Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Welcome to the day after Judgment Day.
You let me know when this starts sounding familiar:
In the near future, the world is ravaged by a genocidal war waged upon humanity by a malevolent artificial intelligence and its army of robotic killing machines. The fleshy resistance is chalking up some wins, so the A.I., knowing it can’t be victorious in its current subjective time, sends a robotic agent that looks human back to our time to assassinate a key figure in the resistance before the resistance even exists. The human partisans send back their own agent, and so two warriors from the future battle it out in our present, over one woman who really has no idea what the hell is going on.
Well, yes, you might think, that’s James Cameron’s stone-cold classic, The Terminator (1984), and you would be right. But it’s also Tim Miller’s less-than-classic-but-still-pretty-good Terminator: Dark Fate, which jettisons the last three pretty terrible sequels — there’s been some nostalgic reassessment of Rise of the Machines (2003) recently, from people who enjoy being wrong — to act as a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). It also acts as a de facto remake, lifting a lot of formal and narrative elements from Jim C’s monster truck of a movie, but that seems to be par for the course for modern franchise expansion — hell, look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
This time around, the focus of future attention is Mexico City auto factory worker Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) while the soldier sent to protect her is Grace (Mackenzie Davis from 2017’s Blade Runner 2049) and the assassin, who really comes across as a Hispanic version of Robert Patrick’s liquid metal T-1000 from T2, is a Rev-9 model Terminator (Gabriel Luna from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) with its own suite of weird technological abilities. Connecting us to the original duology is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) who is now, much like Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a weathered survivalist killing machine, taking out Terminators whenever they crop up in our timeline; and an aged T-800 Terminator (look, I’m just gonna assume you’re down with the lingo) known as Carl (Arnold Schwarzenegger from, well, if you don’t know by now, give up), who has his own connection to Sarah and his own role to play in the ongoing clandestine time war.
Dark Fate doesn’t rewrite the rulebook, cleaving pretty hard to the pattern established by The Terminator and especially Terminator 2. Still, it does add in a few useful appendices that make it an actual addition to the original storyline rather than, well, a useless appendix like the last three attempted reboots. Chief among these is the idea — more hinted at than stated outright — that the future A.I. apocalypse is inevitable, and that each victory in our subjective present is just curtailing one possible apocalypse, while others will continue to pop up (I can feel a deep cut fan theory essay coming very soon). So yes, Sarah and her son John (Edward Furlong gets a brief cameo) did save three billion lives back in the day — but the war is eternal.
That also means that it kind of makes sense that the dark future (which was 2029 in The Terminator) gets a tech upgrade relative to our own present every time out, and at least Miller and his writers — Cameron gets a story credit alongside Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, Justin Rhodes, and David S. Goyer, with script credit going to Goyer, Rhodes, and Billy Ray — forgo the terrible mistakes of Terminator Genisys (2015), which are too legion to go into here.
For one thing, the Rev-9 can separate its endoskeleton and its liquid metal ‘flesh’ into independent units, which is cool if a little underexplored, and we also get some nice — and bloody — variations on what such a machine, which can bristle with blades in an eye blink, is capable of in combat. For another, humans from the future have been upgraded too, to better last in combat against the machines; Davis’ Grace has been augmented with superior reflexes, toughness, and what have you, complete with an overclocked metabolism that makes her crash after intense action. Visually, Davis sports a greyhound-thin rig crisscrossed with thin surgical scars, a constant aesthetic cue as to her character’s origins, traumas, and capabilities.
The actual battlefield has changed, too. Dark Fate takes place along the Mexican-American border, and the Rev-9, frequently disguised as a variety of paramilitary cops, ICE agents and what have you (there’s a thesis in the portrayal of authority figures in Cameron films), sets the weapons and resources the U.S. deploys against border-crossers on our heroes. We spend time with a ‘coyote’ people smuggler at one juncture; at another, an action sequence takes place in a processing center that feels like a concentration camp. Remember Kyle Reese talking about camps and cattle cars in the first film? In ’84 that was Holocaust imagery; today those signs and signifiers are way more contemporary.
Which makes Dark Fate really interesting from a political point of view — a timely counterpoint to the stridently reactionary Rambo: Last Blood (2019), if you like. This makes sense in the context of Cameron’s filmography; he’s always had sympathy for the marginalized, and although it’s sometimes been a bit clumsy, class and race consciousness has been present in most of his films.
But, y’know, how’s the action?
Pretty great, albeit not as good as T2. Let’s be clear: Dark Fate isn’t a patch on the original duology, but it’s no slouch either, and there are a number of action beats that are pretty goddamn fantastic. Arnie holds his own as the party tank because, of course he does, but Davis is the rock star here, and the sequence with her swinging an industrial hook-and-chain like a kusarigama is what’s going to stand out for me. Other moments, like the plane chase/ crash featured heavily in the trailers, are as spectacular as you could want from a modern tentpoles blockbuster but lack the street-level grit essential to the Terminator aesthetic.
Performances are solid across the board — it’s genuinely thrilling to see Hamilton return to the Terminator universe, machine gun in hand and a near-religious fervor lighting up her eyes at times — even if the writing occasionally serves the cast up less meat than they need. Reyes’ Dani is a little too ‘deer in the headlights’ for a little too long (but then again, look at Hamilton in Terminator ’84), and the relationship between her and Grace, which should be the emotional core of the film, pulls back just when it should be going for broke. For his part, Arnie has been playing variations on this theme for 35 years now and still manages to find new wrinkles and little touches within the fairly rigid outline of the T-800 character. There’s a moment or two when it gets a little too jokey, but by and large it’s still our big guy doing his thing — a key part of the series’ appeal, let’s not dissemble.
But will it be going forward? By the time the credits roll, Dark Fate has left us in a place of interesting narrative possibility — which is, make no mistake, the chief object of the exercise. Hamilton’s return to the fold is welcome, but we’re also in a position where, all de-aging special effects aside, an Arnie-less Terminator may not be too far in the offing, which is an … interesting proposition. We kinda got that in 2009’s Salvation, but even then, there was a brief CGI cameo at a critical juncture. The question is whether the concept of The Terminator is appealing enough to an audience to carry on even when its cast is no longer continuous, and there’s a certain irony in Hamilton, from an audience point of view in the wilderness for decades, is now in a position to take on a ‘wise mentor’ role that Arnie, whose physical aging is making playing an unstoppable robot a little less believable with each outing, can’t — at least in this particular narrative context.
Still, I’m keen to see where this goes. Dark Fate is the third-best Terminator flick, which is a bit of a backhanded compliment, but it’s the first in a long while to wrestle the franchise into a position where future films actually seem like a good idea. Will they be? Who knows? After all, there’s no fate but what we make.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson