A film review by Craig J. Koban November 13, 2019

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE jj
 

2019, R, 128 mins.

 

Natalia Reyes as Daniela "Dani" Ramos  /  Mackenzie Davis as Grace  /  Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor  /  Arnold Schwarzenegger as Carl / The Terminator  /  Diego Boneta as Diego Ramos  /  Gabriel Luna as Rev-9

Directed by Tim Miller  /  Written by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray

I've been awfully kind to the TERMINATOR sequels over the years.  To be sure, nothing in this already improbably long franchise has topped the higher echelons of James Cameron's original 1984 introductory chapter (which launched Arnold Schwarzenegger into pop culture action hero icon status) or his 1991 sequel in T2: JUDGMENT DAY (still one of the greatest action films ever made, not to mention one of the best pure sequels in existence).  The unavoidable TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES from 2003 (the first of many Cameron-less enterprises) was solid, but inessential, which in turn was followed up by the genuinely intriguing, all future war set TERMINATOR: SALVATION in 2009.  The latest entry in 2015's TERMINATOR: GENISYS (which marked Au-nald's return to the series after being AWOL in SALVATION), was messy, but had some fun with cleverly re-imagining the established time travel arc of whole saga. 

Even I would concede, though, that at the end of GENISYS - which certainly was attempting to jump start another trilogy of films - that my overall interest in Cameron's once great sci-fi series was seriously starting to wane (the lackluster box office tallies of the last film is proof positive that many others didn't much care for future sequels to come either).  This brings us to TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, the sixth (!) film and fifth (!) sequel in this man versus machine opus, which tries - like the recent HALLOWEEN sequel did - to ignore a majority of its own series' mythology (in its case, everything post T2) and instead serves as a direct follow-up to the events of the '91 film while also softly rebooting franchise.  TERMINATOR DARK: FATE is most certainly a consummately well crafted film on a level of strong and slick production values and glossy visual effects, but it's also a mostly unnecessary rebootquel that had very little lingering staying power with me, nor did it make me hungry for more entries to come.  That, and it also contains some potentially polarizing augmentations to the core mythology (more on that in a bit) that may upset many fans. 

It should be noted that James Cameron himself has - as heavily publicized - returned to the creative helm in the franchise that he kick-started, albeit in a less hands-on producer role (he also shares story credit with more writers than I have fingers on one hand to count).  What's disappointing about Cameron's involvement here is that he and his director in Tim Miller (DEADPOOL) have opted for wash, rinse, and repeat storytelling beats here, lazily recycling the same tired and overused narrative bits of far too many TERMINATOR efforts.  We once again have a dangerously unstoppable killer cyborg sent by A.I. in the post apocalyptic future to the present via time travel.  We once again have this cyborg hunting down a person to kill them that will become a major, war tide changing leader in the future against the machines.  We once again have a human commando sent back from the future to the present to protect said future messiah from said killer robot.  Yes, we get new heroes, new villains, not to mention some familiar old faces returning to the fold, but so very little in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE strays away from stale and repetitive series conventions.   

 

 

At the very least, we get some geographical changes this go around, and the film introduces us to its main protagonist early on in the Mexico City residing Dani (Natalia Reyes), a seemingly ordinary women trying to make a life for herself as an auto factory worker with her brother and father.  Her mostly mundane life is changed forever with the sudden appearance of a shape shifting robot from the future, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, channeling his inner Robert Patrick), that seems unwavering in its obsessive desire to kill her.  Fate (sorry for that) steps in with the appearance of a solider from the same future, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a literal bionic woman of a freedom fighter that's been tasked to protect Dani.  When both realize that they're hopelessly in over their heads against their deadly pursuer, they rather conveniently team up with Sarah Connor herself (Linda Hamilton, making a series return after a near three decade absence), who has grown old, bitter, and hateful towards all artificial beings being thrown in her way.  But when the reluctant teaming of these three women discover that they will need further assistance to finally defeat this mechanical monster, they all rather conveniently seek out a long term in-hiding T-800 (Schwarzenegger) that has a very problematic past with Sarah. 

A couple of good things easily stand out in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, like, for starters, that Miller does an exceedingly good job marrying state of the art VFX with some pretty propulsive action sequences, which the film contains many.  The very first fight sequence pitting the Rev-9 (which sounds like a high end cosmetic line) physically battling it out against the "enhanced" human in Grace has a blunt force trauma impact that previous wimpy PG-13 TERMINATOR sequels have sorely lacked.  Then there's also a fairly exhilarating highway chase sequence showcasing the Rev-9's unique skill set.  With its black morphing gooey metal (which looks like Venom meets T2's T-1000) that covers a more traditional metal endoskeleton, the Rev-9 matches the might of all previous Terminator models and even bests them in one respect: it can split into two Terminators.  Miller shows some ambition with the action as well, such a big finale that aboard a cargo military plane that frequently renders the combatants struggle through zero gravity (when the plane freefalls) to get their licks in.  There's a great sensation of scale and polish to TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, and Miller seems mostly equal to the task of being a pretty good ringmaster of metal on metal on human mayhem here. 

Some of the new characters are inherently fascinating as well, like Davis' modified soldier that has incredible strength and dexterity, but constantly has to feed herself a cocktail of drugs to keep her whole nervous system from shutting down (Davis is also a rare actress to have appeared now in both a TERMINATOR and BLADE RUNNER sequel, which should help her attain sci-fi royalty status).  I also liked the fresh faced and winning Reyes as the new John Connor, so to speak, that really has no idea just how crucial she's poised to become in a future that hasn't happened yet.  And, yup, it's pretty damn wonderful to see a mainstream Hollywood sci-fi action film with three empowered female leads, which is something that's not entirely commonplace in a genre that's usually on sausage fest autopilot.  It's also mostly certainly a hoot to see and gray haired, grizzled, and extremely pissed off Hamilton return to her most famous screen character once again, and the nostalgic factor is insanely high when we see this formidable grandmotherly warrior make her first appearance with machine gun and bazooka in hand.  Her motives are simple: "I hunt Terminators and I drink until I black out."  Hmmmmm...in that order? 

Speaking of nostalgia, how incredible is it to see the senior citizen aged Hamilton and Schwarzenegger share the silver screen together again for the first time since their glory days of T2?  Contrary to vast publicity and marketing, Schwarzenegger doesn't have all that much screentime in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, appearing near the early stages of the second half and serving as some much needed comic relief (the actor is as much of a deadpan delight here as he's ever been in the series).  His character this go around is built around some potentially juicy ideas about how Terminators - when stripped of relevance and mission parameters - try to acclimate to some semblance of normalcy in the human dominating world of the present (or, in its case, past), but the screenplay here - in terms of expositional particulars - is frankly laughable and ludicrous in equal dosages in terms of explaining this machine's embracing of everyday domesticity.  This might be the only TERMINATOR film in history that has Arnold's T-800 have discussions about attractive window treatments and changing dirty baby diapers.  Maybe that's ultimately telling. 

When one really starts to scrutinize TERMINATOR: DARK FATE there's a very easy argument to be made that Hamilton and Schwarzenegger are only in this film together for easy fan servicing purposes, and to get some much needed butts in cinema seats.  Strip them away from this entry and DARK FATE could have effectively been a total reboot of the TERMINATOR franchise.  Obviously, marketing a TERMINATOR film without Arnold's mug all over posters would have been challenging, but not impossible (SALVATION did okay without him, IMHO), and it's certainly an entertaining treat to see him and Hamilton together again, but the script doesn't serve either of them particularly well, especially Hamilton, who's not given much of a developed arc at all.  Her back story is explicitly tied to a flashback sequence that opens the first few minutes of the film, which will probably go down as one of the most deeply polarizing opening scenes in recent sequel - or maybe franchise - history.  Without engaging in wanton spoilers, the events of this scene certainly seems like one big casual middle finger wag the entire story, themes, and developed mythology of the first two TERMINATOR films, which made me certainly shake my own head in disbelief.  It appears engineered for pure shock value...and pointlessly for not much else.  TERMINATOR: DARK FATE pulls an ALIEN 3, and to mostly groan inducing effect. 

Many on social media and critical circles have been labelling TERMINATOR: DARK FATE as the third best TERMINATOR film ever.  That doesn't seem like a ringing and triumphant endorsement of quality.  It's funny and ironic how Cameron, Miller, and company have so desperately tried to return this saga back to its old glory days, but in the process have inadvertently alienated series fans in the way its first five minutes completely disregards everything that the first two films...well...built to...as well as retconning any emotional bond we had to the characters and events of the '84 and 91 originals.  It's a conceptual choice more paradoxical than the time travel logic in this universe.  TERMINATOR: DARK FATE is a strangely contradictory affair: It lethargically rehashes so many plot, action, and mythology arcs from its far better predecessors while simultaneously pushing die hard fans away at an arm's length with its peculiar and alienating creative choices.   

I don't perceive TERMINATOR: DARK FATE as a sequel of utter sacrilege: It's finely produced, well directed, and will appease action film aficionados (although many of the CG heavy sequences - especially during its sometimes watch checking third act - seem to go on and on forever).  Yet, as a worthy direct sequel to two of the most famous sci-fi films ever conceived, it all comes off as more dutifully manufactured and serviceable than truly compelling (plus, it desperately tries to set up more films to come that most in the audience will probably not be clamoring for as the film's end credits role by).  Maybe it's time for everyone - series devotees, Hamilton, Schwarzenegger, and even the godfather of this franchise in Cameron - to sit back and realize that there's really never been enough mythological meat on the bones (or should I say endoskeletons?) of the TERMINATOR series to stretch itself out over half a dozen films.  TERMINATOR: DARK FATE makes a great claim for reiterating what a perfect sense of storytelling closure that T2 brought to this enterprise 28 years ago, and why filmmakers should have said "Hasta la vista, baby" to any idea of milking and extended it well beyond its programming. 

CTV REVIEW:

 

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