Terminator: Dark Fate (United States/China, 2019)

October 31, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Terminator: Dark Fate Poster

Although Terminator: Dark Fate, the sixth film in the Terminator franchise, is an improvement over the other non-Cameron-directed sequels, it doesn’t rise to the level of the first two entries in the series. And, while Terminator die-hards and action fans may be entertained by the high-energy (albeit overlong) production, it illustrates the limitations of the central conceit and helps one understand why Cameron took the “no more chapters” approach to his creation for so many years.

Terminator: Dark Fate mimics what J.J. Abrams did with The Force Awakens: create something that’s as much a remake as a sequel. The time-travel aspects of the Terminator multiverse allow for this. One could argue that they encourage it. For those obsessed with Terminator canon, it permits installments #3, 4, and 5 to be placed neatly into “alternate universe” buckets. Terminator: Dark Fate has been established as a direct sequel to T2. It returns Linda Hamilton to the franchise in the role she originated more than three decades ago and allows her to re-unite with co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger for what one imagines will be the last time.

Cameron’s films have always employed strong female heroes, and this one is no different. In that sense, it’s in keeping with a current cinematic trend. Hamilton, upon whose grizzled countenance is engraved Indiana Jones’ pronouncement that “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage,” is the most welcome returnee to the franchise. Her appearance creates an impermeable linkage to the first two. She is joined by newcomers Mackenzie Davis as Grace, this installment’s time-traveler, and Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, the innocent who must grow much as Sarah Connor did all those years ago. Of course, what would a Terminator movie be without Arnold Schwarzenegger (check out Terminator Salvation for a possible answer)? The Big Guy makes his first appearance just past the mid-way point and that’s when the movie finds its groove.

The story opens with a surprising and somewhat shocking scene set not long after the closing credits of T2. The digital technology used to de-age/recreate Hamilton, Schwarzenegger, and Edward Furlong circa 1991 is some of the best we’ve seen to-date. Unlike the recent Gemini Man, it’s nearly flawless, although that could be because it isn’t overused. The scene is important but not overlong. In terms of the narrative, it sets the stage for what is to follow. In terms of the technology, it shows that, when utilized correctly, this can be an invaluable tool for filmmakers.

Terminator: Dark Fate continues the timeline in which the events of T2 eliminated the Skynet threat. However, in the absence of that dystopian future, an equally bleak one arises involving a different tyrannical living machine (Legion) that has knowledge of time-travel and uses Terminators. A guardian arrives in 2019 to protect the woman who embodies humanity’s future hope. The guardian is not a Terminator – she’s an augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) – and her “mission” is Dani Ramos (Columbian TV star Natalia Reyes). The Terminator sent to kill her is the deadliest one yet – a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) that makes Robert Patrick’s killer from T2 seem obsolete. Sarah Connor, alerted to Dani’s predicament via a mysterious text message, arrives just in time (and armed to the teeth) to prevent the Rev-9 from fulfilling its mission. But her actions don’t stop the Terminator; they merely delay it.

Terminator: Dark Fate borrows many of the beats from the first two films and director Tim Miller (Deadpool) simulates Cameron’s style. This results in a two-hour chase film with each new action sequence attempting to top the previous ones. One of the most complex set pieces (on board a crashing airplane) is marred by CGI oversaturation, confusing camera placement, fast editing, and fake physics. It appears to have been inspired more by a Fast and Furious movie than an earlier Terminator. The story also takes a little too long bringing Schwarzenegger into the fray. We know he’s coming so the first half can feel like an extended tease.

As odd as it may seem to admit, this could be the best performance Schwarzenegger has given. Always more of an icon than an actor, this is the first time he has introduced emotions into one of his Terminators and he does it with surprising effectiveness. I’m not suggesting that he should receive an Oscar for his work here but there’s more depth to the character than I expected. It’s also a treat to see his interaction with Hamilton. The dynamic between the two is layered, especially considering how much she has become like the Terminators she hunts. Like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, she has returned later in life to leave her mark.

Terminator: Dark Fate feels like an echo of T2, doing many of the same things and offering similar narrative perturbations but without the verve of the earlier movie (although it’s hard to suppress the momentary thrill that comes when Junkie XL’s score hearkens back to Brad Fiedel’s percussive “Terminator theme”). It’s not a complete re-hash, however. The story introduces interesting new wrinkles and the ending, when considered in the context of a trilogy, makes this movie feel less like an extraneous add-on than a part of a larger tale. There’s really nowhere else to take the franchise, however. With this sixth installment, it’s over. At one point during the proceedings, Arnold remarks that he won’t be back. For the sake of the series’ integrity, let’s hope that’s true.

Terminator: Dark Fate (United States/China, 2019)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2019-11-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Action
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1