After the middling Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day rehashing that was Terminator: Genisys, Tim Miller and James Cameron bring the Terminator franchise back to its roots with a few variations on the time-traveling killer robot plot with Terminator: Dark Fate, the 6th film in the series (whether or not you include the 2-season TV series).
Opening with flashes of Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) interrogation rant, Terminator: Dark Fate finds Sarah and John (Edward Furlong, thanks to some CGI wizardry) in 1998 Guatemala post-averted Judgment Day before jumping forward to 2020 Mexico City. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) and her brother Miguel (Diego Boneta) head to work at an automobile manufacturing plant like it’s a normal day. Little do they know that Grace (Mackenzie Davis; Tully, Blade Runner 2049, The Martian) has been sent back from 2042 to protect Dani from a shape-shifting Terminator-like Rev-9 unit (Gabriel Luna; Agents of SHIELD). After a harrowing chase, a gruff and battle-worn Sarah comes to their rescue, and they reluctantly team up with the veteran Terminator hunter to find a secret tipster stateside (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Carl) and defeat the Rev-9 to save Dani and the future.
Terminator: Dark Fate follows some familiar plot points and themes laid out by the first two films of the franchise – namely who fits into what roles, destiny vs. free will, and humanity – while also adding coping with loss to the mix. However, this lends an air of predictability to the film. As you begin to see all the puzzle pieces slide into place – especially if you’ve seen the trailers and other marketing – everything becomes evident within the first half-hour to hour. This does, though, result in an interesting twist or two on audience expectations that, while they should come off as shocking, received a slow appreciative nod from me; I saw them coming a mile away.
Additionally, there’s the run-time – Terminator: Dark Fate clocks in at a little over two hours, smack dab in between Judgment Day and Genisys. This results in some slower moments in the middle of the film that help to develop the newer characters and reintroduce old ones – but they could have been tightened up a little. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the 5 credited story contributors (returning Producer James Cameron, Charles Eglee, Sarah Connor Chronicles showrunner Josh Friedman, David Goyer, and Justin Rhodes) and/or 3 credited screenplay writers (Goyer, Rhodes, and Billy Ray, recently of Gemini Man). Given all the combined writing experience and how much time Terminator: Dark Fate has been in the works, I’m sure they could have fine-tuned the script further.
The run-time and script also result in repetitive fight/chase scenes that continue to grow in scale but don’t quite stand out. There’s the first fight through an automobile factory that leads to a highway chase, a fight/chase through a US Border Patrol detention facility, and a final aerial cargo plane fight leading to a knock-down-drag-out brawl inside a dam, all with the heroes fighting and fleeing from the relentless Rev-9. Ken Seng’s DP work and Julian Clarke’s editing doesn’t make things better, as the fight scenes veer more towards chaotic than clear, with tighter shots and quicker cuts, on top of iffy CGI-assisted Terminator fighting. None of this comes as a surprise, though, as it’s all in the marketing to some extent, which is a letdown. I could just as easily re-cut all the trailers and have the endoskeleton of Terminator: Dark Fate, minus a lot of the metaphorical meat. Granted, the marketing for Genisys spoiled one of the major twists of that film, but that’s a larger discussion for another day.
However, it’s not all doom, gloom, and the end of the world. Junkie XL/Tom Holkenborg’s score brings some of his signature bombast and familiar Brad Fiedel franchise cues which overall works but somewhat blends into the background. The focus on three female co-leads is noteworthy, as the franchise to date has had Sarah (Linda Hamilton and Emilia Clarke), the T-X (Kristanna Loken), Kate Brewster/Connor (Claire Danes and Bryce Dallas Howard), and Cameron (Summer Glau) all in varying roles. But choosing to center the film around a young Mexican woman (Reyes is Colombian) with one of the original strong female sci-fi protagonists and a twist on the protective Terminator as her protectors AND a Hispanic Terminator on their trail refreshes the 35-year-old franchise. And while it’s more in the background, the fact that Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t shy away from the migrant crisis is also refreshing, as the franchise has tended to focus on time travel and the apocalyptic future more so than relevant issues of the present.
Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it works to breathe a little new life into the franchise with some twists on familiar story elements. If this will lead to more sequels is all dependent on the box office and audiences.