Time travel stories can be a real pain in the ass. Even fairly simple ones can run into logistical problems and time-oriented conundrums, so when a franchise is six films deep the odds that it will be a seamless affair are fairly nonexistent. Terminator: Dark Fate is the sixth in a series of films that left consistency — in both timeline narrative and overall quality — behind a long time ago, but if you can get on board with its new-ish direction then it’s a fun enough ride with characters new and old.
Not sold yet? What if I told you the film also pulls an Alien 3 (1992) and kills off a fairly notable and highly annoying character in the first few minutes…
Forget the pretty solid Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Forget the far too serious Terminator Salvation (2009). And definitely forget the misfire that is Terminator Genisys (2015). (What’s that? You already have? Well played.) Terminator: Dark Fate wisely ignores those three attempts at extending the franchise’s life and instead acknowledges only The Terminator (1984) and Terminator: Judgment Day (1991).
Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) helped save the future from Skynet but loses her son John (a CG Edward Furlong) to a second T-800 model terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that took its time getting to them. Years later, a new liquid metal model called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) arrives in Mexico City and attempts to kill a young woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes). The killing machine is stopped, albeit temporarily, by the arrival of another visitor from the future, Grace (Mackenzie Davis). It’s a persistent assassin, though, and just as it gains the upper hand Sarah arrives to damage it and save the two women. Forced on the run, truths about the past, their respective futures, and their fiery present lead them to a cabin in the woods and the drapery salesman named Carl who calls it home.
There’s no denying that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best of the sequels since T2, but it’s also understood that that isn’t saying much. It succeeds in large part by marrying the first two films together — its narrative is beginning to end a nod to the first, while its returning heroes and grand appeal towards humanity rest firmly with the second — but it’s a union that leaves little room for a life of its own. Basically, the film is good at what it does including crafting some fun action beats and humorous exchanges, but it rarely feels capable of justifying its existence.
The story being told by director Tim Miller and writers David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray (with story credits going to three more including franchise patriarch James Cameron) boils down once more to an inhuman killer sent by an artificial intelligence from the future to kill a young woman destined to throw a wrench into its dream of a humanity-free world. The change-up this time around sees the reveal that unlike Sarah, her importance isn’t tied to a child she’ll eventually give birth too — Dani herself is the threat that has the frighteningly monikered Legion shaking in its zeroes and ones. It’s an expected upgrade to the first film’s admittedly dated setup, and it’s part of a three-pronged punch at traditionally sexist expectations.
The other two, of course, are Sarah and Grace. The two women start off frosty but grow closer over the course of the film, and both characters kick a serious amount of ass in the process. Hamilton is in her 60s, and one of the film’s strengths is “allowing” her to look it. Sure she’s in incredible shape, but the camera is equally enamored with a face that feels anathema to action hero cinema — she looks her age, and the weight of her grief is visible in eyes and wrinkles that have clearly been to hell and back. Grace is a human warrior augmented with technology to make her stronger, faster, and more resilient, and while Davis convinces with the action beats it’s ultimately her humanity that does most of the heavy lifting here. Just as we cared about Schwarzenegger’s T-800 from Judgment Day, we also come to quickly care about Grace.
These two are so strong, though, that Dani — and Reyes — are unable to keep up. Dani is meant to be a powerful, compelling personality, and while her compassion is evident she’s wholly unconvincing as someone we’re told is a natural and tough leader. The script does her no favors, but the casting is equally to blame. Reyes is a solid actor, but she’s just too small and incapable of commanding the screen, especially when sharing it with Hamilton and/or Davis. And once Schwarzenegger crashes the party? Both character and actor start feeling like an unnecessary fourth wheel.
Speaking of the Austrian actor, his performance here once again reminds viewers what made him so damn memorable in the first place. The man has an unmistakable presence, one built on personality as much as physique, and he uses both to command the screen. Here he applies both to another aspect too — comic relief — and succeeds delivering some big laughs and smiles as he explains his home life and interacts with the women. He’s taken on a family of his own, and while the idea that a terminator can learn to care and grow a conscience (of sorts) is straight out of Judgment Day it works well enough here.
Therein rests the film’s biggest, most all-encompassing issue, though. It doesn’t really have any ideas of its own. We’ve seen this premise, these protectors, and that liquid metal antagonist before — and we’ve seen it done better — and that’s enough to leave viewers ultimately underwhelmed with Dark Fate. What it does it does well, but existing for the sole purpose of existing feels more aligned with a soulless AI than humankind.