Director: Tim Miller
Writers: David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray
Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, Natalia Reyes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta
The thing about movies involving time travel (or, really, just about anything within the sci-fi realm) is that they never seem to go away, which makes some sense because they open up a story (and its timelines) to endless possibilities. Thus, we often end up with different versions, remakes, reboots, etc. (you could probably bet anything that some fool will take on Back to the Future one day). James Cameron’s Terminator franchise is up there with the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek for people wanting to put their stamp on it and take it down a road that they think works for the story. Alas, these roads don’t always lead to pastures new, but rather dead ends. So, what happens when there’s yet another continuation/reboot that supposedly takes us back to what (and who) we came to originally love about a franchise? Does Dark Fate satisfy the OG Terminator and Judgment Day crowd, or does it run into the same wall that took down Rise of the Machines, Salvation and Genisys?
(N.B. There may be a few spoilers for previous Terminator movies in this review. If you’ve not seen any of them, just go with The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, aka T2, as Dark Fate only acknowledges the events of those two films. Alternatively, check out the Film Club for a round-up of each movie.)
Although Judgment Day has been avoided, the fate of the human race apparently has not. In the year 2042, an ‘augmented’ human, Grace (Davis), is sent back to the year 2020 to protect Dani (Reyes), a woman significant to another resistance against the machines in the future. A new advanced Terminator called a Rev-9 (Luna) has been sent back by Legion (the new Skynet) to kill Dani. As they’re pursued by the Rev-9, Grace and Dani are rescued by Sarah Connor (Hamilton). Sarah has dedicated her life to hunting down Terminators that have travelled to the past, going off of texts that reveal exact times and co-ordinates from an unknown source. On realising that Dani is basically the 2020 version of 1984-Sarah, she teams up with Grace to protect Dani and destroy the Rev-9. Their mission to keep Dani safe eventually leads them to locating a T-800 Terminator that’s been living quietly since 1998 and goes by the name of Carl (Schwarzenegger). As a new team, they must keep Dani safe and find a way to destroy the Rev-9 and ensure the future protection of the human race against an AI-controlled world.
As you may tell from the above premise, there’s nothing entirely new about the plot: it is essentially all we’ve ever seen from any Terminator movie (except perhaps Salvation). The announcement of this movie probably elicited many a sigh across the globe from fans of the franchise (at least, fans of the early days). Truthfully, it would have been nice to see a plot that doesn’t revolve around a machine/cyborg/hybrid thing being sent back to kill/protect a potential saviour of the human race, but the reasons Dark Fate works overall and doesn’t become a repetitive mess are threefold – one: it takes the story back to basics; two: the return of James Cameron, Linda Hamilton and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger; three: Mackenzie Davis.
If we ignore Rise of the Machines (T3), Salvation and Genisys (as Dark Fate purposefully does: Cameron had no involvement in those movies nor the spin-off TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles), this movie is a smooth and valid continuation of everything that happened in The Terminator and T2. There is a scene right at the beginning that may throw you, because it basically lifts out a huge aspect of every Terminator film’s reason for existing. At first it feels wrong but, as the film progresses, you may realise that it was the right decision. It allows the film to take its own direction and not be pressured or bogged down by holding on to something that has potentially been the reason the post-T2 movies didn’t work. As a result, the basic story of Dark Fate is familiar and yet refreshing, with new characters being given the blessing of the passed torch by the old. Perhaps we have Cameron’s involvement with creating the story to thank for this; no one knows his characters quite as he does, so to see Sarah and the T-800 back with some development means we can relax (to a degree). Along with his story co-creators and the writers (including David S. Goyer, co-writer on movies such Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, the Blade trilogy, Man of Steel and, er, Batman v. Superman…), Cameron has provided us with new blood to freshen things up, though our Old Faithfuls of Hamilton and Schwarzenegger are anything but thrown to the side-lines – they’re still mega important to the story, blending the old and new into something very enjoyable. Tim Miller takes on the hefty task of directing, and he really does do a great job, with his experience on Deadpool and all the action that entails likely being great experience before Dark Fate.
Some of the biggest draws of Terminator movies are the action, the graphics (particularly the VFX in the early days) and the stunts. Dark Fate has plenty of each to make the combat sequences thrilling, the explosions and destruction awesome, and the machines appear as realistic as possible; but, again unlike T3, Salvation and Genisys, it isn’t overdone: the focus is and remains on the characters. The fights and stunts are the results of characters’ actions rather than existing purely to cover up a lacking plot. What’s also great to see is the homage paid to the classic 80s computer-generated text and visuals, such as when we have POV shots through the digital and mechanical eyes of the T-800. The Rev-9 has some upgraded visuals, but there are still elements of the 80s fascia incorporated to keep some much-appreciated consistency.
And so, we come to the third reason this movie works so well: Mackenzie Davis. Her performance is nothing short of astounding. Grace is human with a few mechanical upgrades so she’s stronger, faster, more agile and observant, with a heightened awareness. But she is, for all intents and purposes, still human. Davis is therefore able to add much more into her performance as a cyborg than Schwarzenegger or any of the actors who have played Terminators or androids have been able to do without that human side to relate to. Her ability to have the audience engage in the story and everything that goes on around her is what really draws us in. Not to mention her physical performance, which is breath-taking (almost literally). Davis is truly mesmerising and perfectly cast as Grace. Reyes’ Dani is spunky and strong, just as we’d probably expect of a new-gen Sarah Connor, though she probably takes to it all quicker and more easily than Sarah did. Reyes is good, but Dani isn’t really anything we haven’t seen before from Hamilton, who’s Sarah is a real sight for sore eyes. Although Sarah is still the badass she’s been since T2, underneath she’s still the protective mother she’s always been. She’s perhaps given one too many ‘fuck’s in her dialogue (we get it, you’re hardcore and don’t give a shit, go wash your mouth out), but it’s like Hamilton has never stepped away from the character, which is just what the franchise needs at this point. Luna makes for a good Rev-9, with his physical appearance suited to the upgraded Terminator and a performance worthy of praise nearly as high as Robert Patrick’s as the T-1000 in T2. And, of course, Arnie is back, once again, and his T-800 ‘Carl’ predictably (and wonderfully) injects some comedy at perfect intervals, is as endearing as can be for a machine (though a machine who has become more humanised over time) and still kicks some serious ass. Overall, Dark Fate offers up the best cast since T2.
The Terminator was a strong start to the entire franchise, an original and interesting premise with great characters. T2 was one of the best follow-ups cinema has ever seen, arguably surpassing its predecessor. Dark Fate slots in perfectly as the third. Although it doesn’t quite live up to what T2 put on the table, it would be very difficult for any sequel to do so (as was proven specfically by T3). Dark Fate puts up a very good fight, its entertainment value high and its plot as solid as a T-800. It would be fair to say there are multiple elements that go towards the success of this film, elements that none of the limping 2000s-2010s movies had, and without even one of them this film would likely have hit the wall that those films did and limped its way quickly out of cinemas and into obscurity. If there is to be another Terminator movie it had better have Cameron back in some capacity (on directing duties preferably, please!) and with careful casting choices, as Dark Fate is definitely one to beat.