TERMINATOR: DARK FATE Tries Hard, But it Can’t Escape the Past

For the better part of two decades, ever since its perfect farewell in 1991, studios and directors and producers and creators have been trying to reboot or continue or reimagine the Terminator franchise. Whether it’s going back in time, or into the future, or frivolously fixing the present, this is the franchise that’s felt tired for a long time. Terminator: Dark Fate almost course corrects the entire IP.

Almost.

None of these post ’91 Terminator movies have “worked,” not in the way anyone involved had hoped.  In 2003, the studio asked Jonathan Mostow to pick up where JAMES CAMERON left off, and Rise of The Machines was, at the very least, fun. Terminator Salvation was nothing of the sort; McG’s attempt to revive the franchise was more well known for Christian Bale’s on-set rant than any single moment in his dour, lifeless, aggressively brown movie. Then, in 2015, legendary filmmaker… (checks notes) Alan Taylor… gave us Terminator Genisys, which I can confirm was a movie that existed. Don’t press me for details.

Surely, the failure of Genisys was proof that the franchise was dead, and should have died with that final thumbs up in the molten steel. But, much like its titular T-101, this revisionist universe won’t be stopped. Enter Deadpool director Tim Miller, with a mercifully un-funny return to the basics in Dark Fate. Don’t expect the sitcom vibes of T3 or the crude humor of Deadpool, this film sticks to the action, which is an admirable approach in these days of self-referential humor and postmodern nostalgia trips that serve as nothing more than fan service.

That being said, Linda Hamilton is back, and she’s a sight for sore eyes. This franchise has been adrift since Hamilton’s been gone, with surprisingly little in the way of a strong female presence in any of the subsequent films. This time around, Sarah Connor is tasked with saving a young hispanic girl, Dani (Natalia Reyes), from the clutches of a new advanced terminator called the REV-9 (Diego Boneta), who can detach his nano-tech skin/body from his robotic endoskeleton… it’s never really explained. Also in the mix is Grace, a human/terminator hybrid played terrifically by Mackenzie Davis. Grace is in charge of protecting young Dani as well, but that portion of the story is of little consequence, no matter how much Miller and his robust stable of screenwriters try and pull us in.

The problem with every Terminator movie post ’91 has been the same: none of them should exist. Terminator 3′s explanation that the story didn’t end in 1991 was “well, the apocalypse was inevitable, just go with us.” Salvation was in the future, in a story nobody cared about, and even though I am certain I’ve seen Genisys I still don’t know why it haphazardly starts the entire timeline over from the beginning with worse actors in literally every role. Once we get “the explanation” in Dark Fate, which happens in an early exposition dump and is far and away the best justification of any of these newer entries, a certain satisfaction level has been met with the story. “Oh,” you think, “okay, that’s how this movie exists. Fine.”

Dark Fate honestly tries to engage with society’s involvement with – and inevitable replacement by – technology in some fresh new ways early on, but again, once the reason for the story’s existence has been checked off, the movie devolves into little more than a series of CGI action sequences. And then, of course, it figures out a way to squeeze in a little Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s no surprise that Arnie is back as the T-101, and his new backstory is an interesting bit of creativity spilled out by this platoon of screenwriters; but, much like the society/tech angle, his whole scene is pretty much abandoned. Arnie’s presence is a benefit and a hindrance to the series. Since he is still willing, the Terminator franchise must always figure out a way to make his T-101 a part of the story; at the same time, because of Arnie’s dedication to the character they can never make a clean break and concentrate on making central characters we may deeply care about again.

Linda Hamilton is game for her role, and even though her performance is a lot of standing around she still does it with some much-needed gravitas. The best surprise in the new cast is Davis, who is physical and tall and commands your attention. The rest of the new players are basically voids, which is a big problem. As cold and quiet as Robert Patrick was in T2, he was still menacing and even a little scary as he stalked young John Connor across LA. None of that exists with Diego Boneta, who is nonexistent outside of the CGI that’s applied to his body. The same goes for Natalia Reyes, the key to the entire story who is shuffled to the background and practically forgotten at times. Remember that first 45 minutes of The Terminator where we got to know Sarah Connor and pick up on her mannerisms and personality and possible untapped strengths? We are given none of that for Dani, at least not in any meaningful way.

No matter how well the Dark Fate story tries to thread the needle, and even though it gets closer than any film that’s tried it before, it can’t escape the intimidating shadow of James Cameron. This was the best opportunity for the franchise to take a step forward, where an explanation was given and it was something worth embracing. Unfortunately, any of the interesting tidbits dissolve in a blaze of empty gunfire and CGI explosions.

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