Released: October 2019
Director: Tim Miller
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $185 Million
Stars: Natalia Reyes, Mackenzie Davis, Gabriel Luna, Linda Hamilton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger
Three years after ensuring that malevolent artificial intelligence Skynet never comes into existence, jaded and emotionally repressed Terminator-hunter Sarah Connor (Hamilton) is brought back into the fight and forced to team up with the cybernetically-enhanced Grace (Davis), and confront her past once more, when an advanced Rev-9 model (Luna) is sent back through time to terminate the seemingly-innocuous Daniella Ramos (Reyes).
The Terminator (Various, 1984 to present) franchise has had a hard time of it in recent years. It seems like every time a film studio acquires the rights (or some of the rights) to the series, they scramble about trying to find new ways to shoe-horn in the classic T-800 (Schwarzenegger) and desperately kick-start a new trilogy of films, only to fail time and time again. James Cameron scored a cult classic with the original 1984 Terminator film and then caught lightning in a bottle with one of the greatest sequels ever made, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (ibid, 1991). Since then, only the criminally underrated Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009) has dared to try something new to the franchise as both the laughable Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow, 2003) and the mediocre Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015) simply chose to retell exactly the same story as T2 with only minor changes. Now, though, after Genisys failed to make the required box office impression, Cameron has been looped back into the production of yet another reboot to the franchise. Despite previously advocating Genisys as the “true Terminator 3, Terminator: Dark Fate (Miller, 2019) ignores every film in the franchise except for T2 and, with stars Hamilton and Schwarzenegger also involved, aims to be the true, definitive Terminator 3.
Terminator: Dark Fate ignores the massive cliffhanger from the end of Genisys and chooses to open three years after the end of T2 where Sarah Connor and her teenage son, John (Jude Collie, with Edward Furlong’s facial likeness) are relaxing in Guatemala. We then jump to 2020 where Grace and the Rev-9 arrive in Mexico City; Grace, who is cybernetically enhanced (a concept not unlike what we saw in Salvation’s Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), has been sent back to protect the new saviour of the future, Daniella “Dani” Reyes, who is just a lowly factory worker at this point.
They soon run into the Rev-9, perhaps the most charismatic of all the future machines we’ve seen so far; the Rev-9 is able to simulate clothing, emotions, and appears far more human than any of its predecessors. It is also comprised of both a metallic endoskeleton and a liquid metal exterior not unlike Terminator 3’s T-X (Kristanna Loken) and Genisys’ T-3000 (Jason Clarke), though the Rev-9 favours shape-shifting and stabbing weapons like the T-1000 (Robert Patrick).
While evading the Rev-9, Grace and Dani are saved by Sarah, now a world-weary, war-torn woman who has spent her years hunting down and eliminating Terminators thanks to tip-offs from a mysterious source. Facing the threat of a similar, yet fundamentally different, apocalyptic future and with nowhere left to turn, Grace brings the group to the source of Sarah’s intel, an aged T-800 and, together, the four formulate a plan to destroy the Rev-9 and maintain hope for the future. From the very beginning (and I mean this absolutely literally), Dark Fate is an immediate and egotistical punch to the gut. If, like me, you enjoyed Salvation (or, at least, wanted to see more of the future war in subsequent Terminator movies) or you were desperately hoping to see Genisys’ loose ends tied up, you’re going to be immediately disappointed. Hell, the few fans and defenders of Terminator 3 will likely to be disappointed, to say nothing of fans of The Terminator and Terminator 2.
Once you desperately try to process Dark Fate’s maddening opening, you’ll be treated some fast-paced, frenetic action scenes; honestly, these are the best parts of the film beyond the actors’ performances and Dark Fate has some intense car chase sequences and confrontations with the Rev-9.I wasn’t too impressed with Gabriel Luna’s appearance when I first saw the trailers for Dark Fate but he does a great job of being cold and calculating but also eerily sinister and human; he’s like a chattier T-1000 at times, which conveys just the right degree of menace. Davis fits the mould of a battle-scarred soldier extremely well as well; her cybernetic enhancements ensure that she is a formidable protector but, thanks to her human physiology, she is also vulnerable as she must take regular does of medicine to stop her metabolism from burning up (…somewhat similar to the Uni-Sols from Universal Soldier (Emmerich, 1992)). Like last year’s poorly-titled and poorly-conceived Halloween (Green, 2018), one of the big selling points of Dark Fate is the surprising return of Linda Hamilton to her most famous role. Controversially killed off between T2 and Terminator 3 and all-but-absent from the franchise outside of the short-lived television show and Emilia Clarke’s portrayal in Genisys, seeing Hamilton lace up her boots again is a nice treat and her character takes some sudden and unexpected twists throughout the course of the movie. Jaded and emotionally stunted, she cares on about destroying every last trace of Skynet, causing her and Grace to have a frosty relationship upon first meeting.
Dani is a likable and serviceable character as well; she has a fighting streak in her but, rather than being the completely useless damsel-in-distress Sarah was in The Terminator or the bad-ass soldier Sarah was in T2, ends up as a slightly-more-capable version of Terminator 3’s Kate Brewster (Claire Danes)…only with way better writing and characterisation. Finally, there is the T-800; like in Genisys, the T-800 (who is known as “Carl”) is aged and has been preparing for Sarah’s inevitable arrival. The T-800 adds some muscle to the group and it never fails to impress how easily Arnold slips back into his most iconic role but, in the end, due to Grace’s presence, it doesn’t really feel like there’s a lot for the T-800 to do and even less reason to truly justify its inclusion beyond Terminator being synonymous with Arnold.
Instead, the T-800 sticks out a bit, especially given that Dark Fate is driven so strongly by three women who are very strong and capable in their own ways. Suddenly adding a male figure, even a machine one, to the mix seems to add a displeasing anti-feminist message that I’m sure will be the subject of many feminist essays, readings, and reviews for years to come. Unfortunately, a few fancy visuals and strong performances don’t change the fact that Dark Fate is the definition of “derivative”. Outside of one major change, there is literally nothing to see here that you can’t get from other Terminator movies. Apparently, Cameron and his writers watched all the other Terminator sequels before they hashed out the plot for Dark Fate but it seems that, rather than deliver something fresh and new, they instead jotted down all their favourites parts of the other movies and decided to do them all over again but now with “James Cameron’s seal of approval (as if that means anything given he was all for Genisys back in the day).
As a result, while Dark Fate is exciting and does a good job of recreating the same kind of tone as The Terminator and T2, it seems a bit pointless to watch it as it’s extremely unlikely that the film will perform well enough to allow for any sequels (it’s currently only made $12.6 million and Genisys didn’t get a sequel despite making over $400 million against a budget similar to Dark Fate’s). add to that that we’ve literally seen everything Dark Fate has to offer in other Terminator films and I’m seriously struggling with a lot of the decisions Cameron and his team chose to make. I’ve been saying for years that the Terminator franchise needs to stop playing it so safe, stop recreating T2, and try and do something new and fresh but, every time they do, the films never really take off; every time they lean heavily into nostalgia, it leads to disappointing box offices and, now, whenever they try everything else they can to keep things similar but ever-so-slightly different, it still seems as though people just aren’t into the Terminator anymore and that there’s just nothing left for the franchise to do.
So, if you’ve been paying attention to the trailers and managed to read between the lines of my review, you’ll notice that John Connor is conspicuous by his absence. This is because Cameron’s bright idea to really hammer home that Dark Fate has nothing to do with any of the Terminator films but the first two is to have a T-800 walk up to John and shoot him with a shotgun within the first five minutes of the movie. Who would have thought that, after everything Sarah and John went through, it would literally be as easy as walking up to him and shooting him? Honestly, I cannot get over this asinine decision. I get why they did it but it’s so unnecessary and literally just the easy way out. Now it feels completely pointless to watch The Terminator and T2 as John just gets blown away with no fuss or fanfare; all that drama and emotional investment just pissed away. Honestly, you’d think Cameron would have learned from the fan outrage to the off-screen deaths of Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) in Alien3 (Fincher, 1992) but apparently not.
With John dead, Sarah is an emotional wreck; her own release comes from alcohol (though this isn’t shown onscreen) and destroying Terminators. She is cold and emotionally closed off and her character is learning to let go of her anger and reconnect with her humanity by taking Dani under her wing. She does this by forging an alliance with the same T-800 that murdered John; having completed its mission, “Carl” ended up living with a woman and her child and, through raising a son and being a family “man”, somehow developed something resembling a conscience and a degree of free will (so much for not feeling “pity, or remorse”…I guess). Wanting to give Sarah purpose, it relates to her specific dates, times, and locations of future Terminators (how and exactly why Skynet would program it with this knowledge is anyone’s guess…) and jumps at the chance to make amends for its actions by assisting Sarah. This is a pretty big problem, though. Because we’re all familiar with Arnold and the T-800 as a self-sacrificing protector, you want to feel empathy for the T-800 and, when it ultimately sacrifices itself to destroy the rev-9 “for John”, it should be an emotional moment. Sarah’s reaction even indicates that she has forgiven the T-800 and let go of her hate…but her hate is what drove her and gave her purpose and it’s very difficult to truly sympathise with “Carl” because it murdered a teenage boy right in front of his mother! And not just any teenage boy; future saviour John Connor, who we were equally attached to after following his and Sarah’s story in the first two movies!
As I said above, Arnold really feels completely unnecessary to this movie. He’s literally only there because of Cameron and because of the assumption that a Terminator movie cannot be successful without him, but he doesn’t add anything to it. They could have just as easily made the same movie with Sarah and John being Terminators hunters and stumbling into this new dystopian future; Grace is more than capable of fighting the Rev-9 and Sarah could have given her life so that John could mentor Dani on how to be the world’s saviour. Hell, they could have just had Sarah say John is off the grid and safe in Mexico but reveal that she was so paranoid and afraid that the future might still go to shit that she cut him off and devoted herself to hunting Terminators. Instead, like I said, they took the easy way out, killing John like he meant nothing and then tossing a load of stuff we’ve already seen onscreen and acting like it’s “new” or somehow “better”. I have news for you, James Cameron: it’s not. In the end, Dark Fate was about as good as Genisys but loses so many points not just for killing John but also for being so derivative: liquid metal and an endoskeleton? Seen it. Old T-880 with paternal instincts? Seen it. Skynet now a slightly different A.I? Seen in. cybernetically-enhanced human? Seen it. Nothing in this movie is “different” or “new” except that they killed John and even that happened in the future in Terminator 3 and, even if it didn’t or you don’t count that, it’s still a terrible decision to make.
In the end, Terminator: Dark Fate is just too derivative and feels completely unnecessary. It has some decent action scenes and a bold, uncompromising feminist agenda but makes some truly deplorable decisions and isn’t given you anything you haven’t seen before. Honestly, it’s a massive disappointment as I was expecting James Cameron to bring some order and prestige back to the franchise; instead, they cut corners at every turn, took the easy way out at every opportunity, and have once again failed to live up to the lofty standards set by Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Here’s an idea for the future, though: try making something new rather than constantly recreating your biggest hit and, if you’re reading this, try actually liking something new. If more audiences had backed Terminator Salvation, we could have gotten one or two more gritty, science-fiction action/war movies that led naturally into The Terminator. Instead, we get derivative, disappointing, insulting stuff like this and I could not be more unimpressed.