The Terminator films seems to be the “Little Engine That Could” of massively popular franchises of the last 50 years. After two landmark initial entries, the series slowly limped through increasing levels of badness. From the forgettable decade late sequel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines to the lifeless bore Terminator Salvation to the painfully pandering Terminator Genisys, the series regressed as it became more of a shallow special effect showcase as time progressed. Each entry being more and more covered by the shadow of James Cameron‘s The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Admittedly those two are classics of the sci-fi action genre, given Cameron’s ability to create economic stories with highly ambitious action sequences. Easily two of my favorite films of all time. Now, Cameron returns as a producer and gets a “story by” credit (one of six credited writers) on Terminator Dark Fate, the latest attempt to shake up the continuity of the series. While the last three films made the possibilities for a good Terminator film seemed impossible, this 6th entry in the series proves that the “Future Is Not Set” theme of the franchise is still alive and well.
Terminator Dark Fate isn’t necessarily nuanced or all that new in the grand scheme of things. It plays plenty of the moves doled out in previous Terminator films, thus fitting right in step with many modern reboots. The checklist of beats from Terminator and T2 are all present. A naive protagonist who is of great importance to humanity surviving the machine apocalypse? Dani (Natalia Reyes) fits the bill. An evil robot sent out as a seemingly invulnerable killing machine? Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) has that covered. A protector also from the future with a specific mission in mind? Look no further than Grace (Mackenzie Davis). Still, you get a bit of variety once Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) comes back into the fray to reveal how her fate was dramatically altered, while realizing how important she can still be to the future of humanity.
Some of this is vague for very intentional reasons. Despite the formulaic structure, Terminator Dark Fate takes some pretty overt risks right from the start. A risk so drastic that many a Terminator fan could consider it sacrilege. It’s a bold statement right out the gate, showing that Dark Fate wants an audience familiar with these iconic characters to be immediately caught off guard and curious about what directions this will go in. Given my love for the original films, it’s a choice I’m still struggling with. It sort of slaps us in the face given the driving force of both those entries, yet there’s still a reasonable amount of respect given to that driving center throughout Dark Fate as time goes along. Once again, it’s hard to say without spoiling it out right, but it’s safe to say this much: if you’re a fan of the films and feel betrayed from the start, don’t immediately throw out the baby with the bathwater on this one.
Where it may feel like a betrayal in certain respects, Terminator Dark Fate also feels like a solid evolution of what this series established in terms of themes and futuristic constructs. The fighting futuristic cyborgs in particular are vastly improved from the last few installments. Rev-09 is admittedly a composite of both the bulky T-800 Terminator from the first two films and the liquid metal T-1000 from specifically T2. A liquid metal protective covering wrapped around an endoskeleton of human metal. Gabriel Luna embus the same quiet menace as previous Terminator villains with a natural calm used to fool humans that’s eerie in its deception. His ability to make a variety of weapons from liquid metal is terrifying to watch as an upgrade from Robert Patrick’s arm length spikes. You can believe he skirts the line between an extremely gathered human and a merciless machine as he tears into any individual in between him and his mission. Director Tim Miller‘s expert action beats that stun without being a cacophony of effects driven garbage, allowing us to see the characters consistently with fluid editing and enthralling dynamic visuals. The car chase that ends act one in particular is a stunner.
On the flip side, Grace is an intimidating force with a believable weakness that makes sense. While originally human, Grace has been augmented with android enhancements that make her incredibly strong… but with a quick burning metabolism that makes her incapacitated quickly. It’s a device that allows for a bit of tension as this sci-fi actioner goes along and also serves as an inspired moment of social commentary on modern drug distribution. The extravagant action beats involving Grace and the Rev-09 have more stake to them when we know our heroic protector has more vulnerability to her. Davis is balancing a lot of the same emotions of Kyle Reese from the first Terminator, having to protect Dani at all costs while knowing her own limitations in an authentically frustrated fashion. Natalie Reyes also balances off of her pretty well, given the horrific first act shake up of her life and sudden realization of humanity’s oncoming machine war.
The oddest thing about Terminator Dark Fate is just how much it wants us to balance expectations from previous films vs how much it wants to hide in revelations as the story trucks along. Most people going to see the 6th entry in the Terminator franchise are probably aware of the trappings of the franchise. Even T2 has a lot of callbacks to the original film. This franchise rarely has innovated on a story level. So, one particular twist about Dani’s character that should be blatantly obvious to anyone is drawn out in such an odd fashion. It’s clearly there to make a point about evolving the role of females in this franchise from Sarah Connor to Dani now, but feels so labored in a way to obfuscate the obvious. Why not embrace this from the start and allow Dani to gradually embrace her future rather than keep her in the dark while the audience is ahead of the game?
Despite some frustrating storytelling decisions, Terminator Dark Fate does have a true respect for what came before. Linda Hamilton’s return to the franchise – and film in general – is so welcome here. She has so much grizzled no-nonsense drive and bitter anguish seething under her cool demeanor at all times. A key reason why the previously mentioned big swing of a continuity change works as well as it does is because of Hamilton’s believable handling of the situation. She doesn’t want to accept that her methods were meaningless, yet still fights to protect the future of humanity more because it’s all she knows up to this point. This all comes to a head later in the film when the franchise’s poster boy Arnold Schwarzenegger enters the story and sends her into a frenzy. I won’t go into detail about Arnold’s role for spoilers’ sake, but it fits the similar shaky yet ultimately reliable ground Terminator Dark Fate is built on. He’s used sparingly but effectively in a role that fits Arnold’s limited yet endearing acting range.
Terminator Dark Fate is the first decent Terminator film in nearly three decades. That’s obviously not high praise and clearly shows just how low expectations were for a film in this series. Yet, sometimes that’s truly commendable when a franchise bottoms out as much as this one did. I can’t stress enough how much of a disastrous low point the last film Terminator Genisys really was. A soulless cash grab that wanted to build on the first two films without any respect for what actually came before. Terminator Dark Fate definitely has a similar clinging to nostalgia, but with far more respect and restraint. Similar to how Force Awakens returned Star Wars into the cinematic landscape, though some of the plot contrivances make me doubt the potential of this as an ongoing franchise. Still for this one moment, having a Terminator film with gripping action, engaging characters and a desire to move forward while respecting what came before makes this a fate far lighter than the title would make you suspect.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Liquid Metal Arm Weapons
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