Cast: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta
Director: Tim Miller
Writers: David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray
As the big-name actor who plays the titular role and who has appeared in the most films, most people would likely have agreed that the Terminator franchise belongs to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even Salvation saw fit to include a CGI-ed replica of the then Governor of California so that their movie didn’t have to miss out on some T-800 action (I had to consult YouTube on that one because the only thing I remember about that film is Christian Bale’s tantrum). Dark Fate however makes the case the true star of the series is and always has been Linda Hamilton. Returning to her iconic role after 28 years, along with producer James Cameron, she strolls right in taking names and kicking arse and you immediately realise that she is what all the post-T2 sequels have been missing. Even when they had other (younger) actresses step in to assume the role, none of them could ever have brought the weight or the authenticity that Hamilton brings to Dark Fate. While those first two movies made John Connor out to be the most important character in the story, so much so that the movies that followed actually believed it, it was Sarah who did the hard work, brought it all home, and made us care. Dark Fate still isn’t up there with the two Cameron-directed films, but the main reason that it works where the other three did not is the grizzled, 63-year-old Hamilton rocking her sunglasses and rocket launcher and showing the kids how it’s done.
In a similar move to 2018’s Halloween (another title in a major franchise starring a woman over 55), Dark Fate erases the continuity of the non-Cameron films and serves as a direct sequel to T2. Skynet was destroyed and Judgement Day never came to pass. In the year 2020 however killer robots are still being sent from the future to terminate potential threats to the machines and their domination over humanity. This it’s the liquid metal Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and his (its?) target is Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young Mexican woman. Helping her is the future-sent protector Grace (Mackenzie Davis) who, in an interesting twist, walks the line between being a heroic soldier like Kyle Reese and a reprogrammed robot like the T-800. She is, or at least was, human but has been augmented with these cybernetic upgrades giving her Terminator-like abilities. We learn a little more about how this works through flashbacks. Or maybe they should be called flash forwards since she’s from the future. Douglas Adams was right, one of the major problems of time travel is that of grammar. Anyway, it is Grace’s mission to keep Dani alive and Sarah, a hardened warrior who has kept up the fight against the machines for the last thirty years, arrives to help. They are later joined by an old T-800 (Schwarzenegger), but his involvement cannot be adequately explained without venturing into spoilers.
Even after the mess that was Terminator: Genisys, Schwarzenegger’s reprisal of the role that made him a star is welcome. He retains the formidable presence and deadpan confidence that made him such an effective villain and hero in the first two films (a personal highlight is when his introduction is met with a blast from a shotgun just inches from his face, getting not so much as flinching or a blinking reaction). Also with three women making up the ensemble, including his former co-star who was the true protagonist of the two movies they made together, Schwarzenegger has the self-awareness to understand that he is not the star of this film and gracefully yields the spotlight accordingly. His scenes with Hamilton are worth the price of admission alone; even with all the special effects money can buy, there is simply no substitute for the feeling you get when two movie stars with a shared history enter the screen together. Hamilton and Davis on their part deliver a level of passion and intensity that has been from these films for years. Hamilton in particular, playing a character who has spent her entire adult life living with grief, paranoia and trauma, brings a powerful melancholy and gravitas to the role. When she quips “I hunt Terminators and I drink until I pass out”, she delivers the line with humour but you can also feel the tragedy beneath it.
Director Miller, having previously distinguished himself by making the modestly-budgeted Deadpool look like the major blockbuster franchise it was destined to become, has the resources this time to work on a far bigger scale. But, competent though he is, Cameron he is not. Much of the action feels weightless in the way that many of the Marvel movies often can with characters getting shot at left and right, crashing through walls, and falling from great heights without ever feeling like they’re in real danger. Even today the chase scene in the 1984 film with the stop-motion T-800 exoskeleton remains more exhilarating and captivating for all of its kinetic energy and physicality than half of what you’ll see in the big budget, digital-effects driven flicks dominating Hollywood today. The fight scenes Miller has constructed are well-paced and comprehensible enough to serve, especially in their use of slow-motion, but when you’ve already seen what a master director can do with this title, it’s hard to settle for something that merely manages to be passable. Unlike the other directors who have taken on the franchise, Miller at least seems to understand that the characters are just as important as the action, if not more so, in making these movies work. The performances he gets out of Hamilton, Schwarzenegger and Davis are so impressive that it actually becomes a shame when they have to be interrupted by a semi-thrilling action scene every few minutes.
Dark Fate is undoubtedly the best Terminator movie since Judgement Day, but unfortunately that’s not saying much. Hollywood can’t seem to stop itself from making these movies any more than the people in them can stop dooming their own species through technological advancement. As ironic as that it, perhaps it’s also appropriate for a series in which the fate of humanity is constantly hanging between the folly of our ambitions and our capacity for resilience. For the first time in my life (I was born the year after Judgement Day came out), someone has made a Terminator movie that I actually enjoyed watching. It’s not as good as what came before and perhaps it never could have been, but I’m still glad that it happened. Perhaps there’s an even larger, more timely lesson to be drawn from Dark Fate about how, even as our extinction seems all the more impending and inevitable with each passing day, we need to take our small victories where we can get. Or maybe I’m reading far too much into what is ultimately a mildly good sci-fi movie that hasn’t thought all too deeply about such things (what we were supposed to take away from that one scene where they get arrested and held in a detention centre on the Mexican-American border, I’m still not sure). All I know for sure is that they’ll keep making these movies for as long as they possibly can so we’ll see what happens next.