Terminator is one of the best examples of a franchise that really should have stayed dead. Both The Terminator and T2 were great standalone films, but Rise of the Machines and Genisys attempted to continue/redo a story that wrapped up neatly, with the former being well intentioned but overall unnecessary and the latter being one of the most brainless and incoherent blockbusters ever made. Salvation attempted something new but was undone by generic execution and an obvious troubled production. All three of the sequels share many of the same problems, which is why I was expecting this one, another continuation of T2, to be the same. It is and it isn’t, as Terminator: Dark Fate is an improvement yet also not up to par with the first two films
27 years after Judgment Day, a new Terminator called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) comes from the future to kill Dani (Natalia Reyes) in Mexico. She is protected by an augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and both eventually encounter an aged Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). All three of them team up to face this new threat along with another T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who has been living amongst humans and is connected to Sarah’s past.
That plot synopsis sounds vague because very little of this film’s story has been revealed in the trailers. The reason why is because it is partially built upon an interesting and daring subversion that happens right at the beginning. Though some people might decry this choice, I thought it worked and it made sense for a sequel to T2 to do this, even if it made the ending of that film less effective in hindsight. It does ultimately lead to an overall darker tone, something that was good to see due to that being part of why the original film was so good. Despite having the director of Deadpool, this really is not anything like it.
The biggest issue overall is that the script never tells a unique or compelling story. It is made of plenty of good ideas, along with several recycled ones, with the overall series formula ultimately taking over. Dark Fate does not reinvent this series and goes in a “find and replace” direction, simply taking old elements and giving them new identities. To go into detail would be giving away spoilers, but everything story-wise is something that has already been done in a prior entry. If there is something that Rise of the Machines and Genisys have over Dark Fate it is that they at least tried to throw in an interesting twist somewhere. Also, I ultimately did not care about the new characters that much, especially Dani who is a step backwards from John Connor or Sarah Connor in the first two films.
However, Dark Fate is still a substantially better film that it’s three previous for many reasons. The interesting ideas that are present are strong enough to keep investment, particularly with Sarah Connor’s character. The storytelling is also an improvement, as it manages to be fully coherent, decently paced and has a good blend of character-building moments/plotting and action. The biggest improvement by far is what they do with the T-800. Without spoiling anything, the script brings him back to his roots in a manner that manages to be so refreshing after the humiliation that he has often received. It’s a surprisingly emotional plotline that is even more effective because of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence. He’s been playing the role for 35 years and there is a feeling of sentimentality to his appearance that feels genuine.
Tim Miller’s direction is decent, as whilst not being a Cameron he is certainly the best helmer of the series since him. He directs action well and he even manages to add actual tension to it at points, especially with the R-rating that allows there to be some grit and a decent amount of swearing. Though, certain action sequences become too CGI-heavy and one flash-forward/flash-back looks like a video game cutscene rather than a movie scene.
The acting is also a highlight, with Mackenzie Davis and Natalie Reyes being well suited to their roles and doing good work with them. The best performances come from the returning cast. Linda Hamilton fits neatly back into the role of Sarah Connor, giving a strong and emotional performance and Arnold Schwarzenegger is solid as always, bringing a subtle undercurrent of emotion to his character. The one weakness is Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9, as he does not have any real menace or presence and is mostly replaced by special effects.
I’m probably being lenient on Terminator: Dark Fate because it is heavily flawed, but it is better than it has any right to be. Not the best of the series by far, but an adequate new entry, though I would prefer it if they left the franchise alone now, especially with the closed ending that hopefully will not be ruined by a sequel.