Linda Hamilton. James Cameron. With special appearance by Arnold Scwharzenegger. I hadn’t been this excited for a Terminator 3 since Terminator 3. T2: Judgment Day remains my favorite movie of all-time, so of course I’m all for going back in time to kill 16 years’ worth of mediocre sequels. And bringing back James Cameron AND Linda Hamilton? That is proof enough that Terminator: Dark Fate is the most serious and dedicated Terminator sequel in decades, and the best continuation of T1 & 2 that we’re likely ever going to get.
Over 20 years have passed since Cyberdyne Systems was destroyed, effectively “terminating” Skynet for all-time. But an A.I. called “Legion”, designed for cyberwarfare, has risen from the ashes of the year 2042, and sent its brand new Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna) back in time to kill a young factory worker named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Sent back to protect Dani is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an “augmented” human soldier with superhuman abilities. But Grace’s fighting skills only stretch so far, and soon she and Dani accept help from a woman they’ve never heard of but who claims to be an expert on terminators. And her name is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
Dark Fate breaks you in with a clip from T2, an indisputable reminder that Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys do not exist in this timeline, which is the best decision this movie (and franchise) could have made. From there, the story advances to present day where the usual Terminator movie stuff happens: two people come back through time, find clothes, go after the person they’re looking for, get into a fight, followed by an explosive car chase — you get the picture. The first 30 minutes is all sound and fury, which may be worrying to some. But when Sarah Connor shows up, much-needed substance is injected into the picture and we get perhaps the most interesting cast of Terminator characters in 28 years: Grace, whose abilities aren’t without their inconveniences; the aging T-800, who has found a purpose beyond its original programming; and then of course there’s the legendary Sarah Connor. While she’s not as crazy as she was in T2, the grumpy old woman persona fits her like a glove. She’s the heart of this franchise, always has been, and keeps everyone else in check even when she’s pushed to the edge. Having her back reminds us what’s been missing from Terminator all these years.
James Cameron’s presence is definitely felt here, but if you were expecting to relive Terminator‘s glory days of 1984/1991, I’m afraid Dark Fate falls a bit short. Dani, this movie’s target, is more interesting on paper than on screen, especially since her character arc is almost completely expository, making her the second-least interesting character in the movie, followed only by her antagonist, the Rev-9 Terminator, which is just barely different from every terminator we’ve seen until now. Sure, it’s able to separate its liquid metal exterior from its endoskeleton interior to be in two places at once, but other than that, it’s yet another less threatening version of the T-1000. There are also a few too many parallels to T1 & 2 that reek of unimaginativeness, i.e. Legion’s like the new Skynet, the Ramos’ are the new Connors’, etc. 21st Century technology should at least present us with state-of-the-art special effects that blow T2 away, and it does, but I’m afraid it’s that same old too-fast CGI we’ve come to expect from modern blockbusters, featuring many superhero leaps and landings, crashed vehicles rolling over way too many times, etc., and all moving faster than the laws of physics would allow. And while this is a revisionist entry in the franchise, you can’t ignore the fact that there are elements of T3, 4, and 5 sprinkled throughout: liquid metal terminator with endoskeleton underneath (3); grey and bleak future involving some human/machine hybrids (4); de-aged Arnold (4 & 5). There’s more, but they’re in spoiler territory.
Is Terminator: Dark Fate the best sequel since T2? Easily. Although it’s still not the “true” Terminator 3 I had been waiting 28 years for, but that’s okay. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel of a 35-year-old franchise, even if this entry feels a little too passing-of-the-torchy. Arnold is used sparingly this time around, showing up only halfway through. And even though he’s in his early 70’s, he proves he can still throw a mean Terminator punch. The focus is kept on the three female leads, particularly the older and wiser (and quite broken) Sarah Connor and how she fits into this new future. The Terminator mythology is, for lack of a better word, upgraded here. They’re not leeching onto T1 & 2 so much anymore. The story progresses well enough, the pacing is near perfect, most of the characters are interesting, and Arnold is still very much Arnold, providing some of his best cinematic moments since T2. (Also, he pets a dog.) Dark Fate tries much harder than previous sequels to move the franchise forward and present Terminator in a serious light, but a few too many parallels to previous entries, retreads of the abandoned sequels, and fan-fiction moments keep it from being truly great.
3 out of 5