Writing four years ago about Terminator: Genisys, the fifth movie in the long-running cyborgs-from-the-dystopian-future action franchise, I noted that "after five movies, a major theme-park ride, several video games, and two seasons of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, this particular franchise is feeling, if not quite obsolete, at least played out." You would think, given that attitude, that I wouldn't find much of value in Terminator: Dark Fate, which in every way looks like a desperate grab to reclaim that cultural and box-office power that the groundbreaking (and record-breaking) Terminator 2: Judgment Day achieved back in 1991. The promotional material for the film has put heavy emphasis on the return of series creator James Cameron (who executive produced and co-wrote the script) and star Linda Hamilton, who played the meek waitress-turned-apocalypse-denying warrior Sarah Connor in the first two films, which positions Dark Fate as the true descendent of Cameron's original-the long-awaited genuine article. The fact that neither Cameron nor Hamilton has been involved in the series since George H.W. Bush was President speaks to just how long this franchise has been around, and its continued relevance has been fragile at best, with each new film grasping at the glories of the past.
And, although Terminator: Dark Fate fits right into that pattern, it is the best Terminator film since 2003's daringly bleak Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which similarly looked like a desperate gambit on its face, but turned out to be much better than expected. The Dark Fate screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray (from a story by James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, Goyer, and Rhodes) wisely eschews the increasingly complicated (if not downright incoherent) time-travelling conundrums of some of the previous entries in the series (especially Genisys) in favor of a much simpler concept. Basically, Sarah Connor was successful back in T2 in stopping the nefarious AI computer Skynet from launching nuclear war against humanity. However, a very similar and equally horrifying future has unfolded anyway, this time driven by a computer system known as Legion. The future, as it turns out, is destined to be a horrorshow (hence the film's subtitle).
The plot follows closely to the one laid out in Cameron's original The Terminator (1984), where we meet a seemingly innocuous young woman, in this case a Mexican twentysomething named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, star of the hit Colombian television series Lady, La Vendedora de Rosas), whose world is rocked when a programmed assassin and a human soldier from the future arrive to, respectively, kill her and protect her. It is a simple set-up that works as well here as it did back in 1984, although director Tim Miller (Deadpool) too frequently gives in to the temptation to ramp up the action scenes to levels of crackling near-incoherence.
The assassin is another merciless liquid-metal killer, except this one, the REV-9 (Gabriel Luna), can morph not just into humans and stabbing weapons, but also guns. There is a twist on the soldier-protector, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), too: Not only is she a woman, but she is an "enhanced" soldier, meaning that she has been surgically outfitted with technology that makes her faster and stronger than a normal human, which allows her to, if not match, at least stand a chance against the REV-9. Into this fray arrives Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who has spent the past 30 years battling various Terminators sent back from the future. In that time, she has become even harder than she was in T2, and Hamilton wears her age like a badge of honor, a welcome sight in an industry that prizes youth (especially in women) and attempts to deny its impermanence in any way possible.
Make no mistake, Terminator: Dark Fate is a profoundly female-centric action film, one that is committed to flipping the script on action-movie gender politics in almost every way possible, but without doing so in a way that feels forced or didactic. Sarah Connor, along with Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise (the best of which, 1986's Aliens, James Cameron wrote and directed), helped rewrite the rules of what a female action hero could be, and Hamilton continues to carry that mantle by refusing to soften Connor's edges, especially given all that she's been through (a particularly tragic event occurs right at the beginning of the film, and if Dark Fate has a major weakness, it is that this scene, which relies on de-aging digital effects, would have been better left unseen). She provides an important balance to Reyes's Dani, who Sarah rightfully recognizes is essentially her 30 years ago. Connor naturally assumes that Dani is being targeted because she will someday give birth to a future resistance leader, an assumption that ultimately gets turned on its head. Mackenzie Davis makes for a formidable protector, and she stands as a middle ground between Sarah and Dani, evincing the battle-hardened tenacity of the former while maintaining the grounded humanity of the latter, an intermediary position that is also reflected in her dual role as both human and machine.
Of course, we all know that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the original Terminator who has appeared in some form or fashion in all of the films, will emerged at some point, gray and bearded. His role in the narrative is a crucial one and is not revealed until more than halfway into the film, and he also injects some much-needed humor (the goings-on up until that point are pretty grim). Schwarzenegger's familiarity as star-icon of the franchise is used well, but in unexpected ways. He still delivers firepower, but also another dose of unexpected humanity, drawing out the idea from T2 that machines can learn about what it means to be human. Of course, that underlying humanity has always been key to Cameron's sci-fi epics, from The Abyss (1989), to Avatar (2009), and it is something that has been largely lacking from the post-T2 entries in the Terminator franchise. Dark Fate brings it back a way that makes the old feel, if not new, at least meaningful.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
Get a daily dose of Illinois Intelligencer news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.