I never grew up with the Terminator franchise. I knew the movies existed, but my only familiarity was with the arcade games, which I rarely played. I am not sure if this makes me a better or worse judge of the latest installment, Terminator: Dark Fate, which leans on a few easy hits of nostalgia. The return of James Cameron ( this time as a producer), Linda Hamilton reprising the role of Sarah Connor, and a back-to-formula approach to storytelling are just a few examples.
Dark Fate is a sequel to only the first two films- a wise decision since the following three films made the timeline more convoluted. The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day rely on the same formula: In the future, a self-aware AI ends the world and machines rule the planet, but the handful of survivors resist and try to fight back. The AI, SkyNet, sends a robot assassin into the past to eliminate key targets of the resistance before they can ever go on to become threats. The resistance responds by sending a protector to combat it.
In the first movie, the target is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the future leader of the resistance, John Connor. In Judgment Day, the target is John himself while he is still a child. The structure of these movies, Dark Fate included, is basically: a short introduction to the characters, the Terminator shows up and tries to kill them, the protector arrives, and they fight and chase until they regroup. This continues over and over again until someone wins the battle. It can begin to feel a bit tedious if you are looking for more variety in the plot or if, like me, you very recently watched the first two films in preparation for this one.
The never-ending action can grow wearisome as well, with an over-reliance on CGI towards the later half that pales in comparison to the large sleek, “oh they actually did that for real” approach that James Cameron brought to the first two. The combatants too are seemingly indestructible, so what tension there is starts to dissipate as the fights drag on. That being said, Dark Fate still has some exciting sequences and thrilling moments of badassery. However, none are as great as the fight at an assembly plant and ensuing chase through Mexico City that kicks things off in the first act. It is the franchise at its best, but it comes far too early leaving the rest of the film to feel like a bit of a letdown.
Dark Fate, despite going back to the basics for its story, still tries to reevaluate the franchise and its roots. John Conner is the hero of the future, but the Terminator story has really always been about Sarah who the later films ignored. Bringing the action heroine back into the fray by making the target of this film a young Mexican woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) and her protector a cybernetically-enhanced soldier named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) gives the franchise a fresh coat of paint and a nice change of location. The representation is great and very much needed, but there is a disconnect between the film’s themes and the seemingly purposeful and timely choice to tell a story about a Mexican woman in a desperate bid to cross the border to save her life.
The film even has an extended sequence set in a border detention camp, places that many consider being near-equivalents to the Nazi’s concentration camps, but it does not have very much to note about it. It is basically just window dressing- a topical location for some cool action moments. It is here that Dark Fate almost feels like a disservice to the marginalized people it is trying to represent. Why have these pieces in the film at all if you have nothing to actually say about them? There is little about the film that actually has anything to do with the perilous journeys of migrants and the inhumane ways they are treated in custody, yet these elements remain in the story.
Perhaps if the writing room had included anyone Mexican, or even a woman for that matter (Dark Fate was written by six white men and directed by another), the story, its setting, and its characters would have had a bit more of connective tissue to the real-world subjects that the movie shows. The movie certainly seems to be trying to say something, but whatever it is gets buried under the mind-numbing action and its own weak vagueness. Perhaps the message or metaphor was simply lost on me, but if you are going to set your movie in a location that sparks strong emotions for many different people- you need to have a good reason for it.
The saving grace is Mackenzie Davis as super-soldier Grace and Gabriel Luna as the new Terminator. Both bring an intense physicality to their respective roles and whose numerous battles are most exciting when it is just the two of them. Davis is a perfectly confident but caring badass protector and Luna gives a driven performance that matches both Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick’s turns as their own emotionless killer robots. Hamilton returning is also an obvious highlight, as is her take on this hardened and aged version of the classic character. While the aptest comparison would likely be Jamie Lee Curtis’ reprisal of Laurie Strode in last year’s Halloween (a sequel to the original which like Dark Fate ignored all other sequels). I was also reminded of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi – a bitter, jaded loner who becomes reinvigorated by the next generation and discovers his place among them.
Dark Fate is certainly better than the past few entries in the franchise, and most of it is still pretty exciting and entertaining. Longtime fans will probably enjoy it the most out of anyone. Based on current box office returns though, it looks like a case of too little too late. The Terminator movies seem to have spent up all of their good faith with audiences thanks to years of weak sequels (marketing for this film made it just look like more of the same). It is a series that has probably run its course, no matter how you try to dress it up.