In 1984, James Cameron’s “Terminator” thrilled audiences with its captivating plotting, instantly memorable performances, and then-groundbreaking special effects. Seven years later, Cameron topped himself with the even more engrossing and technically impressive “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” However, since then, the property has floundered with one unimpressive, increasingly convoluted sequel after another.
“Terminator: Dark Fate” is the latest attempt to update and revive the once-mighty franchise. Notably, the Tim Miller (“Deadpool”) directed film brings back the original duology’s stars Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It also features a screenplay by Cameron, which marks the filmmaker’s return to the film series he created 35 years ago.
While “Dark Fate” is easily the best “Terminator” movie since “Judgment Day,” it still doesn’t match the quality of the franchise’s best entries.
**Be warned: This review contains spoilers**
It’s worth noting “Terminator: Dark Fate” doesn’t make many of the mistakes of its immediate predecessors. For one thing, the film isn’t overly convoluted or fixated on decades-old continuity. The movie tells a relatively uncomplicated story that only requires viewers to know basic facts about the franchise. It also features a stripped-down plot that makes it feel shorter than its two-hour-plus runtime.
“Dark Fate” follows Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young autoworker whose livelihood is threatened by technological unemployment. Early on, a new model Terminator attacks Dani, but an enhanced human saves her from the future named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). While on the run, Dani and Grace encounter Sarah Connor (Hamilton), the grizzled protagonist of the first two “Terminator” movies. Together, the trio attempts to figure out how to destroy the shape-shifting killing machine.
To start, it’s great to see Linda Hamilton in a “Terminator” movie again. Her scarred and sorrowful version of Sarah Connor is the film’s best character. Indeed, her presence is a reminder that impressive special effects alone don’t make action movies enjoyable. Ultimately, the audience needs protagonists to invest in, or the CGI is just visual noise.
Furthermore, the film features considerably lower stakes than most recent “Terminator” sequels. The group does not attempt to stop the emergence of the artificial intelligence (AI) that will one day burn the world. The movie treats the rise of the machines as an inevitability to be endured rather than an event to be stopped. It frames its character’s end goal as survival rather than victory.
As military-grade AI is a reality in 2019, “Dark Fate’s” update to the franchise’s core concept is very welcome.
Unfortunately, for all its nostalgic power and narrative efficiency, “Dark Fate” feels like a movie assembled from recycled parts. The film’s theme that the AI uprising is unstoppable is the crux of “Terminator 3: Rise of Machines.” Moreover, “Terminator: Genisys” introduced an old and affable version of the T-800 played by Schwarzenegger.
“Dark Fate’s” five credited screenwriters dropped the ball by hinting at, but not adequately exploring the new ideas the prior movies introduced. For instance, the notion that a Terminator can evolve beyond its programming is fascinating (and is explored…in hilarious fashion). The concept suggests that humanity’s way forward isn’t defeating AI but rather teaching it to be more humane.
The film also implies that the Terminators keep failing because they can’t adapt as quickly as people. However, the Rev-9 demonstrates the ability to improvise and intuit better than any of its predecessors. But “Dark Fate” makes the mistake of assuming its ability to divide itself is more interesting than its ability to think for itself. All too often, the movie puts more effort into its explosions and gunfights than its big ideas.
Aside from its shortcomings as a “Terminator” film, “Dark Fate” has serious problems as a standalone movie. While a capable big-budget director, Tim Miller has little in the way of visual style and idiomatic tone. As a result, his filmmaking is uninspiring and many sequences where the audience is supposed to feel tense or emotionally involved fall flat. To Miller’s credit, the film feels connected to the real world in a way its predecessors don’t, but it also feels flat and colorless.
Also, while Miller was smart enough to get out of Hamilton and Schwarzenegger’s way, he did a poor job shepherding the film’s other performances. Dani suffers from the Hollywood blockbuster disease of lacking any distinctive personal characteristics. Davis’ Grace, while repeatedly insisting she’s human, lacks the passion the story implies she should feel.
Furthermore, Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9, like most of the franchise’s antagonists, is thoroughly forgettable. The actor underplays his character, so his Terminator feels more vaguely sinister than terrifying. Plus, Miller didn’t marry the film’s practical effect to its CGI. As a result, its villain has a weightlessness that matches his insubstantial persona.
If nothing else, “Dark Fate” is a reminder of how hard it is for actors to convey a sense of inhumanity.
Besides, the movie doesn’t feature even one standout set-piece. The film’s protagonists never devise novel ways of slowing down their pursuer. Conversely, the Rev-9 never attacks his prey in a way that the audience won’t see coming.
Ultimately, “Terminator: Dark Fate” is a better overall film than its three predecessors. But that only means it succeeds in being inoffensively mediocre.