The Terminator franchise has been more jalopy than well-oiled machine for some time now.Though Terminator 3: Rise of Machines received decent reviews at the time, subsequent reevaluations have not been kind. Each new entry has been an attempt at softly rebooting the franchise. Terminator: Salvation was, technically, connected to the previous entries but its change from modern-day to post-apocalyptic hellscape left it feeling like an entirely different entry from its predecessors. Then came Terminator: Genisys which felt more like some studio executive’s idea of building a franchise than a complete story in its own right. None of those even briefly discusses the T.V. spinoff, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles which was well-liked by fans but failed to find an outside audience.
With so much to keep track of, it’s no wonder that Terminator received yet another reboot. Yes, Terminator: Dark Fate ignores all previous entries of the Terminator franchise except for Terminator 1 and 2 (like the many that came before it) but the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor promises to make Dark Fate the true Terminator 3 that fans have been clamoring for.
This time around we focus on a young woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) who is being hunted by the Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) who was sent back in time from the year 2042.Though Dani might be an average woman in the present, in 2042 she is an important figure to humanity’s last resistance force. Fortunately for humanity, Dani isn’t alone in facing the new
Terminator. Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human also sent from 2042, serves as Dani’s bodyguard.
While that may seem like the same blueprints that every Terminator movie follows, Dark Fate offers more than a few small upgrades that add up to a lot. The biggest of which is the return of Sarah Connor played with an unending supply of weariness by Linda Hamilton.Though Dani is the main character, it’s Hamilton’s Sarah Connor who steals the show. Years away from the half-mad woman with a mission that was Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor, Dark Fate gives us a Sarah Connor who has already completed that mission. She prevented Judgement Day, Skynet is dead, and Sarah Connor has no idea what to do with herself.
Fortunately for her (and unfortunately for humanity) Skynet might not be inevitable, but killer AIs, time-travel, and Terminators are. The difference is mostly semantic. The new killer AI, Legion, is Skynet in all but name. Even if I do wish they made the new future more distinctive from previous apocalypses in the Terminator franchise, I am glad they didn’t make the villain Skynet again. By having Skynet appear time and time again, previous Terminator sequels have invalidated the events of Terminator 2 in a way that never felt right to me. If the Terminator movies have one message, it’s that fate can always be changed. By moving the apocalypse to 2042, Terminator: Dark Fate clarifies that preventing Judgement Day bought humanity at least another fifty years.
Dark Fate, more than any other Terminator movie, is interested in time and specifically what time does to weapons. Sarah Connor is a person who turned herself into a weapon to protect humanity. The movie is concerned with how these weapons age. What these people do with themselves after their mission is complete will ultimately come to define them. Characters like these were never meant to live this long. Yet they did, and now they must figure out what to do in the future they saved.
Along these lines Mackenzie Davis’ cybernetically enhanced character Grace is a great addition to the Terminator lore. Far from unstoppable and unflappable, Grace is emotionally and physically vulnerable. She might be part machine, but those enhancements come at a physical cost. Grace can only use her abilities for so long before collapsing, which serves as an effective limitation that adds tension to the fights. The fights in general are a spectacle. One of the Terminator franchises’ biggest problems post-Terminator 2 has always been topping the liquid-metal Terminator. Dark Fate offers up an admirable solution by giving Rev-9 the ability to split into two. This split leads to action scenes which are inventive and exhilarating. And the three leading women pull these scenes off. All are playing familiar character tropes that rarely get to be played by women. I can’t count how many world-weary warriors I’ve watched learn to find a new lease on life, but Sarah Connor is the first time I’ve seen of that character arc given to a woman. It’s a small thing, but it represents something important.
Still despite fun action and interesting new additions, Dark Fate isn’t without its missteps. The most obvious problem is that despite each character having a solid emotional foundation some of their decisions just don’t add up. I can’t say more without significant spoilers, but Grace left me confused in a couple scenes. Her and Sarah also have this instant antagonism that feels poorly justified. Dark Fate’s biggest problems though aren’t in what’s new, they’re in what’s borrowed. The jokey references to its predecessors and the many plot elements that have been dragged into the new movie felt distracting. There are also more than a few narrative components that feel borrowed from recent reimagining’s of classic franchises. Much like Grace, Dark Fate is an entity cobbled together from disparate parts. The resulting hybrid isn’t exactly the well-oiled machine we were hoping for, but it works well enough.