More killer machines, a returning Sarah Connor, and an obliterated garden shed – Ryan takes a spoiler-filled look at Terminator: Dark Fate.
NB: The following contains major spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate.
A killer robot falls from the sky, all but obliterates a man’s back garden and says, brilliantly, “I’m sorry about your shed.” Meanwhile, somewhere in Texas, Mackenzie Davis proves to an old man that killer machines from the future exist by cutting a housefly in half.
These novelties and other oddments aside, there’s much that’s familiar about Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest attempt to recapture the express-train thrill of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991. A deadly machine is sent from the future to assassinate a youngster in the present; a protector is sent back as protector. There are lengthy chases along roads, through buildings, and across the sky; countless rounds of ammunition are discharged into inhuman beings that we know will simply get up and start attacking again a few seconds later.
As directed by Tim (Deadpool) Miller, though, Terminator: Dark Fate also recalls other, more contemporary movies than T2: one confusing mid-air sequence aboard a military transport plane feels like an action set-piece mandated by a studio that wanted to capture the energy of Fast & Furious 6 and the hotel hallway sequence out of Inception. But thanks to the over-abundance of CGI and some indifferent editing, it winds up feeling more like a scene from Joe Carnahan’s easily forgotten The A-Team reboot from 2010. Remember the part in The A-Team where a tank fell out of the sky, suspended from a parachute? I’d almost forgotten all about it until I saw a remarkably similar scene in Dark Fate.
It’s worth rewinding, though, and talking about what Dark Fate gets right.
First, there’s the strength of its casting, which was something that eluded the last attempted series reboot, 2015’s calamitous Terminator Genisys. Mackenzie Davis is terrific as cybernetically enhanced super soldier, Grace – rangy and steely-looking, she’s a worthy analogue for Kyle Reese’s doomed protector in the original Terminator. Gabriel Luna exudes a kind of unblinking charisma as the Rev-9, a new kind of human-hating machine that, like Robert Patrick’s T-1000 before it, is capable of charming its way around flesh-and-blood people with worrying ease.
What Dark Fate is really interested in doing is taking familiar characters from the first two movies and stirring them around in a plot that’s insistent on taking established ideas, giving them a different name, and hoping they’ll be mistaken for something new. So in the place of Skynet and the Terminators (expunged from history in the wake of T2’s events) we have a new artificially intelligent threat called Legion, and its own army of bipedal human-haters.
Dark Fate – whose script is credited to David S Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray – tries to up the stakes further by giving us a couple of two-for-one deals. Luna’s Rev-9 is a metal combat chassis whose morphing skin is capable of sloughing off and moving about on its own. So while the grinning skeleton drives a truck, say, the morphing half of itself can stand on the bonnet, throwing steel rods like javelins. To balance this out, we also get a buy-one, get-one-free offer on ageing gunslingers.
On one side, we have Linda Hamilton, admittedly excellent as a silvering, embittered Sarah Connor; on the other, there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 – later named Carl – a rogue cyborg that showed up not long after T2 and slaughtered poor John Connor (Edward Furlong, who’s listed in the credits but exists here as an eerie CGI recreation of his 13 year-old self). Sarah’s understandably bereft at the loss of her son, and wanders the earth killing other stray cyborgs whose locations, we later learn, are secretly provided by Carl to give Sarah, well, a hobby I suppose. (If that sounds baffling relayed like this, it’s hardly less plausibly delivered in the movie.)
And this is really my main beef with Dark Fate. Its moments of tension and excitement – and there are a few – are more than matched by groan-worthy plot points that were patently engineered to get Hamilton and Schwarzenegger on the screen together one more time. There’s so much emphasis on the pair – and explaining how they’re connected – that the movie leaves comparatively little time for Natalia Reyes’ Dani Ramos, the embattled saviour of humanity. Where Sarah Connor was paired with one protector in The Terminator, and fought alongside another T-800 and her young son in T2, Dani has no fewer than three bodyguards catching bullets for her in Dark Fate.
There’s a clarity to the early action scenes – where it’s just Grace battling Diego Luna’s dual-threat – that quickly ebbs when there’s three or sometimes four humans (if you count Dani, once she flips over to apocalypse-ready warrior mode) start rounding on the villain. In fact, Luna begins to look so outnumbered by the final few minutes that your humble writer almost started feeling sorry for him.
When Dark Fate isn’t plain muddled, it often feels hackneyed. That superhero glibness that felt at home in Deadpool feels ill-judged here; characters explain what they’re doing as ‘futuristic shit’; when Connor says she can’t see something Grace can, the latter responds with “that’s because you’re not an enhanced super-soldier from the future.”
Some futuristic sequences also strike entirely the wrong note; a scene where Dani shows up as her saviour-of-humanity self looks more like something from West Side Story than a post apocalypse. An initially chilling opening shot of human skulls being washed clean of sand beneath a receding tide is undercut by a singularly dreadful effects shot of CGI Terminator skeletons plodding jankily from the ocean spray.
Miller dwells on the bludgeoning action, but skates over some of the story’s more intriguing details: Dark Fate uses the Mexican border is a backdrop, not a theme; there’s no pause to consider the suffering or the way humans treat each other, or how the darker sides of our nature might translate into the technology we create.
There’s also less of a sense of the horror awaiting humanity in this movie than the others; I get the sense that Miller isn’t too interested in exploring them too deeply, and assumes we’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic films to know where we’re headed.
It’s strange and somewhat exhausting to think that Dark Fate represents the third attempted reboot of the Terminator – a franchise with one of the worst cases of selective amnesia anywhere in cinema.
Terminator: Salvation largely ignored the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; Terminator: Genisys ignored Salvation and T3; Dark Fate ignores all those, and largely consigns the various other Terminators and despotic AIs that came before it to the dustbin of history.
Given that the movies that came after Terminator 2 were middling at best, it’s hard to feel too mournful at that. But despite all the new threats and fresh faces, Dark Fate doesn’t feel so much like a new beginning for an ageing franchise as yet more of the same; let’s face it, a human hand capable of morphing into a stabbing implement felt a bit played out even in Terminator 3.
A full 35 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger first materialised in Los Angeles to chase a young Sarah Connor, we’re still seeing terrified humans fleeing from heartless machines; whether we’ll see Dani take over as the Terminator-bashing star of future sequels remains to be seen.
As ever, the franchise’s fate lies not in the hands of an evil computer, but the cinema-going public.
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