Updated: Dec 20, 2021
The 'Terminator' franchise has not so much come to define the law of diminishing returns as become an exercise in resigned inevitability. Why do we, the loyal viewer, put ourselves through this? Previous experience has surely taught us that any 'Terminator' sequel post-1991 is folly. It can be argued that this time-travel story of humanity vs. relentless killing machine has already definitively been told; namely in two films that can genuinely lay claim to being amongst the finest in mainstream science-fiction: The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). What Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) – the sixth instalment of the franchise – achieves is to highlight that 2003's entertaining and much maligned Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) is a far better film than many would have you believe, and remind you that, despite their many faults, misfiring box-office bomb Terminator Salvation (2009) and fairly interesting but derivative Terminator Genisys (2015) actually aimed to do something different with the ailing franchise. Watching an inferior sequel whilst coming to the realisation that you'd rather be watching a previous inferior sequel is a strange dichotomy and not a great starting point. And it is ironic considering the intention of Dark Fate is to pretend all the sequels beyond the superlative Terminator 2: Judgment Day don't exist. In truth, there doesn't appear to be an obvious creative reason for Dark Fate to exist either.
The main draw of Dark Fate is the return of two of the main players from the original Terminator: creator James Cameron in the producer's chair (alongside a nominal 'story by' credit) and Linda Hamilton reprising the role of 'Mother Mary' Sarah Connor, mother of humanity's saviour, 28 years since we last saw her in Judgment Day. As good as Hamilton is in the part with which she has become synonymous, her return is not a strong enough event to cover the cracks in the rest of the film. The problem is that director Tim Miller and the myriad of credited screenwriters seem to have forgotten that a unique, worthwhile story in which to bring her back might have been a good idea. Dark Fate starts boldly, with a potentially divisive sequence that makes you sit up and take notice. However, it is not long before we realise that we have trodden this path several times before, despite the action being transposed from LA to Mexico City. To be fair, this new location does add a new flavour to the well-worn narrative, as we meet Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, doing what she can with what she's given) and her brother Diego (Diego Boneta), who work in a factory and are soon to be pursued by a newer, deadlier Terminator, 'Rev-9' (Gabriel Luna) and protected by Grace (Mackenzie Davis) who, we learn, have both been sent from the future. So far, so familiar.
Of the new characters, it is Gabriel Luna as 'Rev-9' who is the most immediate standout. Not since Robert Patrick's T-1000 has a newly introduced Terminator been so effective. Sleek, uncompromising and able to blend into a crowd (complete with a few new interesting special features unseen in previous models of Terminator), Luna pitches his performance pretty much perfectly. Less impressive is Mackenzie Davis as Grace, effectively a variant on Michael Biehn's Kyle Reese character from The Terminator, but coming across as 'Kyle Reese-lite' and turning in a disappointingly listless performance. Elsewhere, Hamilton's Sarah Connor has been off the grid for many years, drinking and eating potato chips, becoming embroiled in Dani and Diego’s situation having been tipped off by mysterious text messages from an unknown sender. The only presence notable by his absence in this scenario is the Austrian Oak himself.
So, what of Arnold Schwarzenegger? The Governator has been the one reliable constant across all of the 'Terminator' films (with the notable exception of Terminator Salvation, in which it was just his likeness that was licenced for use rather than the man himself). Since his return to acting, it is true to say that he does not have quite the box office clout of his classic years, and his appearance in a new 'Terminator' film is not necessarily the licence to print money it may once have been. That said, for an ageing Terminator, he looks great, still has the power to command the screen in the role that made him a household name, and continues to be a dab hand with a quip, one of which is very funny, but was tellingly met with complete silence by the audience in attendance at our screening (perhaps another example of how often the film misses the mark). However, creative decisions have been made with regards to the Schwarzenegger character of the T-800 in Dark Fate that just do not ring true. Schwarzenegger never quite manages to rise above the often frustratingly underdeveloped material, though he still remains adept at imbuing a killing machine with a winning charm and, oddly, a sense of humanity. It is a character arc that could have been fascinating if given more time to breathe, and perhaps worthy of its own, lower key film.
And therein lies the main issue – each 'Terminator' sequel has played the 'bigger means better' card, forgetting that the vast majority of James Cameron's original film plays its cards very close to its chest. It was a film in which the storytelling was efficient and focused; a nightmarish high-concept chase thriller produced on a modest budget. The second film was a logical continuation of the story, and arguably one of the greatest action films ever made, which also happened to be the most expensive film of all time up to that point. Both were masterfully executed by a unique and visionary director at the top of his game who was largely untouchable for a golden decade.
It is interesting to note that without Cameron's input in subsequent 'Terminator' sequels, their quality suffered. Therefore, the announcement that he was creatively involved in Dark Fate added a certain amount of gravitas but perhaps raised insurmountable expectations. It can only be assumed that Cameron has been too preoccupied with Pandora and the endless stream of upcoming Avatar (2009) sequels to truly make an impact on the outcome of Dark Fate. Did the 'Terminator' series need yet another explosive re-tread of previous success, or would it have benefitted from returning to its 'tech-noir' genre roots?
Essentially, there is something disappointingly lacklustre and half-hearted about the whole affair. There are the requisite action set pieces which are thrilling in the moment but ultimately forgettable. I liked the beginning, I liked the ending, and there are good ideas struggling to coalesce in the chaos, but there are also plot holes through which you could drive a Panzer tank. There is still a certain magic in seeing Hamilton and Schwarzenegger share the screen after so many years, but their reunion does not sustain the runtime of Dark Fate and, aside from Luna, the new characters are largely unengaging and insipid. Some are suggesting that this new film marks an improvement in the 'Terminator' franchise, a course correction of sorts. A course correction may well be necessary. But Terminator: Dark Fate isn't it.
The taut drama, crisp pacing and near-perfect intensity of James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) only serves to embellish the scale of this latest, all-too-predictable failure in the tortured odyssey that is the Terminator franchise. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) is by no means a terrible film, but Tom hit the endoskeleton precisely on its red-eyed head when he described it as being essentially the beginning and the end of a decent story, with everything in the middle leaving oodles to be desired. Sadly, the filling in this sandwich is bland, uninspired and hamstrung by inconsistent pacing and an atrocious, written-by-committee script. Director Tim Miller's film has not one original bone in its R-rated body, and no amount of profanity, violence and fetishistic nods to its most obvious inspiration - Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) - can disguise the fact that Dark Fate is an enervated homage to a vastly superior motion picture. To be frank, the film isn't very interesting. It contains a few clever ideas - the origins and motivations of Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest machine persona would make for an intellectually stimulating character study - but even then, conceptual design invariably exceeds dramatic execution. If you subtract the inventive bravado and simply take Dark Fate as the sum of its parts, the end result is found wanting in every department. Linda Hamilton makes the best of it, and provides a spirited turn (and the renewal of the Sarah Connor character is its own waft of finest nostalgia), but she is undermined by the lacklustre writing, and the inadequacies of those around and about her. The newly introduced characters are (at best) facsimiles of something older and better, or, in the case of Mackenzie Davis' Grace, cringeworthy and incongruous. The Grace character represents a creative nadir: she is oftentimes wooden, dramatically unconvincing and about as likeable as a migraine. She spends most of the film sweating and moodily spouting verbal effluvia, that reeks to the highest heavens of liberal Hollywood gratification. After her enigmatic presentation in Denis Villeneuve’s superlative Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Davis’ performance in Dark Fate represents a disappointing regression. As Tom noted, Diego Luna provides a compelling counterpart to Robert Patrick's iconic T-1000, and an under-utilised Schwarzenegger does all he can (and more besides) with what he's afforded, but it's ultimately an exercise in futility. Some critics have labelled Dark Fate 'vastly superior' to any of the post-1991 sequels. This (rather debatable) assertion sounds like a compliment, but it's actually damning with faint praise. Dark Fate sought to reset and restore the Terminator name, but it only serves to confirm a truth that has been fairly obvious for the better part of thirty years: the Terminator 'franchise' is a figment of Hollywood's imagination. All the stories worth telling were told across two classic movies. Everything has been said, and it's time to call it a day. One gets the impression that James Cameron knows this, which is why his association with Dark Fate is mostly symbolic. A story about fighting for a better future has yet again been presented as an ode to the tedious present. Now it is time to leave Terminator where it belongs: in our glorious past.