Terminator: Dark Fate – Review
Ever since James Cameron opted not to use the secret unlockable ultra-happy ending from Terminator 2, which saw Sarah Connor chilling in the park with her grown-up son John, the narrative door has been open to not one, not two, but three increasingly redundant T-quels (plus countless comics, novels and a TV show, none of which I’ve had the pleasure, nor the time, to peruse), and they’re not too bright…
I’ve always been of the mindset that any third film in the Terminator series should have been a prequel, set in the original war-torn alternate future only glimpsed at in T1 and T2; a combination of Aliens and Rogue 1, which would see a scrappy band of human resistance fighters going toe to titanium with our mechanical misanthropes in a literal race against time, running a deadly gauntlet to ensure that Kyle Reese reached the Time Displacement Equipment and chase down the original T-800 into 1980s LA. It would have closed the original time loop narrative, and served as a fantastic victory lap for the series, and had it been made in the mid-’90s (before James Cameron had risen to the self-proclaimed rank of King of the World), I would have quite comfortably bought a returning Michael Biehn and Arnie for one final dance across the floor of human skulls.
Instead, it wasn’t until over a decade later when we were served with the somewhat stale Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a toothless rehash which not only eschewed all of the heart, pathos and feeling of air-punching empowerment that T2 so brilliantly established, it undid all the hard work our heroes endured, much like the similarly-Cameron-less Alien3 did before it. Miles Dyson’s slow-motion sacrifice? Sarah’s hesitant handshake with the T-800? John’s growth as a character after both gaining and losing a father figure in a matter of days? All for nought, skip. The only thing it really had going for it was the bleak and ballsy ending which saw the “inevitable” Judgment Day [sic] happen before our very eyes. But even this is moot; as I say, it renders the previous entry in the series utterly pointless. Schwarzenegger gives a solid performance as a returning cybernetic sentinel, but the movie just has the stench of paycheque dripping all over it like mimetic poly-alloy. I’d almost forgotten about the Elton John sunglasses and the inflatable breasts (!), which makes the whole affair feel like it was reverse-engineered from a couple of lazy SNL sketches. The excised scene featuring Sergeant Candy would have been the icing on the cake.
Six years later, Terminator Salvation actually came admirably close to my vision of a possible prequel, yet it had some redundant holdovers from T3 and some bizarre additions. Once again a whole new cast was trotted out, featuring the queen of lousy franchise-entries Bryce Dallas Howard stepping into Claire Danes’ shoes, over-zealous lighting fixture enthusiast Christian Bale, and an entire backstory featuring an augmented human-machine hybrid Marcus which, better fleshed out (pardon the pun), would have made for a much more interesting standalone movie, no Terminator branding needed. Salvation certainly has some finer qualities; Marcus’s journey is a fascinating one, the CG cameo from Arnie is a fun (albeit brief) diversion, and the late Anton Yelchin is note-perfect as a young Kyle Reese. It’s just frustrating that the filmmakers got greedy and saw this as an ill-conceived way to kickstart a trilogy, rather than trying to tell a concise story that could maybe end this madness once and for all.
The Terminator series by point was starting to feel like an unreliable ex who keeps pooping the bed every time I’m tricked into taking them back. The final particularly stinky straw was Terminator Genisys, a glorified YouTube fan film which couldn’t have been any more ludicrous had they recast the T-800 as Phil Collins.
So here we are, 28 years and three cinematic missteps later. You know what they say, fourth time’s a charm…
Accompany me should you wish to maintain your survival
I try to go into every movie with an open mind, a song in my heart, and ideally an empty bladder. Right away the movie treats us to a clip ripped directly out of T2, and it’s at this point that alarm bells start ringing; we saw a much more elaborate version of this with Genisys’s (y’know what, sod this, I’m just gonna call it T5) laborious retracing of the very first film’s opening scenes, before the movie quickly spiralled out into pure fanfic. It feels a bit icky that we have to be reminded of a good movie to generate goodwill for the one we’re watching, but hey, I’ll go with it; It’s that classic archive footage of Sarah Connor voicing her concern to Dr Silberman over the impending doom of mankind, and it’s still powerful stuff.
A “1998” title card and an opening narration by Sarah quickly establishes that we’re firmly ensconced in a post-T2 universe where not only Judgment Day didn’t happen, but more importantly, those other movies didn’t happen either. Yay! I wonder if John has migrated from Guns n’ Roses to Aerosmith? Does he still enjoy a spot of classic Afterburner? Are ginger mullets still considered the height of fashion in this new timeline?
We then jump to the here and now, where series newcomer Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is being pursued by two fresh faces from the future (one possible future), and if you’ve ever seen a Terminator movie, you know the drill by now. It’s your classic cat-and-mouse caper in keeping with both T1 and T2 (if the cat in question was a super-powered cybernetic biped with swords for arms), and the action trucks along at a consistent pace from setpiece to setpiece. But who are they? Who sent them? What’s wrong with Wolfie?
Whilst it doesn’t feel as derivative as Rise of the Machines, it still has a pervading sense of “been there, done that”, which will always nag at the back of the more cynical region of my mind, but let’s be fair, being tasked with writing any post-T2 Terminator movie is a poisoned chalice. The filmmakers here have done a solid job with the cards they’re dealt, and the movie strikes just the right balance in being faithful to its predecessors (we’re not counting T3-T5, remember), and that’s both to its credit and its downfall. How are we supposed to tell an original story that’s going to do something new, whilst also getting bums in seats and keep yer average Friday night popcorn-munching joe entertained? It’s a complex set of crockery that for the most part spins happily until the credits roll.
Luna Love Good
Another thankless task the writers and designers are lumbered with is giving audiences a compelling villain, and here we have Gabriel Luna’s new “Rev-9” model who’s out to make shish kebabs out of our intrepid heroes. Not only does Luna’s performance evoke both T1’s cold T-800 and T2’s cool, charismatic T-1000 (he does a fabulous “windshield glower”), the Rev-9 has a rather unique design quirk which at least feels like a natural evolution of what’s come before. Seeing how he fights is quite mesmerising to watch, and, aside from a shaky cam-heavy couple of scenes, his pointed presence was always welcome.
Mackenzie Davis gets plenty of licks in as an action star here (no, you may not ask what she is), and has more than an oily whiff of Emily Blunt’s scrappy warrior from Live Die Repeat, and Reyes’ Dani makes for a likeable, determined, point of view character to echo T1-era Sarah Connor. Speaking of whom, much has been lauded of Linda Hamilton’s return to the series, and she throws herself ably back into the role as the older, wiser Mother of the Future. Despite the odd dry wisecrack, she definitely seems like she’s taking it seriously, unlike Karen Allen in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or Arnie in T3/T5.
It’s curtains for you, Carl!
In terms of tone, pacing and overall style, Tim Miller has done a fine job at firmly encapsulating the bleakness of the more superior entries in the series’ canon, but balanced with a sense of hope and purpose, while eschewing most of the later films’ campy, self-serious, or flat-out nonsensical bits. The movie does very occasionally cherry-pick elements of all five previous movies that more than once threatened to take me out of it. One particular plot device in the third act was one that we’ve definitely seen before and could be considered an unforgivably egregious Deux ex Machina, but thankfully the movie kept me entertained through its brisk 128-minute runtime that I let it slide. Just.
Something I do have to ding these films for (and to be fair it’s not even the films’ fault), is the marketing department’s relentless, bare-faced insistence on giving away major plot points in promotional material. There is a massive second act reveal that would have had audiences (myself included) gasping had they not already seen it in the trailers. There is a genuinely intriguing mystery established early on in the film, and it’s played out for at least a good 30 minutes, but if you’ve seen the trailer, it doesn’t take a CPU with a neural-net processor to figure it out. If you’ve come this far without seeing the trailer, steer clear.
Something I was dreading, especially after the eye-rolling premise of T5, was some half-baked, hot-take, Black Mirror-esque, finger-wagging satire about how technology is enslaving us because “everyone’s a slave to their phones, lol”. I’m happy to report that, although the current technological climate it is indeed referenced, you never feel hit over the head with it, and is dealt with mercifully quickly. The best sci-fi dystopian stories are usually timeless cautionary tales, and the movie doesn’t try to be hip and down with the kids by making current tech the focus of the movie. It’s fun to see a much more cynical version of Sarah Connor who is so jaded with technology in general, and really, who could blame her?
Done done done, done-done?
So, is it worth a punt? Well, fool me thrice… I’m somewhat of a lapsed fan of the “franchise”; for me, the story ended on that highway at the close of T2, and the glut of inferior sequels and their cack-handed attempts to recapture that film’s magic have almost dampened my enjoyment of it. Nothing will ever come close to tainting my opinion of the 1984 original though, outside of discovering that the entire cast and crew were a secret cabal of puppy kickers; that particular film is an undisputed masterpiece, and there’s even a part of my brain that views The Terminator as a self-contained, grubby little sci-fi horror that ended with a pregnant Sarah and her trusty mutt driving off into an unknown, stormy future.
So I’m still somewhat undecided if Dark Fate fits into my personal headcanon, but in all honesty, I have no problem recommending it, fan or not. Heck, it’s a damn sight better than all of the previous three entries put together, and I would happily nestle the Blu Ray alongside T2. As a standalone sci-fi action romp, it’s an enjoyable ride, there’s a much more prominent sense of urgency to the proceedings that’s been really lacking (the casual way the T-850 drops into conversation that Judgment Day is happening “this afternoon” in T3, like he’s reminding John to pick up the milk, and everyone’s subsequently nonplussed reaction to it, still makes me wince), it has a lot more by way of compelling, charismatic character beats (again, something the previous post-T2 movies rarely elicited a peep of), and doesn’t feel like yet another shameless cash-grab.
Similar to how Jurassic World followed Jurassic Park, Dark Fate also feels like an actual organic chapter to further the story; and as a true sequel to T2, you could do (and probably have done) a lot worse. It doesn’t have quite the grimy, lived-in paranoia of The Terminator, nor the grandiose, heartfelt epicness of its sequel (I cried like a child at the end of Terminator 2… You know, with the thumb, and the molten…), but do I love it a lifetime’s worth? We’ll see…
Also, guys, it’s 2019. Every moviegoer and their nan knows what E.M.P. stands for.