss, living only to hunt down and destroy Terminators, and the concept of a Terminator left adrift without a purpose, developing a conscience through prolonged interaction with humanity, and becoming more human—are underdeveloped. There’s an undeniable small momentary pleasure in seeing Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger return, but neither does anything all that special. It’s like watching once star athletes return to the field and go through the motions in reduced fashion decades after their glory days. In my review of Genisys four years ago, I wrote that the continued inclusion of an over-the-hill and past-his-prime Schwarzenegger in this franchise feels forced, and he has not changed that opinion here. Something new and interesting could have been done with “Carl”, but it’s underexplored, partly because “Ah-nuld” doesn’t show up until the movie is halfway through—we all know he’s coming, so the long wait feels a little excessively drawn-out—and partly because there’s too many characters, with Grace the most obvious “one character too many”. Mackenzie Davis is fine, but more could have been done with returning veterans Schwarzenegger and Hamilton had Grace been left out and the movie allowed to focus from the get-go on Dani, Sarah, and “Carl”. In addition, the concept of Grace as a superhuman who can go toe-to-toe with a Terminator lessens the stakes when she and Rev-9 can smack each other around on more-or-less equal footing.

Speaking of the action, there’s a lot of it but nothing particularly memorable. The fight scenes are hampered by an excess of unnecessary CGI and characters exaggeratedly flipping around, making everything look too cartoonish and completely lacking the grittiness of the first two movies. The quality of the special effects is uneven; the de-aging effects and CGI in the opening scene, it must be said, is exceptional, almost flawlessly recreating Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong as they appeared in 1991 (though it’s not overused and the pseudo-Furlong in particular appears only briefly), although curiously enough the de-aged Schwarzenegger looks a little “off”. But, as if they put all their time and effort into meticulously recreating the young Hamilton and Furlong, the rest of the CGI isn’t as good; T-1000 was more convincing in 1991 than most of the special effects here. Speaking of T-1000, while each subsequent installment has seemingly tried to one-up him with nifty new abilities, whether Kristanna Loken’s T-X, or Genisys‘ robotified John Connor, or now the Rev-9, all have fallen short. As our latest “bad” Terminator, Gabriel Luna lacks a certain presence and, like Loken before him, he’s not nearly as menacing as Robert Patrick. Junkie XL’s score is generic and unmemorable except for the exceedingly fleeting moments when he incorporates brief snippets of Brad Fiedel’s percussive original theme.

Will there be more Terminator movies after this? Dark Fate‘s weak box office performance is leading to speculation that this might be the final nail in the coffin, but even after the previous disappointing receptions of Salvation and Genisys the series kept limping on. At one point during the proceedings, Arnold states that he won’t be back. For the sake of whatever scrap of dignity this played-out franchise has left, let’s hope that’s true.

* * 1/2