Terminator: Dark Fate is the sixth film in the Terminator franchise, and the third to posit itself as the true sequel to returning producer James Cameron’s iconic action film T2: Judgement Day. This installment was helmed by director Tim Miller (Deadpool), with a screenplay by Davis S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray, and stars Mackenzie Davis as Grace, a cybernetically-enhanced human soldier from the future who is sent back to the present to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman working at a factory with her brother in order to make ends meet, who holds great significance in the future resistance against the benevolent machines. Through a series of run-ins with Grace, Dani learns that she is being hunted by a new kind of terminator: a REV-9 (Gabriel Luna), which not only is virtually impossible to kill, but possesses the ability to separate its liquid self from its endo-skeleton, allowing it to fight as two separate entities at once. If they are to survive the REV-9’s constant pursuits, Grace and Dani must learn to heed the advice of and trust Sarah Conner (a returning Linda Hamilton); if they don’t, they will all be dead, and Grace’s mission will have been for nothing. There is no fate but what we make, and with some small assistance from Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800, Grace, Dani, and Sarah hope to once more save humanity from its own insidious vices, and maybe save the world for good this time.
I didn’t have any particular attachments to the Terminator franchise growing up; for one, the films were a bit too complex and dated at that point for me to understand what was going on (if I even would have cared about it at such a young age), but as well, they weren’t exactly family classics either, so it wasn’t until much later in life when I began to get really into movies that I actually ended up watching them, and even then, I didn’t actually see T2 (the one most will contend is the best in the franchise) until very recently. All that being said, I was still looking forward to seeing Dark Fate eventually because, as we’ve hopefully established on this blog, I am a huge movie fan, and with the added benefit of not having to go through all the “bad” Terminator films prior to this one since this is understood as the true sequel to T2, I could go straight from one of the most iconic action films ever made into its direct follow-up. I was in the prime position to enjoy Dark Fate as it was intended to be enjoyed, and for the most part, I did, but it still has some significant problems that hinder it from being anywhere near the level of James Cameron’s original 1-2 punch.
Let’s start with the good stuff about the movie before we get into what doesn’t really work as much, since the good stuff requires less at-length discussion: for one, the action in the film is really solid for the most part, and regardless of some sequences going on a bit too long or forcing the set-pieces to go a bit too large in terms of scale, the frenetic pace of it all keeps one entertained from start to finish. It’s not a perfect action package, but if there’s one thing a Terminator movie absolutely must have, it’s engaging action sequences that continue to escalate until one party succeeds or dies, and Dark Fate has quite a few sequences of this nature (one particular sequence set in a U.S. Border Patrol Detention Facility might be the best of the whole film). This all lends to the break-neck pace of the movie as Grace, Dani, and Sarah are constantly on the run and having to figure out new methods of escaping the REV-9 before it catches up to them; as the characters move, the film moves, and although it doesn’t keep up a steady pace for the entire run-time, it mostly succeeds in this regard, forcing the audience to practically hold their collective breaths until the film gets to its ¾ of the way mark and kind of stops cold in its tracks for some brief exposition before the big finale.
The performances are all really great too, particularly from Natalia Reyes as Dani and Gabriel Luna as the REV-9 terminator model. Reyes owns what she’s given to work with (even though it’s not all that much), and I could very well see her carrying the franchise going forward, if in fact that is what the studio decides to do. She plays Dani as a reluctant bystander at first, but throughout the film, as she becomes more confident, we actually get to see what Reyes is made of, and as noticeably un-subtle as it is, the symbolic nature of a Latinx character being chased across the border by a fate far worse than what they’re running toward gives her a few added layers to play around in. Linda Hamilton returning as Sarah Connor also puts on another great performance, even though her being around doesn’t make as much sense as it should upon reflection. Truthfully, it could maybe have been another character in her position, but her attachment to the franchise is hardly a negative thing, especially considering how iconic the character is and how good Hamilton is at playing it. Hell, even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance is really good for what he gets to do; he’s not in the movie nearly as much as some of the marketing would have you believe, but when he gets a chance to turn on the humor, he takes it, and it really works for his character in this one (though the motivation for having him in the movie at all feels contrived and not very justifiable). The top Dark Fate performance, however, comes courtesy of Gabriel Luna as the REV-9 terminator model. This guy (well, terminator, but you get my point) is everything menacing about the T-1000 but with an added ability that makes him even more inescapable, and Luna relishes every second he’s on screen, clearly having a ton of fun playing this role. Unlike some Terminator villains of the past, he’s charismatic, and understands human nuance just enough to manipulate his way around roadblocks, which makes him surprisingly effective as an antagonist. Without saying too many words, Luna is easily able to communicate that the REV-9 can appear human but is still very much a mission-focused machine.
Unfortunately, this is where we get to the bad stuff, and while it may be the best Terminator film since T2, Dark Fate is not quite good enough of a movie to be held to the same level as either that or the original film. There are a whole host of logic issues which come up in the film’s opening minutes that have to do with Dark Fate’s status as a direct sequel to T2. I won’t spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen the film, but it makes a bold decision right off the bat that will definitely piss some fans off; usually I’d commend the filmmakers for just having the guts to go in the direction this does, but in this particular case, it neither thematically nor narratively enhances the story. In fact, it almost breaks the ending of T2, and when you’re dealing with a time travel franchise that has less regard for timeline continuity than the X-Men films, a decision like the one Dark Fate makes could be detrimental to the entire project, forcing the audience to ask questions that can pull the film apart in seconds.
The film also doesn’t exactly feel like as much of a sequel as one might think, opting instead to just change a few plot points by a hair or two, put new names on everything, and call it a new Terminator film, when really the movie is just T2 with a different coat of paint; there’s even a road chase that’s shot almost exactly the same way that the road chase in T2 was. Sure, I understand that for the Terminator films to win fans back, they want to give the audience more of what they fell in love with the first time, but if you’re going to make a sequel to Judgement Day, don’t just make that film a second time with a few things changed around; switch it up, build on that story, continue the arcs that began there. As it stands, Dark Fate can’t seem to actually find or push a concept (apart from symbolically) completely unique to itself, instead opting to borrow things from all the other series films while still claiming that these things never happened before. If you were on the fence about this one or maybe not looking forward to it very much, I’d just as soon go watch T2 again.
In the end, I did like Terminator: Dark Fate, and it probably is the best of the franchise since T2, but speaking from having seen the resulting product even without all the bad that came before, that can’t be saying very much. It’s a decent little action movie with some solid performances and suitable pacing for a movie of this type, but the logic problems it opens up and the overly similar plot to T2 make this film feel like just another piece of studio action fodder that will likely be forgotten almost as soon as one walks out of the theater.
I’m giving “Terminator: Dark Fate” a 6.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.