TERMINATOR: DARK FATE
Directed by Tim Miller
Come with me if you want to know if Terminator: Dark Fate is good. As per the titular machine, Terminator is a franchise that shows no signs of stopping. And even though it’s looked outmoded, with the third, fourth and fifth entries being released to at best middling receptions, it’s returned. Deadpool director Tim Miller has taken control and given the property a fresh new upgrade. To do this, he’s deleted much of its now labyrinth lore and gone back to basics.
By now the Terminator franchise has maybe the messiest mythology outside Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with numerous timelines and paradoxes at play. Like last year’s Halloween, this one gets rid of all the sequels and spin-offs that seem superfluous, this time saving only the first and second. Hence we start in a version of 2019 in which the world hasn’t yet ended, and Skynet is a thing of the past. After an arresting intro scene, we go to Mexico City to meet Dani (Reyes): this entry’s ordinary person with an extraordinary destiny. She’s just starting another shift at the car factory when suddenly it gets interrupted by a robot from the future duking it out with what seems a remarkably strong woman who says she’s there to protect her. This woman is Grace (Davis), whose augmentation means that though she’s still human she can move fast enough to cut a fly in two with a knife. One rollercoaster pursuit later and they bump into Sarah Connor (a returning Hamilton), who has gone off the rails. Now on the US government’s most wanted, presumably for blowing stuff up, she spends her life hunting Terminators then drinking ‘til she passes out. Her change is nothing compared to Arnie’s T-800, who has become domesticated, trading in the biker coat for a lumberjack shirt. Given he’s reliable, a good listener and supposedly very funny, he’s quite the catch. Together, they fight an unstoppable soldier (Luna) that came around from the hubris of another big tech company: Legion. Same shit, different Judgement Day.
It’s a simple algorithmic formula, which all but one of the entries has played about with. Though it’s never been as explosive as it is here. There’s fighting between numerous vehicles, in the air and underwater as the new Rev-9 Terminator (which can split from its endoskeleton to form a tag team) hunts our heroes down. It’s often spectacular, constantly finding ways to up the ante. Miller’s visceral style, and tasteful use of trickery such as slow-motion and CG, also means we feel the impact of every punch, kick and shotgun shell. Part of me misses the more organic feel of the first outings, where the action scenes still used stuntmen. But then I wonder if this is an inevitable part of a series which has explored its idea every which way: directors find the part that can still push. In this case, it’s the action quotient.
While Dark Fate rarely lets up, something it doesn’t do as convincingly as the past glories is developing its story on the move. Something that I think is mostly owed to their not being much story to develop. During the first film, the premise was brand new, meaning its nuance were teased out across its running time, such as John somehow sending Kyle back to become his dad. Then for the second, the main tension was about if a machine could learn to love, and if the future could be changed. The problem is that four films later, there’s only so much you can do with this concept. And while Dark Fate is very entertaining it still watches like a prolonged chase sequence across a string of big set-pieces rather than doing anything especially innovative. In this way, it’s an economical version of a classic model, albeit in a shiny new coating.
This criticism isn’t to say the script is bad. Even if it’s a streamlined, and familiar, tale the character work was still good enough to keep me interested. Dani’s arc is one we’ve seen happen to Sarah before, though it’s still rewarding to watch her adapt to her new situation. Supersoldier Grace is an excellent addition to the series too, with her single-minded robotic side countered by very human weakness. Then there’s the deeply damaged Sarah, whose world-weary cynicism and flippantness compensate for a trauma that expresses itself in lip quivers. As a trio, all three of them are great examples of strong women who do more than merely kick ass. They all have strengths, weaknesses and perspectives, which is useful for providing conflict and light drama. All the leading ladies have good screen presence and manage to bring their parts to life, but the clear stand out is Hamilton. It was also rewarding to see her and Arnold Schwarzenegger share the screen again, returning to the roles that would go on to define them nearly thirty years later.
Given how patchy the Terminator movies have been, it maybe does Dark Fate a disservice to say it’s the third-best. It’s the same faint praise of calling it the best one since the last good one previously bestowed upon Jurassic World, The Force Awakens, Star Trek and Rocky Balboa. However, this does more than rejuvenate Terminator: it shows us it need not be obsolete or lost in time. As well as giving us suitable closure to the most iconic characters, it also hints at an exciting way forward. As an ending to the whole thing, it’s potentially a good one too: a cinematic greatest hits package which has been remastered. Still, I have a feeling it’ll be back.