It’s somewhat easy to forget that, amidst the iconic action sequences, Arnold impressions, and lawsuits from Harlan Ellison that the Terminator franchise has accrued in its 35 years on this Earth, the first two films in the franchise, directed by the one and only James Cameron, were defined by their deeply emotional relationships. In the first film, it’s Sarah Connor’s doomed romance with Kyle Reese that gives her predestination paradox of a pregnancy meaning: Her son John may be fated to save the world, but by the time she’s hardened into the chrysalis form of the survivalist she’ll become later on, he’s also the only memento she has left of the man she fell in love with.
In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the focus shifts towards the teenage John, and his resentment towards a mother who (outwardly) never loved him and forced him to train ceaselessly for a future he wasn’t even sure that would come to pass. When the T-800 enters his life and the young man settles on him as both a surrogate father and little brother, the conflict within Sarah has legitimate weight: This machine looks just like the one that killed Kyle, and now her son is teaching it cute little phrases? But of course, that gives way to her growth as a character, and therein lies the reason a film like T2 will make hardened dads shed a tear whenever they get sucked into it on a cable-filled lazy Sunday. That emotional core is, in essence, the series’ secret sauce, honed and developed by Cameron: It’s why it feels so disparately different from any other ‘80s franchise, and it’s also why the series was able to transition between genres, as the core was solid no matter if the film was a straight thriller or an action bonanza. And because of that, and its director’s impossible-tuned and unique skills, the films became classics.
After Cameron left the franchise, each subsequent filmmaker involved tried to replicate the ephemeral details — the hard-hitting action, the quips, the grit — and abandoned the deep feelings concealed within. Out of all the post-T2 sequels (and not counting The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which beats all of them handily), Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines perhaps came the closest to equalling Cameron’s prior efforts, exploring a loser/slacker John’s plight in a society that has escaped Judgement Day for the time being, and his bafflement at being pulled into another adventure with a Terminator after he’d assumed he’d saved the world. It had its missteps, sure: the film’s sense of humor is, well, awful, and the gag about the T-X, the first of the “hybrid Terminator” villains, changing the size of her bust in order to get out of a ticket still fucking sucks.
But the story was compelling, the action was solid, and that ending — in which John discovers that he’s failed his mission, and that Armageddon has arrived — still rips. Salvation and Genisys both did their best to flip the concepts on their heads: the former examining the Future War that Connor and co. find themselves in, the latter just giving up and indulging in timeline fuckery that totally defies all sense of logic and reason (that ethos is, honestly, kind of entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis and the vehement hatred some have for that movie may need to be re-evaluated). But both whiffed in key places and underperformed at the box office, and neither approach stuck around long enough for a sequel to get greenlit.
Enter Terminator: Dark Fate, the franchise’s latest reboot (and, honestly, soft remake of the first film), directed by Deadpool’s Tim Miller and produced by Cameron. No matter what Paramount’s marketing department wants you to believe, the legend’s been involved with (or at least given his blessing to) each and every other sequel, so the “accept no substitutes” aspect of this push is somewhat false, and his influence isn’t really felt much in the final film. You should, on the other hand, care a whole bunch about Linda Hamilton’s return to the franchise, as her work here brings a fair amount of life to an otherwise dire set of circumstances. Dark Fate would be the worst installment of the franchise had Genisys had more compelling leads, but it’s incredible just how far this series has fallen from its near-Olympian heights. It might have been a more crushing blow had the franchise not been mired in pain and uncertainty for the last decade, but it’s the furthest away from the film’s original ethos, full of feints at meaning and emotion, and ultimately hollow at its core.
Thirty years after the events of T2, two different time-travel bubbles appear in the Mexico City. One, carrying what appears to be a scarred human woman, lands in the middle of a freeway, and drops the woman to the ground below. She’s rescued by passerby, and beats the shit out of some cops who challenge her. On the other, a robot-like man materializes out of thin air in an apartment courtyard, and immediately its mission. Both are there to hunt down Dani Ramos (Natalie Reyes), a young woman who will, one day, help give birth to a resistance movement against a machine uprising.
The woman, named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) gets to her first, and reveals that she’s an agent of said resistance here to protect her from the other time-traveller: A Rev-9 Terminator, who has an endoskeleton that’s covered by liquid metal, which means he can split up and be two Terminators at once, I guess. They’re chased away from Dani’s workplace on the freeway, and when shit looks like it’s going to get really bad, a white-haired woman hits the Rev-9’s endoskeleton with her car, and unloads a drum magazine of shotgun shells into the liquid metal man standing across from her. That woman is Sarah Connor (Hamilton) who is here to kick ass and hunt Terminators, even if she’s somewhat lost her purpose in life. Together, Grace and Sarah must band together to protect Dani from the Rev-9, and along the way, they’ll have to recruit Carl (Arnold), a Terminator from a destroyed future living in hiding, in order to save her life.
The operative comparison for a number of people has been The Force Awakens, which, similarly, found ways to involve its older cast while introducing a new and diverse cast of characters, but to compare it to that movie in terms of its quality feels like a stretch. Perhaps it’s the fact that the first 10 minutes will send a seismic shot through the core of Terminator fans weaned on T2 as opposed to, say, the original, which may be the single worst thing that a “rebootquel” could have done, honestly. And while one might quibble with the way that a filmmaker like Abrams went about replacing established entities like the Rebellion and the Empire, at least he did so in a way that was interesting from an aesthetic standpoint. Yes, that means no Skynet, no Cyberdyne Systems, no T-models. It’s all tossed away for naught, and nothing here is able to replace what came before it. I imagine that most viewers will forget what the name of the Skynet replacement is before they get out of the theater (it’s Legion, in case you wanted to remember).
That extends to the characters. We’re never able to get into the hearts of the new cast members, despite both Davis and Reyes’ best attempts. Each of the arcs are rushed, especially when you compare Dani’s here to Sarah’s in the first film: by the end of that film, she’s changed and on the road to how we’ll see her later on, by the end of this one, Dani’s had at least three films’ worth of development crammed into the space of two hours. But really, we’re supposed to recognize these characters from the franchise’s established archetypes: Dani’s the “savior,” Grace is her protector, and Sarah is basically the same from T2, stagnant in her role as skeptical guardian of both. We recognize that Grace has PTSD because Kyle Reese did (whose name is never once mentioned, in an odd betrayal of the first film), we know Dani is conflicted about her role in the future because Sarah was. They don’t grow to like one another, though the film feints at a conflict between Grace and Sarah to imply growth without ever really developing it, and these three characters just sort of exist together in between exposition and action: they don’t form relationships, they don’t joke. The writing doesn’t give them any extra life, given that the story was split between six “story” writers, three of whom are actually credited for penning the damn thing.
Interestingly enough, the fault doesn’t totally lie with the screenwriters here, though they definitely didn’t help Miller out very much with their contributions. If the director’s output is going to continue to be thinly-veiled advertisements for his visual effects company, they should at the very least show off their services at their absolute best. There are shots in this that look so astonishingly cheap that it almost catches one off-guard: from the digitally de-aged Linda Hamilton’s incredibly odd feet in the film’s first moments, all the way down to the awful character models that take you entirely out of the film’s big trailer-advertised airplane sequence, you have to wonder where the $185 million budget went to. That might be forgivable if Miller’s action had some amount of life to it: While it’s often very competent, the sequences here don’t really excite in the way that they should. They’re minor variations on what might have worked before: a daytime freeway chase, a fight in the midst of heavy machinery. Perhaps it’s the CG, which gives fight sequences that may have been brutal in the earlier films a sense of weightlessness, even when grounded, with digital bodies flopping around left and right like ragdolls. The formerly franchise-defining make-up work is absent, replaced by cheaper and more obvious CGI, and the effect, already bad in the trailers, is even worse in the final product.
Worse, Miller’s imagination feels hollow, and that’s saying something from a franchise that nearly got sued into oblivion for ripping off an Outer Limits episode. His vision of the future, ravaged by Legion (ugh), feels peeled from a lost Gears of War map, and, despite the skulls being organized a little differently this time around, the imagery just isn’t metal enough, frankly speaking. Everything here is just an echo of Cameron’s greatest hits, but done so in the most perfunctory and redundant fashion. We get, not one, but two “I’ll be back” jokes here, and if I had a dollar for every set-up meant to echo either film, well, I’d at least have the money I paid to see it back. It also preserves the worst aspect of the sequels so far: the hybrid liquid-metal Terminator, and the Rev-9 model is about as intimidating as the first boss in any given video game. And much like Todd Phillips, he knows that he’ll get brownie points for tip-toeing towards the line of meaning, political or otherwise: An extended sequence inside of a border detention center, in which the Rev-9 impersonates a Border Patrol officer in order to get inside to pursue out trapped heroes feels like it should mean something, especially in an era when, you know, the US Government is keeping children in cages and serving them rotting food. But to Miller, it’s just another setting, a way to get his characters a helicopter and to make his evil Terminator look like a badass — even giving him a stupid quip on the way in! Perhaps it’s the result of too many cybernetic cooks being in this particular kitchen, but the experience is ultimately a pointless one.
The saddest part is that Dark Fate buries its best attributes: The resurgent, resplendent Hamilton and her work opposite an interested and engaged Schwarzenegger, who brings more of his droll wit to the role than you might imagine. His ability to undersell his most ridiculous lines practically invents laugh-worthy punchlines out of thin air, and offers a nice contrast to the laser-focused and intense performance given by Hamilton. Despite her stoic coolness — something often denied her in this franchise, until the back half of T2 — she’s given the film’s one truly affecting moment, and she sells it like hell, almost adding a layer of pathos to the the goings-on. I honestly hope this leads to her doing more work in the years to come: She’s such an interesting screen presence, and one could easily see her leading her own action franchise free of the cybernetic accouterments she’s surrounded with here. And when she and Arnold are at the center of attention, everything else — underwhelming new characters, terrible re-writes, shoddy direction — fades away and you can start to see a better movie in the center. Perhaps the Dark Fate of the title is more significant than we realized: Some other timeline received a much, much better Terminator sequel, and we’re stuck with this. Oh, well.