The Terminator franchise has become the equivalent of coming back to an abusive relationship, hoping things will change and be as good as they were in the beginning of the relationship, only to have them display the same toxic behavior that pushed you away in the first place.
It began with “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003), when Director Jonathan Mostow filled in for James Cameron, who directed the first two films, and delivered what some see to be either a half-decent B movie, or an embarrassing mess that failed to live up to the quality of the first two films. “Terminator Salvation” (2009) promised a different take, exploring the adult life of human resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) in the future, but fell so hard on its face that we wouldn’t see another Terminator movie for six years, when yet another creative team promised to do better with 2015’s “Terminator Genisys”, whose main gimmick was the return of series mainstay Arnold Schwarzenegger and the inclusion of Emilia Clark as a young Sarah Connor and Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese, the time traveling father of John Connor, which also fell flat on its face.
I think the problem with modern Terminator films is that they feel like they both can’t evolve beyond repeating the plots of the first two films and they also feel like they have to innovate in meaningless ways, like giving Terminators liquid tentacles ala “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019) or making the face of Skynet Matt Smith ala “Genisys,” in addition to making their films bigger than the last to the point they’re nonsensical and convoluted.
Terminator is a lot like Star Wars in which it has its beloved classic films (Terminators 1 and 2), its embarrassing, messy experimental early 2000s-films (Terminator 3 and Salvation), and a modern era of films that rehash elements from the originals but fail to be their own thing (Genisys and Dark Fate). The Terminator franchise reeks of studio mismanagement that is afraid to try new things where it matters and instead has chosen to redo things that we’ve seen before that worked in the 80s and 90s but don’t necessarily work in the late 2010s, where the notion of a superintelligent AI from the future sending costly robot exoskeletons back in time to individually kill their targets seems outdated (As Half in the Bag noted in their review, a modern Skynet would rely on nukes and pathogens to effectively kill the human race).
As such, I went into the latest film, “Dark Fate,” with little to no expectations. I just wanted something that was better than “Genisys,” which is a low bar to clear, and while I can admit it cleared it, I take no joy in admitting it. I give Director Tim Miller, who is also directing next year’s live action “Sonic the Hedgehog” film, a congratulatory pat on the back for making a (mostly) coherent movie and doing the bare minimum of what I expect to get out of a Terminator film. “Terminator: Dark Fate” is like a hamburger with a bun, reasonably cooked patty, lettuce, tomato and ketchup, but no seasoning, special sauces or toppings. It’s your Wonder Bread of Terminator films.
And because of that, it’s probably the best Terminator film since Terminator 2.
“Dark Fate” opens with recycled footage of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from T2, which leads into a monologue by present-day Sarah Connor explaining how, while she managed to stop the future in which Skynet almost wiped out the human race with Terminators, she failed to protect her son, John (portrayed by a digital Edward Furlong), who is shot in the chest three times by yet another Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator from that future which never happened in the opening five minutes of the film. It’s insulting to T2, and makes little to no sense, and only serves to reset Hamilton’s character to some version of what she was in T2, albeit more bitter and much older.
We then cut to Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who is an augmented-human from the future, sent to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes), who is vital to the human race’s survival in another future where Terminators are invented by an AI program called Legion, rather than Skynet. A semi-liquid Terminator named the Rev-9, played mostly by Gabriel Luna (which is a problem in of itself as having the bad Terminator be portrayed by mainly one actor completely ruins the point of it being disguised from the protagonists) is sent back in time and hunts her. And the rest plays out how virtually every other Terminator film does.
Sarah Connor and the Arnold Terminator that killed John Connor join them to keep Dani safe. Apparently Connor is a wanted felon, and has been tracking down and killing Terminators for years, and the Arnold Terminator has been feeding her coordinates about their whereabouts for years — because he felt bad about killing John. It’s yet another contradiction to Terminator 1 and 2 (Terminators don’t feel remorse and don’t have consciences), but the team of writers for this movie (there are three screenwriters and five “story by” credits) needed some excuse to get Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film because the Terminator franchise is creatively bankrupt and is coasting off of name recognition at this point.
The film succeeds when it does not jump the shark. In the first half of the film, there are some action set pieces that, while still ridiculous, keep you interested and create some tension. The film gives us some necessary updates to Terminator fight sequences, as Luna’s Rev-9 legitimately moves as fast and as agile as a machine would, and Davis’ Grace is able to match him through her augmented cybernetics. The second half of the film, however, is cluttered, overbolated, nonsensical, and is a CGI mess, which in my opinion, drags the film down from being good to barely watchable.
And by god, can we stop shooting Terminators with guns? We’ve established in virtually every other Terminator film that this does nothing, and you’d think that over the course of thirty years, Connor would have developed specialized weapons that could fry/melt/freeze their chips. Even in the context of this film, which only acknowledges T1 and T2, the amount of time they spend saying that Terminators are unkillable and how much they rely on traditional ammo is embarrassing and a grand waste of time, especially considering that Connor found out in T2 that all you need to do is melt them down. They just needed to lure the Rev-9 into a foundry and push him into a vat of molten metal. Movie over.
It’s hard to fault the cast on this mess of a film, because they were given nothing to work with. If the franchise comes back from this film — and it might not — future Terminator films need to be written by one person and directed by someone who just wants to make a tight film that can stand alone as its own thing, that doesn’t acknowledge the other films at all. And it needs to ditch time travel stories, as that’s how the current franchise has been warped completely out of sense and recognition. So long as future Terminator films harken back to T1 and T2, they will fail.
“Terminator: Dark Fate” gets a 5/10