It would be easy to compare the Terminator franchise to the Star Wars series, both being sci-fi pastiches done unfortunately well enough to warrant beloved follow-ups that took their goofy material straight-faced before descending into a series of mediocre to piss-poor sequels. But with Dark Fate, creator James Cameron’s return to Terminating (in a producer and storywriter role), it’s clear that The Terminator is more akin to Jurassic Park, a genre marvel that still holds up but quickly crumbles as its successors fail to capture the computer-generated innovation and newness of the originals’ slight conceits. It’s the same shit, but now it has none of the original anxiety, the CG isn’t that cool anymore, and there’s a gross analogy about a goat being slaughtered.
Picking up after T2: Judgment Day but actually just poorly re-hashing it, the latest Terminator, Dark Fate, opens on a dumb prologue that features original protagonist Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) seeing son John, humanity’s would-be savior and forgotten would-be Christian Bale, being shot by a Schwarzegger-model robot. In the franchise’s convoluted, ultimately meaningless understanding of time travel, the fact that Sarah stopped Skynet from ever coming together doesn’t have any more ownership or relevance than any of the hastily disregarded sequels. Turns out, while Skynet didn’t happen, another system (or company?—who the fuck knows), Legion, has managed to almost identically replicate the intellectual property of James Cameron. So, while apparently Skynet managed to send back a Schwarzenator to kill John Connor, it also stopped existing, gave way to the nearly identical Legion, and that has now sent back a different robot man to kill a different target that is the savior of slightly different but pretty much the same future.
This new robot man (Gabriel Luna) combines the powers of Arnie’s T-800 and Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in the most stupidly literal sense, though now charcoal-colored instead of silvery. He’s liquid metal, but that covers a metal skeleton core, and the two can separate to become two individual entities—the M.A.S.K. “Split Seconds” of Terminators. And this is for some reason a better idea than just sending, like, several robot men back in time to kill a single person.
This boilermaker of an android killer is after Dani, the new Sarah Connor, meant to save the future even if her 20-some lines can’t even come close to saving the film. Thankfully, she’s being protected by Mackenzie Davis’s Grace, the Kyle Reese of this remixed garbage, a cybernetically enhanced human who’s basically a bad-ass video game diabetic, requiring regular shots of insulin and other medication to keep her stamina gauge up. Inexplicably—i.e. on brand for the Terminator franchise—Sarah Connor and an aged Schwarzenegger-bot (who is not the T-800 who redeemed himself in T2 but the newer one who needs to also redeem himself for murdering John Connor a few months later for reasons unexplained) also join in on the mission to save this thinly-characterized heroine.
The return of Hamilton and Schwarzenegger should be reason for celebration, but they end up some wretchedly awful fan service. Hamilton’s Connor is treated like John McClane, a once-admirable normal person put in an insane action situation and now turned into an unflinching bad-ass, completely smothering their former humanity. It’s not even five minutes into her initial appearance before she drops an “I’ll be back” into a dullened void.
Meanwhile, since Schwarzenator already had his redemption arc nearly 30 years ago, it’s eye-rollingly absurd to see it forced again, here with NOT EVEN THE SAME TERMINATOR—just this new guy we saw in the prologue. And after murdering John, the guy apparently walks off, starts a business and buys a house with a single mom? Just as one has always wanted from a Terminator!
Making Schwarzenegger’s presence even more egregious is just how he contrasts the non-presence of our latest version of the cybernetic killing machine. Nearly silent outside a few impersonations, Luna’s T-what-the-fuck-ever never has anything close to a “hasta la vista” or an “I’ll be back,” and he’s certainly not an absurdly muscular Austrian freak. As made painfully obvious when he so naturally wears a 50-something dad’s teal t-shirt and yellow flannel early on, he’s just… he’s just some dude.
Mackenzie Davis is probably the saving grace of the whole thing, but that she’s named “Grace” is as miserably on-the-nose as the rest of the movie.
Despite the utter meaningless of all this, damned if Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t make a strained reach to stab its N64-hued spike-arm into relevancy. From non-stop (sometimes nonsensical) instances of smartphones, to drone warfare, to politically-charged looks at an ICE detention center, to a half-assed indictment of machines taking over human production work, this thing is pathetically desperate to modernize itself while having nothing to say about its update. And maybe that’s its most authentically Terminator aspect.
By consequence of its lazy setup, every successive Terminator movie forcibly asks, what’s the end then? And it applies to both the tireless, unending robots being sent back from the future and to Hollywood’s tireless, unending pursuit of running this franchise into the ground. The terminally interminable Dark Fate makes it more clear than ever that The Terminator is not a creature sent from the future. It’s a monster sent from 1984 that was meant to catastrophically end by 1997. As ever, the question is, how do we fucking kill this thing?
Terminator: Dark Fate
Director: Tim Miller
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 128 minutes
Cast: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta