Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 8, 2020)
35 years after the franchise debuted, a sixth film in the series arrives via 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate. However, Fate comes with a twist, as it pretends none of the sequels after 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day existed.
In T2, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) helped stop “Judgment Day”, an event that would’ve wiped out much of humanity in August 1997. However, in 1998, a rogue Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) finds Sarah and her son John (Edward Furlong) and he kills the boy.
22 years later, a shape-shifting “Rev-9” model of Terminator (Gabriel Luna) arrives in Mexico to assassinate auto worker Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). However, an augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) comes to this setting as well, and she works to protect Dani.
Dani’s survival acts as a key to the future of mankind. Although Sarah and company averted one machine-controlled holocaust, as a cyberentity called “Legion” eventually executes its own form of Judgment Day.
As Grace and Dani work to deal with the Rev-9, Sarah finds them and lends her own crusty, cynical form of assistance. All of them band together to find a way to stop the Rev-9.
After 35 years, Dark Fate may bring the end of the Terminator franchise. Actually, that seems unlikely, as the series persists despite multiple box office disappointments, but the movie-going crowd’s relative lack of interest in Dark Fate must sting more than others.
Dark Fate brings back both Hamilton and series creator James Cameron for the first time since T2. Despite that, the movie failed to find the desired audience, as it mustered disappointing results at the box office.
At this point, I think it’s fair to classify the iffy financial returns of 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 2009’s Salvation, 2015’s Genisys and Dark Fate as the franchise’s rule. The 1984 movie didn’t make much money, but its legacy made it a classic.
After that, T2 became a true blockbuster, and I think its ticket sales led studios to believe audiences loved the Terminator franchise. Everything since 1991 tells us that mass crowds enjoyed T2 but didn’t really attach to the franchise as a whole.
If we get a seventh Terminator movie, it should come with a decreased budget and lower box office expectations. Make a leaner flick for less money and maybe a studio will find the profits they failed to muster with the super-expensive 21st flicks.
Creatively, Dark Fate doesn’t make me think the series keeps a lot in the tank, though. Essentially a mix of the first and second movies, this one keeps us with it but it lacks the impact of its early predecessors.
The choice to discard the third through sixth movies – as well as TV’s Sarah Connor Chronicles - neither bothers nor excites me. On one hand, it seems like a bit of a cop-out, but on the other, the franchise’s mythology turned into such a mish-mash across the post-T2 enterprises, so I can’t blame the filmmakers for their desire to start semi-fresh.
With or without the choice to invalidate the third through fifth movies and the TV series, Dark Fate would falter simply because it really doesn’t find much new to say. With the return of Hamilton and Cameron, the reunion aspect gives the film a spark, but otherwise, it seems like the filmmakers can’t think of a new story to tell.
That stems from the inherent nature of the Terminator franchise – at least one in which the characters still act to avert global catastrophe. While not a terribly good movie, I admire Salvation’s decision to get past the “stop Judgment Day” plot of the first three films and move into the future.
Rise came with its own twists – mainly because it argued that Judgment Day couldn’t be stopped no matter what – whereas Genisys offered a form of reboot. Had the latter done better, I suspect I’d be reviewing a sequel to it right now, not a flick that goes back to the semi-drawing board.
Though only semi, for as I alluded earlier, Dark Fate feels more like a rehash than anything new. Like I mentioned, some of this relates to the nature of the franchise, as it becomes tough to come up with fresh stories in the battle between human and killing machine.
With Dark Fate, though, the filmmakers don’t really try. Dani acts as a rehash of Sarah from the first movie, and Grace and Sarah share the Kyle Reese role – without the sweet, sweet lovin’, of course.
That acts as the movie’s biggest twist, I guess: the choice to focus heavily on female protagonists. Most of the movie concentrates on the three women as they battle the Rev-9, and that gives the film even more of a feminist angle than in the past.
Nonetheless, the story fails to muster a plot that feels particularly different from the first two movies, and in particular, T2 becomes a heavy influence. Probably due to budgetary limitations, the original Terminator offered more of a suspense thriller than a true action flick, but with a huge wad of cash at his disposal, Cameron made T2 the elaborate action showcase he wanted.
Dark Fate clearly follows that path, and in the hands of Deadpool director Tim Miller, we do find some solid action scenes. Though awfully derivative of T2’s T-1000, the Rev-9 becomes a scary villain, and the stunts and battles bring pretty good thrills.
Even so, try as they might, the movie can’t bring the floor-rocking impact of T2. That film truly raised the bar on what to expect from action films – from its crazed stunts to its ground-breaking effects, it threw down that particular gauntlet.
Dark Fate can’t find anything fresh to do, really, so it just seems like one of the crowd. While the action scenes offer reasonable excitement, they don’t dazzle like T2’s moments did, so they feel somewhat been-there, done-that.
I do like the return of Hamilton, even though she overacts through most of the film. Maybe this makes sense, as a version of Sarah who’s been underground and at war for 22 years would be mentally unstable, but Hamilton still overplays the part.
Nonetheless, it’s simply a kick to see her as Sarah for the first time in 28 years, and she adds much-needed personality to the film. Luna manages some spark as the Rev-9, but the movie gives him little to do beyond attack, attack, attack, so he can’t elevate the part a whole lot.
As our other female leads, both Davis and Reyes seem wholly, perfectly adequate. Neither does poorly but neither manages to bring much personality to their parts either.
I can’t call Dark Fate a bad movie, as it brings reasonable action entertainment. It seems unnecessary, though, as its lack of story-related creativity means it fails to offer a bracing new branch on the Terminator tree.