The “Terminator” franchise has been retconned…again!
In 1984’s The Terminator, a cyborg, known as a Terminator, was sent back from the future to assassinate Sarah Connor, whose yet-to-born child, John, would lead the last of humanity in a war against an AI network known as Skynet. Though she managed to destroy the Terminator in the end, a more advanced Skynet cyborg, the T-1000, was sent years later to hunt down and kill teenaged John Connor in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. With the help of a “good” Terminator that was also sent back, Sarah and John managed to destroy the T-1000, as well as all of the links to Skynet, saving future 3 billion lives. How can one possibly follow this perfect ending?
In present day Mexico City, the life of a young woman named Daniella (Dani, for short) is turned upside down when a hybrid human-cyborg named Grace is sent back from the future. Grace’s mission is to protect Dani from the Rev-9, a newly modified liquid terminator who was also sent from the future to kill her, as she is a key component in the revolution against the machines. While trying to evade the Rev-9, they come across Sarah Connor, who has dedicated her life to hunting down Terminators after another one took the life of her son, John shortly after defeating the T-1000. Together, along with an old familiar face, Sarah and Grace they must protect Dani, and the future of humanity as we know…again.
There is no point in discussing the three sequels that followed Judgment Day, because Terminator: Dark Fate basically erases them from existence (although ironically, 2015’s Terminator: Genisys tried to retcon the whole series with little success). Thankfully, this film is miles ahead of those films in terms of quality and entertainment. At the same, time, however, this film is still inferior to the previous two Terminators. The main problem is that this is the same formulaic story that drives any Terminator film. Though the locations and characters have changed, much of what is in the film are things audiences have seen many times before, only without James Cameron’s robust direction or cinematography
The camerawork, action, and special effects featured in Judgment Day were beyond groundbreaking and have aged so well to this day that people still look for the tricks while watching it. Most of the action scenes in Dark Fate are shot in handheld form with a substantial amount of quick cutting, which limits the ability to appreciate the amount of work that went into constructing them. Many of Judgment Day’s scenes, including the bar fight, the highway chase, and the climactic fight at the steel mill quickly became iconic and celebrated as master class action directing. The action scenes in Dark Fate, on the other hand, feel standard, tired, and forgettable.
Even though one of the big draws of this sequel is James Cameron’s return to the series, it is only in the form of producer. Helming this new installment is visual effects artist Tim Miller, who made his feature directorial debut with 2014’s Deadpool. While Deadpool was undeniably an entertaining film, the action, while not bad by any means, was not memorable or exciting. The action in Dark Fate, however, feels duller because the series has such a high visual standard, that anything slightly below amazing feels disappointing.
Thankfully, the film manages to pick up considerably after the first third, mainly due to the acting. Natalia Reyes and Mackenzie Davis do a fantastic job as Dani and Grace, respectively, especially towards the end when the stakes are raised. However, where the film really starts to pick up is when Sarah Connor enters, as Linda Hamilton still has those hard edges and acting chops that made Sarah such a memorable action heroine. Her chemistry with Davis and Reyes is strong and they have some entertaining scenes together, even if her ongoing conflict with Grace seems to escalate a bit quickly.
And of course, no Terminator film is complete without the inclusion of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Somehow, every time he plays a terminator, Schwarzenegger finds a new aspect to incorporate into his performance. This time, the audience gets a look at what a terminator does when it actually completes its mission, namely, finding a new purpose in life, and Arnold gives it his all once again. His scenes with Sarah Connor are sure to give fans goosebumps, since this was an onscreen reunion they had to wait twenty-eight years for. Those who are looking forward to Edward Furlong’s return as John Connor are going to be massively disappointed, because John Connor only appears in the beginning as another Hollywood CGI de-aging recreation.
This is where things get interesting, however, because the introduction sequence shows John Connor being killed, and it threatens to destroy the impact of the first two films. While this may seem disrespectful, it speaks true to the series’ lore regarding how people try to control the future, as well as keep their present from changing. The film shows that humanity can only do so much, but life will always provide a new challenge to overcome, and the best thing to do is move forward. This is seen in the respective arcs of Sarah Connor and Schwarzenegger’s Terminator (named Carl) with Sarah trying to move on from her child’s death, and the Terminator carrying on its existence once its missions are completed. It is a somewhat interesting concept, and if it did not take a backseat to yet another retread of a routine Terminator plot, this film could have felt more unique.
Though not by much, Terminator: Dark Fate is the best Terminator sequel following Judgment Day. The film would have benefited from more memorable action scenes, dialogue, and set pieces, but the film has enjoyable characters and a healthy dose of nostalgia for fans. As for the future of the franchise….they’ll be back!