The cycle began, like shopworn clockwork, ever since Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines brought the world-famous Arnold Schwarzenegger character back into movie theaters. Every five years or so, a new Terminator sequel arrives, usually intending to undo what the previous did and start a brand new trilogy hoping to re-invent the franchise for a contemporary audience. So far, the batting average has been distressingly low. Yet as disheartening as it can be to watch B-list director after B-list director attempt to revive the endless, apocalyptic battle between humans, evil cyborgs and reprogrammed-for-good cyborgs, The Terminator actually may be better-equipped to handle bad sequels than most. After all, what mistakes can’t be retconned away by time-travel or be blasted away be killer machines? Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t concern itself with that kind of temporal bookkeeping. It announces itself straight from its studio logo, intercut with footage of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) circa Terminator 2: Judgement Day, as a direct sequel to the first two movies made by James Cameron, whose name actually appears in the credits this time (with a story and producer credit not as director). Plot points from Rise of the Machines, Salvation and Genisys don’t apply here.
Erasing those increasingly misbegotten sequels from continuity is as simply as putting pen to paper and putting actors in front of the camera, or at least this movie thinks it is. Besides the fact that the franchise’s timeline is still a mess, there’s still the reality that those other sequels do exist, and even those who haven’t kept up with the full Terminator saga over the years may find Dark Fate a little familiar as a result. This new entry shares a grim status quo with Terminator 3, a character blurring the line between cyborg and human with Salvation and some hyperbolic airborne stunts with Genisys. But this isn’t Schwarzenegger’s triumphant return to his iconic role. What Dark Fate does have over its three predecessors is Sarah Connor herself, Linda Hamilton. Following her relentless Judgement Day-era protection of her son, future mankind savior John Connor, the new movie opens with Sarah experiencing a terrible tragedy, before jumping forward in time and following a different character. For a little while, Dark Fate plays like a loosely melded remake of Cameron’s movies, with factory worker Dani (Natalie Reyes) going about her day in Mexico City until she’s intercepted by a new shapeshifting Terminator (Gabriel Luna) and a new savior from the future named Grace (Mackenzie Davis).
Grace, who remains tight-lipped about the future purpose that this new Terminator wants to keep Dani from achieving, isn’t exactly a re-programmed cyborg like the T-800 from T2. She’s a heavily augmented human with enhancements lending her superhuman strength and speed, and hampered with a metabolism that requires heavy medication to keep her going. After a serviceable but exhaustingly long car-and-truck chase in the vein of, well, a bunch of other Terminator movies, Sarah Connor makes a blazing entrance to help Grace protect Dani. And soon the trio’s on the run together, with Sarah making occasional gloomy references to what her life for the last twenty-two years has been like: “I hunt Terminators and I drink till I pass out,” she concisely informs her new partners in death-avoidance. But we never get a glimpse of what the bleak day-to-day existence might look like outside of the hunting part. The closest thing Sarah has to a personality trait is that, out of paranoia of being surveilled, she carries her cellphone in a potato chip bag. I’m not saying I need long soliloquies about her inner turmoil, but just more than her saying a couple times that she’s been struggling.
Hamilton isn’t the only one who suffers from the hollowness. Characters in Dark Fate rarely have conversations in general. From the aforementioned explaining of traumas to doling out exposition, the characters often are nearly one-dimensional — Dani’s would-be personality involves her repeatedly touching people’s (and robot’s) arms while saying “I’m sorry.” While Mackenzie Davis arguably steals the movie as a real-solid no-nonsense, fierce asskicker alongside Hamilton, Schwarzenegger brings the movie’s shiniest glimmer of humanity, playing a slightly different version of this character than audiences may expect. Scenes with him and Hamilton have a crackle that derives not from the actual (weak) dialogue they’re given, but from the connection they and we recall from the earlier, better installments of the franchise. But his storyline is also one of the few genuine surprises Dark Fate has to offer, though the movie treats other, wholly routine plot turns like rollercoaster twists. More often, all it can manage is the jostling of its action sequences, directed with standard, occasionally bloated professionalism by Tim Miller — an odd choice, given how much Deadpool, his previous film, was dependent on wiseass attitude rather than a mastery of thrilling momentum. His new villainous Terminator can do more than ever; it can also look like a weightless little cartoon character in the process.
Even with the novelty of James Cameron’s approval, it’s still clearly overstated. The filmmaker did a round of late-breaking puff-press for the last entry of the franchise, Genisys, though he had no formal involvement with the making of that film. But even with his producing and story credit (the latter shared with four other writers) his presence still isn’t exactly felt. Dark Fate serves kind of as a case study for the difficulty of crafting a satisfying follow-up to a pair of certified classics, a process that seems to involve a constant back-and-forth between hopelessness and insisting that all is not lost. And with that, it’s hard to blame Cameron for keeping his old series at arm’s length. It’s also hard to stay interested in a franchise that looks, with each inessential sequel, more and more like a doomsday prepper rephrasing the same old prophecy. Centering more on the bang-pow than the characters and their relationships, Terminator: Dark Fate takes its overlong action set pieces and promising sci-fi ideas and safely skims over them.