Film Review: “Terminator: Dark Fate” Resets the Narrative in a Wild Ride

Film poster: “Terminator: Dark Fate”

Terminator: Dark Fate (Tim Miller, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

James Cameron’s The Terminator, released in 1984, was a taut, relatively low-budget sci-fi thriller that found the perfect use for its Austrian lead baddie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who managed to turn his heavy Germanic accent into a virtue, delivering lines alternately comic and menacing with perfect deadpan. That film was followed by the 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (aka T2), also by Cameron, which continued the saga of actress Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor as she once more defended her son John – the future leader of the anti-Artificial Intelligence resistance – from assassination by a cyborg from his adult self’s time. The twist in the sequel was that Arnold was back – as per his signature line – but this time on the side of good, his prototype having been reprogrammed to protect John Connor from the predations of a newer, shapeshifting model. Both movies benefitted from Hamilton and Schwarzenegger’s charismatic screen presences, a killer script and excellent directorial pacing.

What followed was less noteworthy, so much so that I can no longer remember the plots of entries #4 and #5 (and I have no comment on the 2008-2009 TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I have never seen), though #6 – the 2015 Terminator Genisys – is easier to recall, given its recent release. I enjoyed that film (though my fellow critics did not), but it was still far from the action perfection of the first two. It turns out that the keepers of the franchise felt the same way, preferring to jettison everything post-T2 and bring back James Cameron to help write what is effectively now T3, or Terminator: Dark Fate. Forget those forgotten timelines, then, sit back and have a decent time watching an entertaining, if hardly brilliant, new interpretation of the series. If nothing else, it’s a joy to welcome Linda Hamilton into the fold again, returning as Sarah Connor to take on the cyborg menace for another go. Schwarzenegger returns, too, though it’s a bit odd to see an increasingly aging machine, complete with old-man gut. Still, his dry wit makes it work, and he is, as he always was in his best work, a lot of fun.

Linda Hamilton, badass extraordinaire, in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE ©Paramount Pictures

First, however, there are new characters to introduce, starting with Grace, a very lean and mean Mackenzie Davis (Tully), who appears – as do all travelers form beyond our time – in an electromagnetic burst that spews her, naked, into our time (as in the actual present of the movie’s release). But wait, you say, had they not defeated the future in each and every Terminator film? Sure, yet somehow, they always find a way to reset that future. In this movie, courtesy of a brief prologue, we find out, shockingly, how. So, here comes Grace, tasked to protect another resistance-leader-to-be, this one in Mexico City, and off she goes. With enhanced powers and seeming super-strength, she hardly seems human, though she insistently reminds everyone that she is, even if “augmented.” The actual cyborg – a “Rev-9,” which is an even more powerful shapeshifter than the T-1000 of T2 – is played by Gabriel Luna (Transpecos), and he is one terrifying opponent. It seems as if Grace’s job – to save Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, Birds of Passage) – is virtually impossible.

Fortunately, both she and Dani prove extremely resourceful, as does Sarah Connor when she shows up at a crucial point. And then there’s Schwarzenegger, living incognito as “Carl,” with human wife and stepson, selling drapes (source of some excellent humor). Once both he and Hamilton are in the picture, the film picks up comedic energy, though up to that point it has not lacked in wild, tour-de-force chase scenes and action, thanks to terrific mise-en-scène from director Tim Miller (Deadpool). In general, the film moves along at a brisk clip, only slowing down at the end with a silly underwater car scene and an extended bout of sentimentality attached to the inevitable end of beloved characters. Until then, however, Terminator: Dark Fate mostly delivers the cinematic goods, even as it mines its own past to recycle plot lines that worked once before so … why not try them again, right? Is it great? No, but it’s darn good for what it is.

Mackenzie Davis, also a badass, in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE ©Paramount Pictures

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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