Directed by Tim Miller
Starring Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis
It’s official: The Terminator franchise has gone full Halloween. That is to say, the producers have decided to bring the principals back, stick as close to the canon of the original idea as possible, and ignore the events and frippery of the extraneous sequels and spin-offs (in this case, the bland chemistry of Nick Stahl and Claire Danes in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; the notorious on-set diva antics of Christian Bale in Terminator: Salvation; whatever the hell was happening with Emilia Clarke in Terminator: Genisys; and the misadventures of Clarke’s fellow GoT alum Lena Headey in the one-season The Sarah Connor Chronicles).
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The resulting reboot, Terminator: Dark Fate, is the third-best film in the series. And that’s not a diss, considering that in terms of chronology and quality, it is an admirable follow-up to the two seminal installments supplied by James Cameron when he still had his fingerprints all over this franchise. And its biggest strength lies in the presence of Linda Hamilton—the original Sarah Connor herself—lending an air of world-weariness and craggy gravitas to the proceedings, even though the plot sometimes relegates her to the status of a fifth wheel.
As far as Cameron (who has a producer and storywriting credit) is concerned, Terminator: Dark Fate is the true third installment, and the opening makes that clear: After convincing the creator of Skynet to junk his AI, dispatching Robert Patrick’s liquid-metal Terminator, and having Arnold the good-guy Terminator jump in a vat of molten steel to destroy the lethal technology’s last remaining trace in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah Connor has retreated to a low-profile life in Latin America with her son John (a VFX-recreated Edward Furlong)…that is, until another Terminator comes along and succeeds in blasting away her son/nascent leader of the resistance to the machines.
Cut to 22 years later in Mexico City, and an unassuming auto plant worker named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) has become the target of a new Terminator (Gabriel Luna), this one with the ability to replicate himself for multi-tasking purposes (say, speeding a truck down a freeway while engaging in combat on another vehicle). On Dani’s side is a super soldier from the future named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who has had her physiognomy enhanced with machine parts that also leave her prone to an over-accelerated metabolism, which require periodic medication. In a crucial face-off on the aforementioned freeway, Dani and Grace encounter Sarah, who has been getting text notifications of when and where Terminators make time jumps back into the past. While battling this new Latino-looking Terminator, the three set off to find where these helpful hints have been coming from.
Terminator: Dark Fate is a logical extension of Cameron’s ability to craft compelling female action characters, in that it features the thrilling spectacle of three strong-willed women pooling their resources to fight the relentless male-centric threat that is oppressing them. There is also a topical portrayal of Mexican illegal immigration, in case the film doesn’t feel of-the-moment enough. Terminator: Dark Fate’s embrace of contemporary reality might be its strongest suit; it shows that the filmmakers have learned their lessons from Salvation and Genisys. The Terminator movies may be sci-fi opuses, but they work best when they set their stakes in the present, instead of in the future.
But this installment isn’t without its glitches. Let’s not even get into the inherent inconsistencies of a time-travel premise. (If Sarah had indeed prevented a future where Skynet was engaged in a war of extermination with a ragtag human resistance, where the hell did that last Terminator come from?) Its woman-power themes and interest in Latin representation aside, Dani is the least compelling iteration of a Sarah Connor figure ever conceived, possessing very little shading between mournful victim and spunky fighter. Plus, of course, she makes the original Sarah Connor a bit redundant, no matter how Linda Hamilton’s presence makes you keenly aware of how much this franchise limped along without her.
The film bends itself into a narrative pretzel to accommodate the presence of the old-timers. Schwarzenegger’s entrance into the story feels particularly awkward and contrived, requiring him to introduce revisions into the long-held mythos of these killing machines and summon depths of characterization that contradict the sheer genius of his casting: Arnold was an effective Terminator precisely because he already seemed to be a robot. Thanks to Deadpool director Tim Miller, Terminator: Dark Fate makes a welcome return to the scrappy sensibility that made this franchise work—but it also makes me wish that Hollywood had the guts to terminate the series before it wears out its welcome again.
Photographs from Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures