Terminator: Dark Fate
Is there a franchise where the notion sequels is more baked-in than The Terminator? We should have known that the famous line “I’ll be back” was more than a just a quip, but a mantra promising decades of reboots and rethinks. With Terminator: Dark Fate, we finally have another chapter worthy of the first two films.
Looking at the credits, it’s almost comical how many cooks are involved in bringing the latest sequel to life. The story is by James Cameron (original writer/director and producer of this version), Charles Eglee (Dexter, NYPD Blue), Josh Friedman (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), David S. Goyer (writer of a slew of DC content including Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies), and Justin Rhodes (a newcomer whose RoboCop reboot is in production). The final screenplay is credited to Goyer, Rhodes, and Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips). This work-by-committee is often a recipe for disaster, yet somehow the end result here feels far less fragmented than one would surmise while watching name after name drop over the opening sequences.
The story this time opens with footage of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) ranting about Skynet. We soon see her and son John relaxing on a Guatemalan beach, when out of the water a lumbering Model 101 Terminator (a de-aged Arnold Schwarzenegger) comes to kill John Connor and fulfill a mission from a future that had already been cancelled. Decades later, auto worker Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is met by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human sent back from the future to protect her from a Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna) out to murder the young woman before she plays a role in another post-apocalyptic war.
The best way to approach Dark Fate is to simply erase all the other movies from Terminator 3 to present as alternate timelines. This one returns to the original characters and continuity from the first two films. That allows for both nostalgia and a great way forward. Hamilton and Schwarzenegger bring the history of their characters to bear while the newcomers still have space to make the storyline their own. The story is highly self-reflective, twisting notions of the core mythology without succumbing to mere repetition of what we’ve seen before.
The T9 is a hybrid weapon that takes on the shape-shifting ooze from T2 as well as an internal mechanical skeleton. Luna plays the character with appropriate menace, even if he’s given a lot less to work with than the rest of the characters on screen. A few moments, particularly when he toys with Texas state troopers, show glimpses of more dimensional weight.
Grace and Dani thankfully pick up the slack on this front, and have quite a bit of emotional development that feels earned. Davis’ physical presence is an excellent foil to Hamilton’s. Reyes spends most of the film slowly finding her footing, taking charge when she needs to and never shrinking from a fight.
Movies like this need to operate on visceral levels as well, of course, and this one has crunching car chases, jumps out of airplanes, and a big action sequence set at a dam. Occasionally, the implausibility becomes even more nonsensical than usual, but in a world with time-travelling robots, you have to pick your battles.
The end result is a loud, explosive blockbuster that still spends loads of time on character development and uses the legacy of this franchise to reflect upon both past and future. The gender rebalancing is integrated rather than forced or gratuitous, and Hamilton in particular showcases her powerful presence with a turn nearly as iconic as her earlier performances.
Terminator: Dark Fate is a fine sequel that provides enough of what came before while adding to the narrative without the baggage that has bogged down the majority of the other offshoots. It has a welcome clarity of purpose. Beyond the bombs and bullets, you can actually care what happens to these characters, laugh about stupid jokes surrounding drapes and chip bags, and simply dig living in this world again. Dark Fate is a damn good Terminator movie, full stop, and easily could (and perhaps should) be the final capper on the franchise.