Like any self-respecting film nerd, I love Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). It’s pretty much accepted by pop culture that T2 is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it was T1 that inspired me to pursue a career in film. From seeing Arnie’s Terminator punch a bloody hole in a street punk through to Sarah Connor crushing the nightmarish machine in a steel press, I was absolutely glued to the screen. There was something electric about its hardcore, no-nonsense approach. T2 is an amazing sequel which definitely added narrative weight to the story, but it did set an unhealthy precedent for the following sequels to add more tiresome world building. The latest instalment in the franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate, promises a back-to-basics approach which it almost pulls off.
Directed by Tim Miller from Deadpool (2016) with a story by original creator James Cameron, the action picks up not long after the events of T2. With the help of impressive computer-generated de-aging, we are re-introduced to Linda Hamilton as original series heroine, Sarah Connor. Despite having stopped the Judgement Day apocalypse, Terminators are mysteriously still lurking around, with one in particular causing a major tragedy for Sarah. It was a compelling start which got me hooked, but I expect a portion of the fanbase will be mad about it (you’ll know it when you see it).
Before we have time to process the shocking opening, we cut to the year 2020. We are introduced to Mackenzie Davis as Grace, a mechanically augmented human soldier sent back in time to protect Natalie Reyes’ Dani, from Gabriel Luna’s new and improved Terminator model, the REV-9. With no time wasted, Director Tim Miller does an amazing job bringing us back to what made the original such a fun ride. We have the protector, the target and the assassin all established with amazing efficiency, followed by a heart-pumping chase sequence which effectively brings the franchise back to its roots of bone crunching thrills. It’s almost as if someone at FOX remembered that the original series is R-Rated and that there’s no point watering it down for a PG-13 audience. I wonder if that’s the main reason Tim Miller was brought on to direct, seeing as how he’d just had major success with his R-Rated Deadpool film (Between Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate, he sure does love his freeway fights).
Miller takes us back to the raw, bloody thrills the series was originally known for. It is certainly a big plus and makes the film worth a watch for a Terminator fan. After those first 30 minutes, I was onboard for the ride. I’m sorry to say that my engagement stopped dead as soon as Sarah Connor re-entered the action. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be happier that Linda Hamilton came back to the role. She clearly still has what it takes to be a badass action star, but her inclusion in terms of script and structure does halt the momentum of the overall film.
For what seems like an eternity, every principle character stops to exposit pages of world building dialogue. Repeatedly explaining the new version of Terminator, the new version Skynet, the new future-war, the new future-messiah and how all of this connects to the old versions. The script even finds time to re-explain the original movies, just incase there’s someone in the audience who has never seen or heard of Terminator. Miller manages to exposit all this lore far more gracefully than Terminator Genisys (2015) but its sad to see a film which began with so much potential just fall back into old habits that ruined the franchise in the first place. It really could have just taken Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) approach at explaining how it connects to the first two and just move on. It really doesn’t make much of a difference besides a third act reveal which isn’t surprising or necessary as a reveal. It could have just taken T3’s approach with that too (again, you’ll know it when you see it).
Even with the script never capitalising on what it set up, the final film isn’t without worthwhile qualities. Mackenzie Davis as Grace continues to show her talent, having already shone in the Black Mirror episode San Junipero (2016) and in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). For a young generation of science fiction lovers, Davis is sure to be their go to heroine.
Coming off her success in Birds of Passage (2018), Natalie Reyes as Dani does stand out as a suitably likeable lead. No easy task when comparisons will surely be made to Edward Furlong as John Connor and of course Linda Hamilton as Sarah. Miller and company have really gone out of their way to ensure that Dani is not just a copy of those earlier leads. The script handles her characterisation in a way that will definitely be troublesome for some fans and it arguably doesn’t completely work in the way the filmmakers want it to, but it is an admirable effort. Gabriel Luna as the REV-9 probably comes off the worst out of the cast. A great actor to be sure who can definitely hold his own against the other players, yet his unimaginative Terminator powers and the cringeworthy dialogue he’s given doesn’t help. A terrible shame considering we have seen him effectively play a super-powered badass as Ghost Rider in Agents of Shield (2016).
Regardless of the new characters, the biggest question is how does Arnie’s T-800 work its way into the story? It’s not a spoiler to say that a Terminator movie features Arnie, but for the sake of respecting actual spoilers, the less said about that how they do it the better. It has to be seen to be believed. Not to say it isn’t enjoyable. In fact, it is highly enjoyable and sidesplittingly funny, even though it makes little to no sense. Despite this (or because of it) I found myself loving every second of it and even wanted the explanation to be fleshed out further. Just be warned that I fear the fanbase will tear the explanation to shreds (once again, you’ll know it when you see it).
Considering how many times this franchise has tried and failed to recapture its glory days, it’s fair to say that Terminator: Dark Fate is a decent enough attempt. Giving the reigns to a distinct directing voice and a game cast is certainly the right move on the studios’ part. The problem that holds the film back is that there’s still nowhere to go after T2. By continuing the franchises’ frustrating world building history, Terminator: Dark Fate sadly doesn’t keep its promise of being an exciting fresh start.
Best way to watch it: On your mates’ Netflix account.