“The Terminator” series has wrestled with an identity crisis for years. Are these movies lean, pulpy, cyberpunk cousins to heady sci-fi such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or apocalyptic nightmares in which high-minded technological musings are replaced with militaristic fever dreams? Now, as original creator James Cameron returns to the franchise as a producer and story author for “Terminator: Dark Fate,” which blasts all but Cameron’s own “The Terminator” (1984) and “Terminator 2 Judgment Day” (1991) out of continuity, we have an answer: The Terminator films are essentially slasher movies, futuristic ones, sure, but relentless slasher/predator movies nonetheless. In that context, ‘Dark Fate’ is not a particularly sharp blade.
This sequel returns to the formula that worked well in Cameron’s two entries, and which was also echoed in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” There’s an unstoppable monster (in this case, the Rev-9, played by Gabriel Luna), an intended victim (Dani, played by Natalia Reyes) and a protector (Grace, an augmented human soldier played by Mackenzie Davis). One beat after another is inspired, if not directly lifted, from James Cameron’s first two movies. A highway chase, the “come with me if you want to live” moment, and especially the liquid-metal construction of Luna’s unremitting robotic killer are all more than casually familiar at this point. The chase sequences and the frequent blasts of violent action that ignite when monster and target collide are the message, not merely the medium.
With frequent fan-service nods and a general franchise-remix methodology, ‘Dark Fate’ is to this series what 2018’s “Halloween” was to John Carpenter‘s own archetypical slasher storyline, though far more beholden to the past and where the Michael Myers movie had much to say about the insidious legacy of passed down family trauma, this sixth ‘Terminator’ movie doesn’t have much similar weight. Powered by energetic acting turns, particularly from Mackenzie Davis and returning star Linda Hamilton, “Terminator: Dark Fate” has visceral strengths, but is so bereft of ideas that even the vigorous performances wither for lack of nourishment.
The great and undeniable pleasure in “Terminator: Dark Fate” is Linda Hamilton. Her reprisal of the role of Sarah Connor is done without any gloss of vanity — a choice underlined by an opening flashback that features a digitally de-aged Hamilton. It is a delight to see Hamilton ripped, glowering, and grimacing as the bitter and damaged Connor, who still wrestles with the fact that “winning” has left her with nothing.
As terrific as Hamilton’s presence is—and some heavy psychic costs her internalized performance evinces—Sarah Connor isn’t written with any incisive attention to character. Mediocre dialogue tends to mar the film, and one line of dialogue tells us that Sarah’s traumatic past has pushed her to alcoholism, but we never see her wrestle with that issue, even when one character puts a drink in her hands. And director Tim Miller (“Deadpool“) bobbles one of Hamilton’s scenes with the greatest potential dramatic heft. It’s not a spoiler to say that Sarah Connor has to reckon with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator once again—and this could’ve been the emotional essence of the movie— but Miller doesn’t seem to know how to guide their first interaction, which ends up flat and formless as a result.
Like the umpteenth reboots of a popular superhero franchise, ‘Dark Fate’ knows that we know the origin story, but still feels compelled to tell it all over again regardless. It does so at such a fast enough clip, one might think there’s some additional depth at the far end of the story’s pool, but the end only features more shallows. As we learn more about the future in which Grace and the Rev-9 developed, implied questions about the inevitability of humanity’s dangerous relationship to technology are teased, but left hanging. Similarly, Scenes set at a Mexican/American border crossing and in an immigrant detainment camp are almost ironically devoid of content — they ground ‘Dark Fate’ in 2019’s discourse, but are no more than temporal context. ‘Dark Fate’ takes a great step by featuring multiple Latin actors in lead roles of a studio tentpole — especially one in which many scenes feature Spanish language dialogue — but the border crossing scenes are frustratingly disconnected from any thematic context. Ultimately all concepts beyond some tenuous ideas about the dichotomy of choice and fate, take a back seat to action set pieces.
All of which would be fine if ‘Dark Fate’ had anything of its own to offer. Davis is as fully invested in Grace, her fighter from the future, as it’s possible to be, but there’s ultimately little about Grace to remember, outside of what Davis brings to the role. The same goes for nearly every other character in the film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s aged Terminator has the most meat on the bone, and ironically, Schwarzenegger is the member of the cast least equipped to capitalize on his character’s development.
This sequel is explicitly connected to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” but nothing here is as lean and muscular as the filmmaking in either of James Cameron’s original movies. This isn’t to say that ‘Dark Fate’ is flabby; it imitates Cameron’s propulsive, energetic action filmmaking thrillingly, but only up to a point. Tim Miller seems to understand that the Terminator formula works best as a monster chase that is continuously on the go — if there’s room to tuck a human moment into the thin space between set pieces, that’s great, but if not… oh well, move on. Around the halfway point, however, ‘Dark Fate’ gives itself over to a churning cycle of set-piece setup and execution that forces out even slim moments of character. Hamilton, Reyes, and Davis do everything possible to inject emotional energy into this slashing, crashing sequel, but in the end, even their efforts are ground up by the action movie machine. [C-]