“It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves,” pronounced Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 cyborg about the human race in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. One could easily, if obviously, apply the same adage to movie franchises, inevitably doomed as they are to self-abnegation with each sequel, prequel, or offshoot, most adding asterisks to their cinematic reputations. So it goes with the Terminator films.
Where The Terminator and T2 were groundbreaking, its follow-ups have been either derivative (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), frivolous (Terminator Salvation), or self-parodic (Terminator Genisys), each signaling the series’s de-evolution toward relevance-free cash-cow status. But none of those films involved Cameron, who returns to the series as co-producer and story co-contributor for Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest attempt to dust off the old kill-bots and render them sellable to brand-saturated, special effects-numbed audiences. Even if Cameron’s hand here is visually negligible—nothing in the direction or color palette here evokes the steely quasi-noir atmosphere of the first two films—he’s left his imprint in one important sense: Dark Fate terminates its last three predecessors by abandoning their cumulative narrative timeline and acting as an “alternate sequel” to T2.
This was probably for the best given that Genisys possesses one of the most convoluted, unintelligible stories ever assembled for a summer blockbuster, scrambling and revising the chronology of the other films in a futile attempt to manufacture surprise and import. But while it wipes the franchise slate clean, Dark Fate proves no less confusing and pointless, contriving an often nonsensical narrative with generic set pieces bearing little trace of the classic Terminator atmosphere but all the desperation of a purely nostalgia-fueled project.
A major component of the nostalgia that Dark Fate banks on is the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, who opens the film with a voiceover: While she and her son, John, prevented an AI-orchestrated apocalypse in 1991, she was subsequently unable to save him from assassination by a Terminator presumably different from those in the first two films. (This raises a question the film refuses to address: If Sarah and John prevented Skynet’s takeover of the world, how could it send another Terminator to kill John, and even if it could, why would it need to do so at this point in the timeline?) Accompanying this voiceover are three blandly realized minutes depicting the assassination—set, incongruously enough, on a sunny beach—that fail to impart the emotional intensity of a tragedy befalling two beloved characters.
Fast-forward to the present, where a technologically-augmented human “super-soldier” (Mackenzie Davis) from the future lands—iconically naked amid a globular lightning storm—in Mexico City. Her mission is to protect one Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from a Terminator model Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). No Terminator film can resist contemporary technophobic commentary, and so the Rev-9’s first attempt on Dani’s life takes place after her boss at a car factory threatens to replace her co-workers with machines. A protracted chase follows and ends on a freeway, where the Rev-9 kills Dani’s brother (Diego Boneta) and Sarah Connor suddenly shows up to save Dani and the super-soldier.
Extended exposition clarifies these events: The super-soldier is named Grace and hails from an apocalyptic 2049 that diverges only slightly from the future Sarah and John nixed—the only notable change seems to be that in this other future, the self-aware AI system exterminating humanity is called Legion. Dani must be shielded from harm not for the sake of her unborn resistance leader son, as with Sarah in The Terminator, but—big twist here—because Dani herself will be the leader of the resistance. Sarah Connor, meanwhile, is a survivalist fugitive who hunts Terminators at mysteriously received map coordinates. (This raises several more questions. Namely, if Sarah hunts Terminators, and the non-Skynet timeline has been erased since the early ’90s, then why is the Rev-9 new to her experience?)
Serviceably naïve in The Terminator and a revelation of physical potency and focus in T2, Hamilton does well enough in reprising Sarah’s jaded toughness, but she also doesn’t have much to play off here. Where her overprotective love for Edward Furlong’s foolhardy John and her hesitant trust in Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed T-800 formed much of the heart of T2, equally poignant relationships are hard to come by in Dark Fate. Davis’s sinewy presence is an external match, but Sarah and Grace’s alpha-female contestation feels tacked on, only in the script by formula. Davis makes for a strange yet touching maternal figure to Reyes, but Reyes doesn’t fit with anyone anywhere on screen; she’s dominated by Hamilton and Davis during Dani’s initiation and utterly unconvincing when assuming her messiah role. Luna is defined entirely by the special effects that enhance the Rev-9, which includes, new to this franchise, the CGI-produced separation of Terminator exo- and endoskeleton. As a dispassionate cyber-killer, he fails to possess anything approaching the charisma of Robert Patrick’s eerily icy T-1000 from T2, still the gold standard of all non-Schwarzenegger terminators.
Speaking of Arnie, his reprisal of the T-800 role is at once odd and a little sad. Odd because it isn’t logical: For those who haven’t seen the too-revealing Dark Fate trailer, I won’t spoil the T-800’s place in the new Terminator universe, but suffice it to say that, while good for a few chuckles (self-aware campiness crept into the series starting with T2), the T-800’s development of a penchant for domesticity seems implausible even within the bounds of a Terminator film. And a little sad not because the 72-year-old Schwarzenegger is forced to intone an “I won’t be back” as a pragmatic punctuation mark to his T-career, but because Sarah’s antagonism toward this T-800, and the T-800’s subsequent attempt to redeem itself, isn’t earned. The Governator was last seen as John’s guardian and surrogate father in T2, and the version we see in the opening of Dark Fate doesn’t receive enough screen time to acquaint audiences with a new Terminator/Connor dynamic.
Am I thinking too much? Probably. Everything else in the film is perfectly passable: The action scenes, which include a plane crash and a fight on/in the Hoover Dam, are impeccably kinetic, and the stock character and narrative arcs diligently accounted for, down to the noble act of sacrifice that must conclude every Terminator film. But this is still a hollow enterprise: As in every entry after T2, palpable suspense is traded in for over-edited hyper-action, and nobody once stops to ponder the ramifications of humans transforming into cyborgs and cyborgs displaying humanity, as every Terminator movie past did to varying degrees of success. But perhaps that’s asking too much of a film like this: With a border-crossing trek and a detention center escape scene, Dark Fate shoehorns into its proceedings an unsubtle but fainthearted pro-immigrant message, and philosophical ruminations on The Singularity are far beyond its thematic scope. In the end, Dark Fate is a meek palette cleanser: good enough to redeem the bad taste that lingered from its predecessors, but too uninspired to make one want more.