Linda Hamilton … Sarah Connor
Terminator: Dark Fate Review:
1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is seen, rightfully so, as something of a classic. It’s a highwater mark for both action filmmaking, cleanly and clearly staged by co-writer/director James Cameron of the period, while also serving as a technological breakthrough, thanks to the groundbreaking visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic. But it’s often overlooked for how wonderful its storytelling is, in the way it transports characters from an earlier film, either adjusting them slightly or wholly reinventing them, and in its equally magical ability for you to care about those same characters. (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s death makes you tear up when, just one movie prior, he was an unstoppable killing machine hell-bent on humanity’s annihilation.) It’s telling that in all the year since T2 and all of the attempts to revive this once-beloved franchise, nobody has been able to identify what made the film so special and replicate it to a satisfactory degree. Until now.
Terminator: Dark Fate, which we all should remember is the sixth film in the franchise and the third attempt to earnestly restart it (both Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genysis were supposed to be the first film in a planned trilogy and both crashed on take-off), actually recaptures the magic of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and makes you actually hungry for more installments in the franchise, something that, in the years since T2, seemed as unlikely as an unstoppable murder-bot traveling backwards through time.
After a cool, VHS-y title sequence (that either features footage from T2 or a recreation so dead-on that it fooled me), we’re treated to a prologue that picks up almost immediately after the events of Terminator 2, during a time when Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) thought that, having successfully canceled Judgment Day, she could live out her days in peace. Turns out, not so much. (Saying more would be a spoiler.) We then flash forward 22 years, where a young girl named Dani (Natalia Reyes) is being stalked by a new, even-more-advanced terminator (Gabriel Luna). And, yes, we’ve heard a lot about “even-more-advanced” terminators in the last few films but this one has a genuinely nifty twist: it has a liquid-metal body wrapped around a metallic endoskeleton and can separate them to work independently. So the liquidy humanoid (reminiscent of Robert Patrick in T2) can be attacking you while, say, the skeleton separately drives a truck.
Dani has a protector, though, in Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a soldier from the future sent back in time (echoes of Michael Biehn in the first film), who has been technologically augmented to be faster, stronger, and more nimble. Eventually, Grace and Dani receive back-up in the form of Sarah Conner who now, by her own admission, mostly hunts terminators and drinks until she blacks out. Grace, Dani and Sarah bicker but they’re on the same side, and begrudgingly make a pact with Carl (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a Terminator that has been left behind in our timeline after Judgment Day evaporated.
With a story co-conceived by series creator James Cameron (he also produces), you can tell that this was an earnest attempt to get back to what makes the franchise so powerful. Terminator: Dark Fate, directed by Deadpool filmmaker Tim Miller, takes place over a couple of days, in a contemporary setting, unencumbered by clumsy “world-building” or unnecessarily complicated timelines. There are some brief flash-forwards, something we’ve come to expect from these movies, but they’re so slickly interwoven and wonderfully character-focused, that these sequences only serve to enrich the main narrative. And given Miller’s background in animation, the action set pieces are imaginatively designed and easy to follow, with a premium given to the
And as thrillingly edge-of-your-seat the movie is (and it pretty much is for the entire runtime), the most lovable aspect of Terminator: Dark Fate is its performances, chiefly from Hamilton and Davis. These movies have always been obsessed with time travel, about visiting your younger self and being able to change the future. But there have never been two performers who are essentially playing the same role, in the movie at the same time. Davis is a warrior with a purpose, who volunteered for her mechanical augmentation because she didn’t think she’d survive more than a few minutes in the past, while Hamilton is an older soldier who thought the war was over and now bitterly engages. Eventually, a warmth forms between them, but how they get to a place of mutual understanding is one of the movie’s chief pleasures. Schwarzenegger has been involved in many of the subsequent sequels and reboots, but what becomes painfully clear in this outing is that it’s really Hamilton’s involvement that really makes these movies soar. She’s the beating heart of the original movies and she serves a similar purpose here. (It should also be noted that Schwarzenegger has never been better; he’s funny and warm and still very bad-ass.) It’s rare to see a major blockbuster this unabashedly female, with complex characters of every age range (Reyes is super great too) that refuses to make them two-dimensional objects.
There have been many comparisons made online to The Force Awakens, and there is a bit of that, with its deeply cynical the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same mentality, as much a commentary on large scale filmmaking as it is a necessary plot point. (Hey, Skynet has been defeated but some other, oddly similar evil has arisen in its place.) But Terminator: Dark Fate makes some key deviations, mostly in its willingness to engage in contemporary social issues (it’s set largely in Mexico and features an extended sequence inside a border detention facility) and its ability to tell a largely self-contained story that still opens the door for future installments. Terminator: Dark Fate is a ballsy, muscular thrill ride (at some points you can practically feel the theme park attraction that will undoubtedly arise at a later date), bloody and very R-rated, that has tons of humor, heart, and surprises, and returns the franchise to its former glory while paving a new way forward towards a very different future.