That sentient AI from a dystopian future has returned and is still sending terminating robots back in time to take out pesky humans who might one day defeat it in Terminator: Dark Fate. Director Tim Miller’s latest installment is great entertainment and a welcome return to form for the Terminator franchise, featuring a great cast, killer special effects, and nonstop action.
(Some spoilers below.)
While technically the sixth film in the series, Dark Fate has actually been conceived as a direct sequel to the hugely successful first two films: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. So Terminator: Dark Fate pretty much ignores all the other Terminator movies as existing in alternate timelines. Best of all, it reunites stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton with James Cameron on board as producer. The film takes place two decades after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. A new, improved Terminator (Gabriel Luna) is sent from the future to take out a young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). A cyborg/human hybrid named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) joins forces with Sarah Connor (Hamilton) and the original Terminator (Schwarzenegger) to protect her.
The film establishes its direct-sequel bona fides right off the bat with a brief but critical scene showing Sarah and her son John relaxing on a Guatemalan beach in 1998, having averted Judgment Day a few years earlier. (Edward Furlong was initially tapped to reprise his role as John Connor, but it ultimately didn’t happen. Instead, Miller used CGI to recreate Furlong’s youthful face from T2.) Cut to 2020 and the arrival in Mexico City of two new visitors from the future: Grace and the Rev-9 Terminator. Grace manages to save Dani from the Rev-9’s initial attack on a factory floor and escape, with the Rev-9 in hot pursuit.
Just when things look dire, Sarah Connor comes to their aid and they hole up off the grid to regroup. Sarah is understandably suspicious of Grace. And Grace comes bearing bad news: “You may have changed the future, but you didn’t change our fate.” Skynet never came into being in the altered future timeline, but an AI designed for cyberwarfare, dubbed Legion, did. And as before, a human resistance formed. Dani will play a key role in that resistance, so naturally Legion wants her dead.
T2 is hands-down one of the best film sequels of all time, and Miller clearly set out to recreate the same magic with a clever mix of old and new. A key part of that formula is upping the stakes with an advanced Terminator model that seems well-nigh impossible to destroy. The Rev-9 merges aspects of both the original and T2‘s liquid metal T-1000: it has an updated underlying endoskeleton, with a “mimetic polyalloy” (almost ferrofluidic) overlay, like skin, that can split off to make the machine doubly lethal. Luna —best known as Ghost Rider on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—brings a ferocious intensity to the role, best exemplified by a scene where he mows through a crowd of Border Patrol agents without ever taking his eyes off his fleeing target, Dani.
Hamilton is better than ever as Sarah Connor, spending nearly a year on a grueling training regimen to get her 60-something body back into fighting shape. Her lean, ripped physique in T2 made her a feminist icon on par with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien franchise. Yet here, she’s still allowed to look every bit her age. This is a weathered, embittered Sarah who has earned every one of those scars and wrinkles and has only grown tougher over the years. She identifies with Dani because she was first targeted for termination around the same age, destined to give birth to a great hero of the resistance. Sarah assumes Dani, too, is only of value or interest because of her womb. Her expression when she learns that Dani is actually destined to lead the human resistance in this new timeline falls somewhere between wonder and regret.
Reyes and Davis are both terrific in their respective roles, and Schwarzenegger once again brings his trademark deadpan delivery. The special effects are great, the pacing is brisk, and the stunts are appropriately over the top—as always, there are plenty of explosions and property damage. If there’s a flaw in this latest film, it’s that everything seems just a little too familiar. Some of that can be chalked up to deliberate callbacks to the earlier films, but it’s also because it’s tough to hew to such a successful formula while still keeping things fresh.
Dark Fate provides a fitting coda to The Terminator and T2 while introducing fresh characters in a new timeline to tee up a possible next film. Alas, the film seems to be under-performing at the US box office this opening weekend, which is no doubt disappointing to those hoping to reinvigorate the franchise. Personally, while I’d love to see the further adventures of Dani, Grace, and Sarah taking on all the Terminators to come—what, you think Legion will give up that easily?—the tried-and-true formula is starting to show its age, and we already had a great TV spinoff with The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Maybe it really is time to put the franchise to rest. At least it would be going out on a high note with Dark Fate.