Despite its best efforts, the Terminator franchise refuses to die. After two classic films directed by James Cameron, this is now the fourth attempt (fifth if you count The Sarah Connor Chronicles) to force the franchise to keep going, after Terminator 2: Judgement Day left no clear direction for a follow-up. (This sketch from the comedy show Dead Ringers now looks uncomfortably prophetic.) To be fair, two of those failed attempts – Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Genisys – are decent action flicks when taken on their own, but they inevitably fall far short of the first two instalments. And predictably, the same is true of Terminator: Dark Fate.
Once again, we have been told to imagine that all the previous films after Terminator 2 happened in “alternate timelines” and this is the real follow-up to Cameron’s original vision. This time, the story is re-worked by removing John Connor from the picture altogether, with his role as humanity’s future saviour being taken by a young woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes). So now we can return to the familiar plot of a Terminator being sent back in time to remove Dani from existence, while someone else is sent back by the human resistance to protect her. Only now the Terminator is a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), which is like a T-800 and a T-1000 rolled into one! And the resistance warrior, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), is human, but with cybernetic enhancements! And to mix things up a little more, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and another Model 101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) also enter the fray.
The film barely even tries to have its setup make sense. Skynet, the military AI that almost wiped out humanity in the original films, has apparently been prevented from existing; yet more Terminators have still been sent back to the present in the intervening years, and the latest incarnation of Arnold’s Terminator refers to having been programmed by Skynet (and “set free” by Sarah changing the future). The still-apocalyptic future that Grace comes from is said to have been caused by a different AI called Legion, but we learn very little about it. I also don’t understand why the fact that Dani herself is going to be the leader of the resistance – rather than the leader’s mother, as Sarah initially assumes – needs to be treated like a big twist, unless it’s just an example of today’s woke culture.
If you can turn your brain off, though, Terminator: Dark Fate is still an entertaining film and not a bad way to spend two hours. The action is pretty good, even if we’ve seen a lot of the setups before, such as an early sequence of the resistance fighter and their protectee being chased by the evil Terminator in a much larger and stronger vehicle. The leaping around and fast pace are definitely a product of today’s film industry, feeling a long way from the Cameron films; the style of the climax wouldn’t be out of place in a Marvel Studios product. The returning cast members, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, are easily the highlights as far as acting is concerned, with Linda Hamilton easily being able to bring the cynical, no-nonsense Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 back to life. Although Arnold only enters the scene halfway through the film, he retains his usual screen presence; and his Terminator, having spent many years in close proximity to humans, is a different, more thoughtful sort than previous incarnations. Gabriel Luna isn’t bad as the Rev-9, whose surprisingly human mannerisms help to make him more sinister. Unfortunately, while Natalia Reyes and Mackenzie Davis do their best with what material they have, their characters – being both brand-new and rather generic – can’t help but be overshadowed by Linda and Arnold.
So while Terminator: Dark Fate is okay on its own, it unsurprisingly fails to make a strong case for continuing the franchise. When Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “I won’t be back,” we can hope it’s a signal that Terminator is done for good this time – but that’s probably giving Hollywood too much credit. Rating: 3.5/5.