Terminator: Dark Fate is easily the third best Terminator film simply because I actually remember what happened in this sequel. But it shows roughly the same plot as the first two Terminator films, just with an updated apocalypse, killer robot, female target and protector. It’s simultaneously dependent on nostalgia while throwing its own spin on things in the hopes you won’t notice the similarities. This makes for a sci-fi action film that’s good, but never reaches the heights of James Cameron’s first two classics.
I mean there’s a reason every post-Judgement Day sequel has failed: this premise is very difficult to milk after a certain point. The first two films more or less perfected the sci-fi time travel paradox plot so all we can do now is justify pushing back Judgement Day’s date with each entry. And that gets noticeably tedious because there’s only so much leeway to justify a Schwarzenegger cameo. Dark Fate thus decides to wipe the chalkboard clean, retconning a timeline where T3, Salvation and Genysis never happened but a different robot apocalypse has happened in its place.
Because of this new threat, Grace (Mackenzie Davis with a bowl cut and solid biceps), an “augmented” resistance soldier from the future is sent to the year 2020 to rescue Dani Ramos (Natalia Ramos), an auto factory worker living in Mexico City. She’s being targeted by the Rev-9 (Rogue One’s Gabriel Luna), a killer robot who can separate his skin suit from the cybernetic exoskeleton, yet possesses liquid metal abilities similar to the T-1000. At least if the T-1000 was composed of Metal Gear nanomachines.
This is the first Terminator‘s story all over again, right down to a handful of key action scenes mirroring locations from Cameron’s 1984 classic. Remember that iconic precinct shootout in the first film? It happens here too, just in a Border Patrol detention facility. The arrival of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) ironically helps shake things up, playing a veteran Terminator killer even more grizzled than she was in Judgement Day. With an 80’s era arsenal of weapons- she first attacks the Rev-9 with an RPG- Connor describes her daily activities as “I kill Terminators and I drink until I pass out.” What about John? I can’t say without spoiling, but the writers’ decision will likely polarize the fanbase for understandable reasons.
Despite their opposing approaches to this threat- Grace wants to hide Dani from the Rev-9, Sarah wants it turned to scrap metal- they’re forced to team up. Seeing the two women butt heads over what to do is admittedly entertaining, as both deem themselves more equipped to deal with this situation. Sarah for her past history with Terminators and Grace for her augmented abilities and actually living through this new apocalypse where Skynet is replace with something called Legion and the death toll is even bigger. Plus Grace’s powers come with a drawback of lowering her metabolism quickly, so Connor staying on board provides extra muscle.
Given the 21st century’s tech-heavy nature which, as Sarah points out, makes everyone a walking GPS (she carries her phone in a potato chip bag to block the signal), there are interesting ideas raised about a Terminator’s advantages in the modern world. Unfortunately no focus or commentary is devoted to what Legion is or the dangers of building technology we cannot control. It’s just “Terminator: the apocalypse has to happen anyway so here’s our justification.”
As an action film, Terminator: Dark Fate is fast and fluid, but suffers from a number of uncanny valley effect moments with the CGI. Having Deadpool Tim Miller on board helps because, even when the effects are noticeable, they’re just stylish enough to distract your attention. Compared to the T-1000’s revolutionary liquid metal effects or Arnie being a human special effect in his own right, however, modern cinema is so reliant on CGI to depict its sci-fi elements rather than use it when absolutely necessary. And it shows. The Rev-9’s abilities are pretty cool, a metallic black ooze that forms arm spears, daggers and capable of regeneration.But there are moments when it or Grace jump insane heights and land that you can easily make out the rubbery artificial forms meant to be actors. Still, it’s the closet we’ll ever get to seeing a Terminator/Bionic Woman crossover.
Unfortunately, while Grace and Dani are likable characters, I feel like Dark Fate regulates them as second fiddle behind Connor’s history, especially once we’re reintroduced to Schwarzenegger’s T-800. His presence, while tied to the aforementioned divisive moment, is unique when you see what a cyborg from the future has been doing in his spare time. Arnie’s still a jacked up ball of muscle and deadpan humor and I found presence well-executed. But this is meant to be a Terminator film for the next generation and the franchise has yet to shake off its past. The writers still need to include an obligatory “I’ll be back” with each entry.
Still, I’ll give Dark Fate credit for being a thematically female-centric film for most of its runtime, even when Schwarzenegger enters the picture. It directly comments on the nature of Terminator’s male-oriented status as even T2 Sarah Connor, who set a benchmark for the strong female archetype, was defined less by who she was than the offspring she was carrying. Dark Fate is a bit coyer about what it’s protecting but the result is satisfying in its own way. I just wish it was a tad less predictable because, as mentioned earlier, this is an old Terminator story with a new, albeit still watchable, synthetic skin.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
Yes, Terminator: Dark Fate is much better than any of the post-T2 sequels, but “3rd best” isn’t much of a reward. It has some good action, legitimately funny jokes and solid character moments (especially from Linda Hamilton), but wrapped around the same story we’ve seen before. Maybe that’s just a sign that the first two films were too good, leaving screenwriters unable to evolve the formula without rewriting their own lore. You’ll have an entertaining time at the movies with this one, but I still think this franchise should have been terminated years ago.