Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Director: Tim Miller
Screenwriters: James Cameron (Story), David S Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray
Starring: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna
It has been rough being a Terminator fan since T2. Every instalment following the first sequel has missed the mark in usually more than one way, being either too dumb (Terminator 3), too monotonous (Salvation) or too forgettable (Genisys). Considering that this latest release is an entry into a franchise that by all rights should have rusted away into nothingness some time in the 90s, Terminator: Dark Fate is so much better than anyone could have expected.
25 years after Judgement Day was prevented, a new protector from the future has been sent back in time to defend a key figure in humanity’s survival against self-aware machines. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) has the formidable Grace (Mackenzie Davis), not to mention a certain Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), by her side, but the most deadly and advanced Terminator model ever built (Gabriel Luna) is also closing in.
Deadpool‘s Tim Miller proves himself again as an accomplished action director. There’s no hiding behind shakycam or rapid-fire editing here – action is carefully choreographed, geographically rooted and very much in-camera. You feel every bone-crunching (or endoskeleton-crunching) hit land and the clashes between Terminators and super-soldiers are varied, violent and percussive.
On the occasions when we see humanity’s dark future, it’s the one we’re familiar with from previous Terminator entries – the same grim colour palette and deliberate VFX throwbacks giving the metallic skeletons originally created by Stan Winston a stop-motion jerkiness. There are some new embellishments too, from Terminators that whip and crush you with Doc Ock tendrils to kamikaze drones, but this is still at its heart a film that wants to get back to basics. Terminator movies should always be chase movies, and this is one hell of a taut and gripping one.
It’s great to have Hamilton and Arnie together again and playing so well off each other. Neither are exactly what you’d expect Sarah Connor and the T-800 to be after 25 years – both are more vulnerable and broken in particular ways. Grace is a fine addition to the canon; as an augmented human she is driven by the same real things we humans are – she understands why we cry and it most certainly is something she can do – but her enhancements put her almost on a physical par with the Terminators in pursuit, at least for a time. When that time runs out and her tank empties, she’s in trouble, and goes from lethal enforcer to liability. Dani grows from a T1 Sarah Connor-alike to someone more nuanced when the script eventually gives her the room to breathe. Gabriel Luna as the new Terminator makes for an effective symbol even if he lacks the shades Robert Patrick or even Schwarzenegger brought to their roles, and you really have to ignore the mechanics of his killer machine that is liquid and solid, two machines and one, invulnerable and not, in order for the story to work.
I’d bet James Cameron’s primary involvement was to come up with the idea of a Terminator growing a conscience and learning to be human – Pinocchio with an armoury. While much of the film hits some familiar story beats, the second half is given added emotional wallop from the T-800’s unexpectedly human journey and an unusually low-key Schwarzenegger performance.
The script could have probably done with another pass. For all the new things Dark Fate is trying, there’s still a lot of repetition and tell-don’t-show going on. Grace saying “Come with me if you don’t want to die” and Sarah Connor’s winking “I’ll be back” are unnecessary and diffuse carefully built tension at the wrong moments. We learn early on that Skynet doesn’t exist in this future, only it sort-of does only by a different name. The Mexican Border issue comes up, but doesn’t stay for the duration. It feels like they started out trying to say something (machines replacing people in Central American factories, immigration internment camps not looking dissimilar to those we’ve previously seen in the dark future, the evil terminator wearing a boarder guard’s uniform) and then the commentary was drowned out by the explosions.
The punchy socio-political subtext might get lost somewhere en route, but the Terminator franchise’s main treatise certainly does not. Humanity will screw ourselves somehow no matter what, but there’s also always a glimmer of hope, a spark in the darkness. It’s still the most optimistic of bleak apocalypse franchises and if Dark Fate makes enough back at the box office (which is reportedly unlikely) there may still be enough life and intelligence in the franchise to justify yet another “I’ll be back”. If this is the end, then it goes out with a satisfying bang.