Terminator fans have been burned many times before, but the latest entry in the long-running franchise might finally put the series back on the right track. Read on to find out what we thought.
Sarah Connor changed the future when she helped destroy Cyberdyne Systems in 1991's action classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But that doesn't mean humanity was saved. According to Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest entry in the nearly-30-year-old franchise, certain things are inevitable--humans will always muck it up somehow. The sentient AI that destroys humanity might be called Skynet, or it might have a different name--but in the end, the result is the same.
But if fate was really immutable, we'd be saddled with awful Terminator sequels one after another until the real judgment day. With Terminator: Dark Fate, the cycle has been broken.
That's not to say Dark Fate is the second coming of T2--that movie's legacy really is set in stone, and nothing will ever crack it. But Dark Fate is certainly the best Terminator movie we've gotten since, and despite some very real flaws, it's a worthy follow-up, even if you have to pretend three decades of other Terminator movies haven't happened in the interim.
Yes, Dark Fate is a direct sequel to T2: Judgment Day. It features a cold open in the early '90s, complete with CG-ified, de-aged versions of familiar characters, before jumping ahead 22 years to the more-or-less present, erasing all the other Terminator movies that have happened in between.
In the present, yet another new Terminator--Gabriel Luna's REV-9--has traveled back in time to assassinate a specific person in order to change the future--in this case, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an "augmented" human with super-powered strength and other abilities, was sent back from that same future to protect Dani, and Sarah Connor (once again played by Linda Hamilton) adopts that mission too. Eventually, they recruit a familiar T-800 Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger to help as well.
If there's one particular criticism Dark Fate deserves more than any other, it's that it sticks far too closely to the formula established by T2. Dani is John Connor, the REV-9 is the new equivalent of Robert Patrick's T-1000, and Grace is Arnold's T-800. Hamilton and Schwarzenegger's presences may advance certain themes, but they don't alter that formula, since they're essentially along for the same ride again. Most of Dark Fate is spent getting from one huge, extremely awesome action set piece to the next, with quiet scenes of exposition and character development in between. The Terminator chases its human prey; the humans flee while doing their best to fight back against a superior foe.
Calling Terminator: Dark Fate the Force Awakens of the Terminator franchise is all too accurate. Both movies did their best to reboot a classic but aging franchise with a mix of new and returning characters and the most technologically and visually impressive entries ever in their respective series, while also trying too hard to recapture the original's magic by following the same old beats too closely. Director Tim Miller definitely leaves his mark on the franchise, but he was clearly also conscious--sometimes to a fault--of the need to deliver the movie audiences expect. Dark Fate winds up feeling a bit too safe, even as the possibilities it presents for Terminator's future as a series prove exciting.
The 72-year-old Schwarzenegger is a welcome, comforting presence in this movie, though he's definitely not the star this time around, and the way he's written into the story is more than a little bit goofy (Terminator scholars will have plenty to discuss after this one). Hamilton, on the other hand, exceeds expectations--Sarah Connor has very few f***s left to give, and Hamilton chews gravel in every single scene. She is exactly the hardened, take-no-prisoners badass that you'd expect Sarah Connor to be in the post-T2 future that Dark Fate posits. At the same time, though, both actors bring their comedic chops as well--like T2 before it, Dark Fate is darkly hilarious, fitting perfectly with the tone its predecessor established all those years ago.
But Mackenzie Davis really steals the show as the augmented future-soldier Grace. Davis is every bit the badass that Hamilton was back when T2 came out, utterly selling the physical power necessary for this fight, as well as the mental toll it extracts. Grace and Reyes's Dani are the emotional core--the returning characters played by Hamilton and Schwarzenegger are trying to right the wrongs of their past, but Grace and Dani are fighting for a new future. If the franchise continues on from this new re-starting point, one can hope that they remain a focus.
And of course, it wouldn't be a Terminator movie (or not a decent one, at least) without technological wizardry, special effects, and staggeringly impressive action sequences. Dark Fate feels like it has the right blend of practical and CG effects, as--besides a little bit of wonky de-aging--everything looks stellar. Like the liquid metal of the T-1000, the REV-9 has the new ability to separate its "skin" from its internal skeleton and operate them independently, creating two foes to fight simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, this effect is put to great use, employed in a number of creative ways, like the Terminator's exoskeleton climbing out onto the hood of a truck while its endoskeleton remains behind the wheel (as glimpsed in trailers and Comic-Con footage). Luna's extremely menacing performance pulls the whole thing together and makes the REV-9 a worthy Terminator villain.
Dark Fate also doesn't shy away from today's political realities. Much of the movie is set in Mexico, and a big part of the characters' journey involves making the treacherous journey across the border into the US, including scenes in a holding area for detainees caught in the crossing. The movie's message here is clear, so if you're the type of moviegoer who believes that all films should be apolitical, start writing your outraged Twitter takes now.
Terminator: Dark Fate doesn't set a new bar for action movies like Terminator 2 did back in 1991. But that's not a realistic expectation--T2 was a once-in-a-generation kind of film. What Dark Fate does is establish a new--if-familiar--jumping-off point from which the Terminator series can hopefully move forward. It breaks the cycle of terrible Terminator sequels and spin-offs, and begins a new, brighter timeline. Humanity may always be its own worst enemy, but Dark Fate proves that we at least have the capacity to make some more kick-ass Terminator movies before judgment day arrives.