For as time-hoppy-twisted and messily scripted the last two Terminator franchise entries were, Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t all that more successful beyond slavish recreation. Sarah Connor stopped “Judgment Day” and saved humanity, but what if man’s hubris caused the same artificial intelligence mistakes to still be made – just delayed?
Dark Fate is a familiar reboot hinging on positive revamp qualities (kickass girl gang!) in all the wrong ways (oh no, you said “I won’t be back!”). More T-800, more mechanized Two-Face headshots, and more digitized attack sequences that mainstream movies love to lean on nowadays.
It’s been some twenty years since Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) altered Earth’s doomed fate, or so she thought. Turns out her destruction of Skynet only delayed our technological judegment, as a new A.I. program labeled “Legion” retaliates against humanity with equal devastation. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is responsible for rallying survivors and leading resistance factions in the future, which is why Legion sends a Rev-9 Terminator (played by Gabriel Luna) back to exterminate the human threat before “Judgment Day Version 2.0” even occurs. Enter Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced human/automaton hybrid transported back to protect Dani, who teams up with Sarah and “Carl” – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 turned family softy – in another defensive battle against time-traveling killbots.
Dark Fate gets Mackenzie Davis’ casting and Linda Hamilton’s return right, primarily Davis’ reincarnation as guardian and protector. Hamilton’s presence is that of the hardened veteran who stashes her phone inside potato chip bags to guard against readable information waves (crackpot conspiracy stuff). She cusses, shoots rocket launchers and blacks out drunk, while Davis displays action heroine charisma of the toughest skin. From her first nude altercation with Mexico City police to every encounter with Rev-9, Davis’ choreography and clenched-teeth-intensity models quite the cybernetic war machine. She’s human enough to empathize with, but still soldier-fierce when swinging sledgehammers or whirling chains until bloody raw.
Writers David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray understand modern cinema’s desire for more focal female representation, but simply denoting importance isn’t enough with development that’s so flimsy. Praise an action ensemble piece that doesn’t feel the need to dress females in skimpy battle attire (Grace always steals men’s clothing, her bowlish haircut), but Dark Fate plays like it’s winning a larger genre standoff that’s nonexistent. Throwaway lines about wombs being a target or retreading on Sarah Connors’ own survival being about John’s salvation, not her own life. Goyer and company pander to dialogue expectancies and mistake “Carl” for comedic relief, but Arnie’s delivery kills most “humor.” Emphasis is left on director Tim Miller’s explosive excitement since plotting frequently distracts characters away from finishing objectives as a means of advancing story conflicts.
Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 chameleon is bendier, hacks data-streams through touch, and comes with symbiote enhancements that can shed a goopy duplicate to fight alongside its metal skeleton host. Think It Follows meets Venom and that’s Luna’s character, always a bajillion steps ahead of Dani and murdering anyone she contacts. Seriously, this is Terminator: Collateral Damage.
The only way Dark Fate understands how to build out Dani’s emotional characteristics is by introducing side-characters with lofty ambitions of lengthy lifespans, then killing them in front of Sarah, Dani, and/or Grace. Luna’s smile is a byproduct of decapitating countless guards after camouflage tactics and slicing through bodies with blade hands that’s never the exhilarating sight Miller expects. It gets old, frankly. Rev-9 infiltrates another guard’s station by playing another round of identity dress-up before downloading another coordinate link. We get it. Rev-9 ain’t stoppin’ until the job is done.
Miller is tasked with staging warfare amidst all elemental complications. Plummeting downward within a flaming military cargo plane, dragged by underwater currents, on boring-old Texas soil – you can’t fault the action for daring to be different. Seeing T-800, Sarah Connor and Grace square up before Rev-9 is an enormous payoff, as well. It’s just that Miller’s reliance on computerized stunt doubles to replace Luna’s more intricate maneuvers is as disappointing as most studio projects looking to ease production. Blurry inhuman figures being tossed into automobile factory equipment or through concrete pillars or into more smashable things – it’s all so unimpressive and visually dull. Not the same when Davis is chopping Luna’s sludgy self into a puddle though, when whoopin’ stays recognizably hand-to-hand.
Terminator: Dark Fate is a replicant of every underwhelming major studio reboot/remake/sequel that hit theaters this last decade. Retrofit an existing franchise formula, promote gender empowerment (a brilliant angle when handled emphatically), and give fans what they want in the form of called-back nostalgia. All well and good, but director Tim Miller falls into the same blockbuster action that’s chaotic and numbing after so many animated doppelgängers shots in the place of real actors (Gabriel Luna). James Cameron’s Terminator spirit is alive and well, but limp scripting hinges on flimsier gags and bulletstorm reliance. Neither of which nail their target, making for another pedestrian genre hurricane of gunsmoke, faceplant humor, and shoehorned substance (T-800’s learned conscience, for one) that never, ever feels earned.
Terminator: Dark Fate is a good Terminator franchise entry by comparison, but still falls into many of the pitfalls that modern reboots/remakes/sequels struggle to sidestep when balancing nostalgia with hyper-CGI action.