Times have been tough on the Terminator franchise post-Judgement Day. Where James Cameron’s efforts on the first two entries left indelible marks on the action and science fiction genres, its slew of sequels failed to compellingly build upon the foundation laid by the legendary Canadian filmmaker. And Cameron knows that too. Which is why, upon being recruited as a producer for the franchise (as well as being set to recover rights to the franchise next year), Cameron and Skydance Productions opted to produce Terminator: Dark Fate, a direct sequel to Judgement Day that writes off every film in between as alternate timelines to be disregarded. To realise this vision, Cameron enlisted Deadpool’s Tim Miller as director, ultimately delivering the best sequel to the original duology, though whether it’s a wholly worthy successor is up for debate.
In fact, its worthiness is brought into question mere moments after Dark Fate’s opening shot. I won’t spoil it, but what I will say is that it makes for a shocking opening that is distractingly hard to shake off, and simply wasn’t earned. This is not just because it’s literally the beginning of the film, but rather it undercuts the emotional core of the very films to which Dark Fate is a sequel, somehow managing to wring a hollowness from them I’d previously thought impossible.
What’s more I found it hard to invest in the early moments of establishing the franchise’s newcomer heroine Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who is a seemingly normal young Mexican woman working at an auto factory. With that being said, after shaking off my initial daze, I found myself reeled in by the introduction of the new Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna) and Dani’s obligatory protector from the future, Grace (Mackenzie Davis).
If this all sounds more than a little familiar, that’s because it’s the same structural setup as the first two films, though thankfully Miller makes his mark early with some well-directed actions sequences that soon had me forgetting the shocking opening and going all-in on the franchise’s new path. Although, Miller’s direction here doesn’t quite reach the new-age action heights of John Wick’s Chad Stahelski or Deadpool 2’s David Leitch (who, as it happens, replaced Miller following his departure from the franchise), nor does he perfect the more traditional action formula like Christopher McQuarrie has with the Mission: Impossible franchise, as Dark Fate’s occasionally chaotic editing can tarnish the visual clarity that Miller perhaps sought.
Aside from a few necessary moments of narrative build-up, Terminator: Dark Fate starts out guns blazing and doesn’t let up until the right moment. Said moment is the much-anticipated return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, who chews up scenery anywhere she goes. It’s astounding how Hamilton, who has not played the character in 28-years, is able to step right back into the role and convey a familiar Sarah who is still very much the burdened warrior of Terminator 2, while adding new emotional scars that make her even more compellingly tragic.
It’s just a shame that as Sarah is being fleshed out the pacing noticeably stagnates, churning out dialogue that does nothing more than lay out expository details that we’ve pretty much all heard before. Writers David Goyer, Billy Ray and Justin Rhodes try to compensate by adding a sense of mystery to some of its plot elements, such as Dani’s role in the future and the mystery figure aiding Sarah in her hunt for Terminators. However, such attempts at intrigue only further hamper this section of the film, as their resolutions are so blindingly obvious (especially if you’ve seen any of the marketing) that I can only assume the writers thought wooden stumps would be part of their target audience.
Thankfully, Hamilton is not the only cast member who helps elevate the film’s weakest parts. Mackenzie Davis excelling as both a dramatic anchor and vessel of badassery, while Gabriel Luna conveys the perfect amount of menace in his villainous role, paired with a brazen charisma that makes his Rev-9 terminator far from the one-note big-bad he could’ve been. Disappointingly, Reyes as Dani never reaches the same heights as those around, especially when engagingly with the more impressive Mackenzie or Hamilton. It’s not that her performance is necessarily bad, she is just damningly melodramatic in her delivery at times and is thus unable to believably embody the future saviour of humanity.
However, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return as the T-800, or Carl, as he’s now known, is a standout alongside Hamilton. I was curious as to how Cameron, Miller and the writing team would once again reintroduce the Terminator veteran into the role that essentially launched his career, and it is here that Dark Fate most embraces its place as a successor to Terminator 2. I not only appreciated its acknowledgement of Terminator 2’s established rules of a Terminator being a machine that can learn and grow, but also the dynamically layered depiction of his character. He is a vehicle for action, a source of the film’s best comedic moments, as well as a surprisingly human mediator on the complexities of morality and redemption all in one. While Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t always do enough to place itself shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessors, this is undoubtedly one of the most resounding successes of the film, and a nostalgic one at that.
Terminator: Dark Fate’s final showdown, then, admirably builds upon the momentum that had been accumulating since Schwarzenegger’s inclusion into the story. Although it had been preceded by some overt CGI that I would argue went too far at times, Miller is at his best here, opting for a more creative approach to shooting the scene’s action by utilising engaging camera movement and pin-point editing that was much needed in some of the previous action scenes, and is reminiscent of some of the best action directors working in Hollywood today.
It doesn’t compensate for its missteps in storytelling, but it’s still a much needed shot in the arm for the franchise, as the Terminator franchise has finally produced a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day that is greater than the sum of its sporadically problematic parts. But be warned, it makes for a better action movie than it does a sequel.