It’d be pure of understatement to call James Cameron’s first two Terminator films anything shy of unparalleled genre milestones. His slasher slant on science fiction, propelled the original film beyond mere cult classic status as Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed the eponymous emotionless killing machine (literally) who relentlessly hunts down Sarah Connor (the quintessential last girl) whilst never succumbing to gunfire. The original is replete with scenes of Arnold carving out his own eye with an X-Acto knife and a climax wherein our two leads are chased down by what, for all intensive purposes, is a skeleton. The first Terminator is filled with tropes that’d be more at home in a horror movie than your typical time-traveling robot film. Moreover, the feature’s climactic causality loop wherein (spoilers) protagonist Kyle Reese conceives the very military leader that sent him back through time, offers sci-fi fans an ending the likes of which has never been scene since Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Then, seven short years after Terminator’s success, Cameron returned to push the boundaries of adrenaline fueled action and special effects forward with the cinematic blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Herein Arnold is back, not to terminate but to protect, as he tracks down the now 10 year old son of Sarah, future resistance lead John Connor. T2 tugs at many of the same heartstrings as say E.T. with the big budget benefit of high octane car chases, explosive gun fights and edge of your seat excitement.
The three sequels sandwiched between T2 and the recently released Terminator: Dark Fate have all, to varying degrees, missed the mark of what made the initial Terminator duology so successful. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines has an adequate plot (if only due to the fact that is aping T2’s formula) yet lacked in any true style or suspense. Terminator Salvation, which does manage to capture a stark tone all its own, suffered significantly from a convoluted plot. Terminator Genisys succumbed to both a convoluted plot as well as a complete and utter lack of style. Does the recent Terminator: Dark Fate fare better than the ill-conceived trilogy that preceded it? In short, sure… but barely.
After a nostalgia fueled opening showcasing an institutionalized Sarah warning against the horrors of humanity’s future, we learn the fate of her son John. Dark Fate kicks off its plot the way most Terminator films do, two warriors from another time are sent back (naked naturally) to zero in on a human target destined to defend mankind against a machine uprising in a fate not yet written. One warrior sent to protect (Mackenzie Davis from Blade Runner 2049, Halt and Catch Fire), the other a lethal android programmed to destroy (Matador star Gabriel Luna). The film features franchise favorites such as Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong (the latter of which in an exceedingly minute role).
However, in this newly altered timeline, the true fate of humanity rests in the hands of Dani Ramos (Colombian telenovela star Natalia Reyes) as she’s pursued by the relentless REV-9, a two for the price of one terminator that consists of a gunmetal black endoskeleton and it liquid metal counterpart (both of which able to function independently or as one). Can the mechanically augmented Mackenzie (known in the film as Grace), Sarah and everyone’s favorite T-800 stand toe to toe against this new threat and save, not just the future of mankind, but the future of this franchise?
Before I pick apart what I feel doesn’t work here, allow me to dispel a couple rumors as to why this film doesn’t work. One, a number of internet commentators call the film too “feminist.” No. The female cast (Mackenzie Davis especially) are among the best things about the film. This is not a case of “get woke, go broke.” Two, some say (spoilers ahead), the killing off of a major character (e.g. John Connor) is disrespectful to invested fans. Again, no. We the audience have seen John Connor do just about everything anyone could potentially want to see him do in prior films. His very existence fixes the Terminator timeline and inhibits it from progressing forward. Now perhaps an argument can be made that this franchise should stop moving forward and I sympathize with that sentiment. That being said, if these films are to move forward, merely including John for the sake of fan service or as an instrument to merely pass the proverbial torch is less satisfying than omitting him altogether.
Dark Fate’s true detriment is its plot. Whilst we all love Schwarzenegger, his larger than life persona becoming the face of the IP following the wild success of T2 has done nothing to benefit the film’s going forward. While he gives a fine performance here as a sympathetic killing computer that learns empathy, he’s needlessly shoehorned into this film. After completing his mission and killing John Connor, the famed infiltration unit infiltrates suburban family life all the while texting Sarah the locations of newly arriving terminators for her to destroy. As he has now found purpose in his adoptive family, he seeks to offer Sarah purpose in place of the son he needlessly took away. That’s the crux regarding Arnold’s role in the film and its oft convoluted nature will ultimately be a hard hurdle for fans to get over if they hope to enjoy the film.
Anther big hurdle will be the film’s reshot ending wherein (spoilers) a randomly introduced MacGuffin within Mackenzie’s chest helps defeat the seemingly indestructible REV-9, rather lazily ending the film. In the plus column Luna’s REV-9 is the first truly suspenseful antagonist the franchise has had to offer since T2’s T-1000. The same can not be said for the Kristanna Loken in Rise of the Machines, Helena Bonham Carter in Salvation or Jason Clarke in Genisys, respectively. The action scenes between Luna and the supporting cast are pretty well orchestrated as Davis, Hamilton and Schwarzenegger all tag-team this new treat.
This film was one or two rewrites away from something truly worthwhile but alas, as is, the film falls into mediocrity. Whilst there was a great deal of PR trumpeting Cameron’s involvement with the feature, Deadpool’s Tim Miller ultimately helms the film as director. Cameron takes a backseat with a “story by” and producer credit and he allegedly never appeared on set. I look at Terminator: Dark Fate in much the same way I look at Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles television show. An adequate effort held back by occasional lapses in judgment. If given the choice between Dark Fate and the Connor Chronicles TV show, I’d likely hand it to the TV show.
With the low box-office returns of this latest Terminator film (an estimated 29 million) and James Cameron’s attention consumed by not one, but four Avatar sequels, I foresee a “dark fate” for the future of this franchise. I foresee a likely return to television. Suffice to say, this series won’t “be back” anytime soon.