What a mess the Terminator series has become in the years since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Gaps between films of twelve, six and six years spoke to a franchise with no momentum, dusted off occasionally to see if a profit could be turned (it’s not unlike the Men in Black series in that regard). Audiences have seen parts of that future war – as referenced in the first two entries – as well as ever escalating threats from new terminator models, making something of a mockery of Arnold’s T-800 being a desperate final play by the machines in the 1984 original. With nowhere to go but stronger machines, and gimmicky bait and switch plot twists (Terminator: Genisys having the worst example of the latter), the series needed a complete rethink – or, preferably, to go away entirely.
From Deadpool director Tim Miller, working from a story conceived with James Cameron, Terminator: Dark Fate starts with a 1998-set coda to T2, where we learn that Judgement Day was averted, and Skynet stopped. Forward to 2020, and once again two opposing forces are sent back from the future to fight for the fate of an individual. In this case, the individual is Daniella “Dani” Ramos (a slightly bland Natalia Reyes), the antagonist a model of terminator known as Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), and the lone protector Grace, a tech-enhanced human played by Mackenzie Davis. We learn that with Skynet beaten, a new threat, known as Legion – designed for cyber warfare – arose. Effectively, this provided the same war, but that war’s timeline has shifted the critical point from 2029 to 2042, Dani replaced John and Sarah as the future hope for humanity, and the models of terminator changed – as they are Legion, not Skynet products.
We learn that in 1995, Skynet sent back multiple terminators, in case the T-1000 were to fail in its mission; an awkward detail, not entirely convincing in the telling. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), has spent the years since hunting down these models, assisted by messages from an unknown source we learn later to be an ageing T-800 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who has broken his programming, and now goes by the name of Carl, having both a family and a profession. Together Sarah and Carl will work with Grace to keep Dani safe, and keep humanity’s future hopes of victory against the machines alive… again.
Terminator: Dark Fate is the first film in this series since 1991 to at least attempt to move the narrative on. With Skynet beaten in the second film, audiences could be forgiven for forgetting that advances in technology wouldn’t stop at the same time. If not Skynet, then some other avenue of AI would eventually become self-aware in the same way. In that regard, the Terminator series could now be characterised as an eternal struggle: stop one threat, and another arises. In this regard, it’s not unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens: to resurrect the series, you make the peril eternal… and recurring.
It’s also like the Star Wars relaunch in that it acts as a safety-first reintroduction to the series. The terminator’s skill-set differs, there are new characters, but the film is doing variations on things we’ve seen before from this series. Sarah Connor is back (broadly, T2, rather than T1 characterisation). Catchphrases from the series are rolled-out again, sometimes with variations to at least attempt to freshen things up. Action sequences are familiar, but different. It’s everything a studio should and would do to relaunch a legacy property: it’s a greatest hits Terminator film.
On the positive side, the film succeeds in its goal to follow T2 reasonably seamlessly – with early scenes in this film acting as a coda to the series’ second entry. The choices the filmmakers make here won’t be to everyone’s liking though. The new characters are all strong. Dani is Sarah Connor Mk.2, but the film manages to make you forget how cynical this all is. Grace is a film-carrying character, the quality of which was barely hinted at in promotional materials. Gabriel Luna is terrific as the new model of terminator – all smooth movement and efficient infiltration (though why, tactically, he’d ever attack as a single entity, when he can split into two and double the threat, is left unaddressed). Linda and Arnie slip effortlessly back into their characters – with the latter genuinely having a new wrinkle to play – similar to the one last film fluffed, but conceived and played much better. He’s also genuinely funny at times. Action is excellent, bringing new set pieces to the ageing franchise – giving everyone something to do in the final battle: even the slight overuse of slow motion isn’t a deal breaker.
The attempt to reframe the series as beyond being just about beating Skynet almost succeeds. Almost. The problems are legion though (no pun intended). Sarah Connor was a more interesting character in The Terminator, than in its sequel – where, despite the high quality of the film, she was something of a cliché, and an unevenly characterised one at that. That is the Sarah Connor we meet here. Linda Hamilton is great, the character… less so: it takes talent to make someone with such a rich backstory so one-dimensional – she kicks ass, and shit-talks her companions, and… that’s it, really. Arnold is great, but the character makes no real sense. Quite why he’d want a profession and family is anyone’s guess – actually, quite why he’d want, is anyone’s guess. The first time we get a highway chase it’s clear that we’re seeing only what we saw done better in the 80s and early-90s – though, as suggested, the action improves over the film’s running time.
Legion replacing Skynet may explain the refreshed skillset of the antagonist, but it’s still a case of what gimmick can we give it this time? Finally, if act one suggests multiple terminators being sent back secretly in the mid-90s (bizarrely, to locations some way from John Connor. If he’s in LA, let’s wait for him in… Arizona? Wyoming? Honestly, if you can send multiples back at the same time, send them all back to the same place, and have a great big John Connor pile-on. Job done.), then that possibility haunts any victory that may be won here: the series has run now long enough (even counting just the three films in this continuity) that we’re simply waiting for the next rinse and repeat. If Skynet sent back several at a time, Legion will have – once a plot is dreamt up that demands it.
Terminator: Dark Fate is the strongest entry in the series since T2. Thankfully, it lacks the worst of the moralising of that film, but it also lacks the vision of either of the first two entries. This is unashamedly corporate product, designed to reframe and relaunch the series into a going concern for a few more entries to come. The other three non-Cameron sequels were largely miserable affairs. Rise of the Machines was one good action sequence and a brave ending, but otherwise redundant and lacking in any logic (whole papers could be written on whether something is inevitable if it can be delayed). Salvation was hastily rewritten to accommodate the casting of Christian Bale – and suffered for putting the focus in the wrong place. Genisys was possibly the dumbest blockbuster of recent years – from a series that started so full of smart ideas (“We’ve got to get to the future as quickly as possible.” Why? Where’s it going?). On that basis, being the best film in this series since 1991 is not the greatest of compliments. Take off the branding, and this is a competent actioner. With its branding in place, it’s a decent and well made entry from a series that should have been left to rest back when Guns N’ Roses was still a thing.