TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta. Directed by Tim Miller. 128 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence).
Marking the return of star Linda Hamilton and franchise originator James Cameron to the ‘Terminator’ franchise, ‘Dark Fate’ pulls off the same neat trick as last year’s ‘Halloween’ sequel, sweeping aside years of lacklustre sequels to declutter the mythology and provide a neat stepping off point to continue the original story. In this case, both 1984’s ‘The Terminator’ and its 1991 sequel ‘Judgment Day’ survived the cull, and though never as impressive as either of these Cameron-directed instalments, ‘Dark Fate’ easily ranks above the films that it has erased from the ‘Terminator’ canon.
Although she prevented mankind’s eradication by the malignant AI Skynet in ‘Judgment Day’, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) could not keep her son John safe from the Terminators forever. Eventually, one of the T-800 models (Arnold Schwarzenegger), sent through time to terminate John by a future that never eventuated, fulfilled its cruel mission. Devastated, Sarah became a militant recluse, only sporadically resurfacing to dispatch further Terminators when they appeared.
One of her would-be targets is the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, very slick and a worthy successor to Robert Patrick), an updated Terminator model sent to modern day Mexico City by Legion, a fresh AI threat that will eventually rise in Skynet’s stead. The Rev-9’s human quarry is Dani (Natalia Reyes, spirited), a Mexican factory worker who will one day play a key role in the human resistance against Legion. Just as in previous films, when those defying Skynet once sent soldier Kyle Reese and a reprogrammed T-800 back to protect the Terminators’ would-be victims, the coming anti-Legion resistance send Dani a protector of her own, mechanically enhanced super soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis). The Rev-9 and Grace simultaneously track Dani down to the factory in which she works, where their first of several brawls ensues.
As the fight between Grace and the Rev-9 spills out of Dani’s factory and onto a neighbouring freeway, it’s evident that director Tim Miller (the visual effects artist who made a splash with his directorial debut ‘Deadpool’) has an eye for epic set pieces. The Rev-9 combines the brute strength of the original T-800 with the liquid metal shapeshifting capabilities of Robert Patrick’s iconic T-1000, boasting a powerful endoskeleton wrapped in a molten skin that can operate independently from its internal framework. Their fight unfolds with a rapid tempo enabled by their augmented physiques, the choreography regularly employing the Rev-9’s visually striking skillset to multiply the threat and the mayhem. There are practical collisions staged throughout this highway melee, recalling James Cameron’s memorable truck pursuit through flood-control channels in ‘Judgment Day’, and it’s a rush to witness this well-mounted vehicular carnage unfold, particularly because the CG body doubles that occasionally replace the actors for more dangerous or difficult stunt choreography errs towards unconvincing.
With Grace facing off against both the Rev-9’s endoskeleton and its liquid metal skin, the odds stacked against our heroes. Enter Sarah Connor, balancing the scales as she strides out from her truck with the confidence that can only come from the enormous automatic weapon on her hip. After the Sarah Connor-free action that has unfolded up to now, it’s a rush to see Hamilton return to the role that defined her career. As cool and capable as Mackenzie Davis is as Grace onscreen, Hamilton is on another level. Sarah Connor is as collected and as intimidating as you remember her, and her appearance recalls the thrill that viewers received when Jamie Lee Curtis returned in the 2018 ‘Halloween’ sequel.
Eventually, Grace and Sarah’s journey to shield Dani from the Rev-9 takes them across the border and into Texas, where the T-800 that killed John has made a new life for himself, going by Carl and taking a wife and stepson. Despite the screenplay generally treating Carl/T-800 so absurdly comedically that he feels parachuted in from another movie (his discussion of Carl’s drapery business is a hoot), Schwarzenegger still bears that glimmer of mega-movie stardom, his powerful self-awareness of how he photographs onscreen reflected in the way that he carries himself on screen. Even at 70-plus years of age, the Austrian Oak still convinces, and though Sarah’s simmering rage at his murder of her son hangs over the screenplay heavily for a few scenes too many, she and Grace will need his help to protect Dani from the advanced Rev-9.
Though there is little that’s outright negative to say about ‘Dark Fate’, it does all feel a little unnecessary. Franchise standouts ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Judgment Day’ were special because they married their solid plotting and strong performances with spectacular action and cutting-edge FX. With a plot that closely mirrors those of previous instalments (multiple robots or soldiers from the future face off to protect humanity’s saviour in the present), ‘Dark Fate’ feels a little hollow because it never provides that X factor that those standout instalments got from their unrelenting cyber-horror themes and boundary-pushing CGI respectively. As the world of blockbuster computer FX has reached an equilibrium of sorts (it’s far rarer that a movie manages to stand out on this basis alone these days), ‘Dark Fate’ just struggles to stand out in a crowded cinema marketplace. The fact that it’s a return to form of sorts for the series just makes it more of a shame that the film’s tepid box office results look to have permanently terminated this decades-old franchise.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 31.
20th Century Fox.