Hollywood has a tendency to keep making sequels to franchises that audiences have generally stopped caring about. (Rambo: Last Blood being the most recent example.) Following the lackluster performance of Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys, I absolutely would have put the Terminator series in that category. There's enough life in the latest installment, Terminator: Dark Fate, to potentially turn that around, though. It's got a better story than Salvation and way less of the blatant fan pandering of Genisys.
As with Jurassic World, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Dark Fate takes a heavy back-to-basics approach. There's a cyborg soldier named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) sent from the future to protect a young woman, Dani (Natalia Reyes), who's the key to stopping a war that could wipe out mankind. (Skynet has been replaced with a very Skynet-ish substitute.) And, of course, there's a relentless Terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). It has a fancy new upgrade, in that it can generate a second, skeletal Terminator from its human form.
What truly makes the movie special is that Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor, the first time she has reprised the role since Terminator 2: Judgment Day back in 1991. She arrives on the scene to help Dani, then reluctantly teams up with Grace to keep her safe. The trio also gets assistance from “Carl” (Arnold Schwarzenegger), one of the T-800s sent to kill John Connor.
The best scenes in Dark Fate, unsurprisingly, are the ones between Hamilton and Schwarzenegger. Seeing them reunited onscreen is great fun, and the interaction between their characters has substance. Carl has evolved, becoming more human-like. He's developed an awareness of his past actions and the impact they had on Sarah. She, of course, has trouble bringing herself to accept that he's anything other than a killing machine. There's a nice arc between them that addresses repentance and forgiveness.
Director Tim Miller (Deadpool) skillfully balances the dramatic moments with the action scenes. A fight sequence inside an airplane that's plummeting to the ground is especially thrilling, as the characters intermittently achieve weightlessness from the drop. Dark Fate additionally has an intense car chase, a fight inside a factory, and a climactic 4-on-1 battle against the Rev-9.
Occasional injections of humor work well. The screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray largely avoids wink-at-the-audience callbacks (with one exception). Instead, laughs come from the Sarah/Carl tension, as well as some amusing one-liners crafted for Schwarzenegger to deliver.
Dark Fate comes up a little short in a couple areas. The Rev-9 is cool from a special effects standpoint, yet he lacks the personality that Robert Patrick brought to the T-1000 in Judgment Day. He just isn't particularly interesting as a character. The movie also has to live in the overall shadow of that one, which was a game-changer in terms of action and visual effects. Nothing here even begins to approach that level of invention.
The bottom line, however, is that the last two – or three, depending on what you think of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – entries in this series have been pretty disappointing. Terminator: Dark Fate is a couple steps above them. The film is smart to bring back Sarah Connor, because she was always the heart and soul of it anyway. We may not ever be completely floored by a Terminator picture again, but it sure feels good to get another one that understands what made the idea so appealing to begin with.
out of four
Terminator: Dark Fate is rated R for strong sci-fi action and violence, and for language. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.