Since 1984, the Terminator franchise has certainly proved that the future is very much not set. 35 years on and we have seen director James Cameron’s original film and his seminal 1991 sequel, T2: Judgment Day, rightly celebrated as classics. They remain benchmarks that few other Sci-Fi or action films could ever hope to reach, least of all the sequels that have since followed. While the series has increasingly mustered hype or hope, following T2 has proved to be a battle even the human resistance could not win and yet, like Skynet, the franchise has remained inevitable. So, for the third time in history (after 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and 2015’s Terminator: Genisys, which now apparently, alongside future-set Terminator Salvation, are “alternate timelines”) we gear up for an attempt at “Terminator 3”, only this time Cameron is back (in a producing capacity) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has finally returned. So is Tim Miller’s (Deadpool) Terminator: Dark Fate able to succeed where others failed? Yes…and…No!
Dark Fate early on controversially shakes up the formula, promising an unpredictable story and for a while delivers it. A deadly new Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) Terminator is sent back in time to 2020 to kill young Mexican woman Daniella Ramos (Natalia Reyes), her only hope lies in the form of future soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis), sent back in time to protect her. But when Sarah Connor arrives on the scene, we increasingly find that the future we all thought was halted is still coming but the rules, and enemy, have changed.
In spite of the strongest reviews the series has attained in some time, Dark Fate falls into some of the same traps as the other sequels over the years. After a bold and fiercely divisive opening scene, which hits you unexpectedly up side the head and leaves you wondering exactly what is going to follow now, expectations are raised for a gear changing instalment. This continues as Daniella’s fight against insurmountable odds story of survival plays out. Sadly, in spite of some great ideas within, David Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray‘s screenplay is surprisingly often more of the same, cherry picking many things we have already seen before and actually uses a lot from the last film (Genisys) and ends up recycling many other ideas. This repetition does re-use some great ideas but also retraces some faults.
This is not the first reset surrounding the series’ iconic characters and as the story plays out, you do witness new hopes rise and old faces resurface but the soul of the original two features is still being chased and remains largely out of reach. Save for the poignant sub-plot resting squarely on the shoulders of its original stars, as Hamilton’s unexpected narrative arc with Schwarzenegger proves to be the film’s strongest emotional note and it once more re-confirms the strength of the glory days.
Miller orchestrates some impressive set pieces and a consistent flow of action but things sometimes get a bit inordinate and once again the grounded restraint seems to fade in favour of excessive CGI (sometimes oddly placed in scenes where it is really overkill) bangs and crashes. Dark Fate is enjoyable and never loses you but it just seems like more radical elements are swirled into a film that, as a whole, is kind of a business as usual sequel.
However, what elevates Dark Fate hugely is the performances. The new cast are brilliant and look great with all guns blazing alongside the legends, with Natalia Reyes shining strongest among the latest additions, and as Daniella she is kind, likeable and most importantly of all hopeful, reflecting the best of humanity. While Mackenzie Davis’ Grace is a battle hardened badass, who has moments where she seems cold but it is all a part of her character’s story and Davis really sells you on the pain Grace has witnessed and survived, making her transformation understandable. And Gabriel Luna cuts an ultimately effective figure as Rev-9 playing things very much, as Luna himself has stated, as the “Ted Bundy of Terminators”, even if the screenplay does overdo the power of this particular antagonist at points.
That being said, the film’s greatest assets are of course its longest serving. Schwarzenegger’s return as the T-800 is always welcome and in this particular case, he is one of the film’s freshest aspects, with a gripping performance that is both warm and humourous. Though it is Hamilton’s long awaited comeback that is maybe most exciting, her grizzled afflicted turn reminds us why Sarah was really the human core of this franchise and remains so to this day. Hamilton instils Sarah with years of longing for purpose and her connection with Schwarzenegger onscreen is captivating, as these two characters and their unlikely but necessary relationship make the film’s strongest plot line blossom.
Flawed and a bit bombastic at points, Dark Fate nobly tries to mould a refreshed timeline and despite falling into some familiar traps, it entertains and builds foundations for a future that – evidently by the disastrous box office returns – we won’t ever see arrive (again).
It really begs the question, is The Terminator franchise facing Judgment Day? Will we ever see another Rise of the Machines? Is there any hope for Salvation? Maybe it’s time to go back to this franchise’s Genysys to avoid a fatal final Dark Fate.