Here we go again. This is a phrase that can be uttered (silently, out of respect to fellow viewers) to many aspects of Terminator: Dark Fate. Sometimes it may be uttered with glee, other times with impatience or even exasperation. On the one hand, it demonstrates the continued appeal of James Cameron’s original creation. On the other, it speaks to the dearth of original ideas in mainstream Hollywood productions, with safe bets of sequels, remakes and other forms of recognized properties dominating the multiplex. To take Terminator: Dark Fate on its own merits, though, it is fair to say that this is the best Terminator film since 1991. While that is damning with faint praise, it’s not to say the film is not worthy of praise.
In its original incarnation, the Terminator is/was, a great premise. Future war, time travel, artificial intelligence, explosive action, the blurring line between man and machine, the larger relationship between humanity and technology. While 1984’s “The Terminator” and 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” remain classics of, respectively, exploitation sci-fi-action-horror and sci-fi-action-blockbuster, classics that use the premise imaginatively and to great effect, the subsequent sequels demonstrate that a premise only works when connected to a decent story. Terminator: Dark Fate demonstrates that the best stories were used in the first two films, and largely replays them. But it replays them well and makes a virtue both of its updates and innovations.
After an effectively shocking opening, the story plays out much as we have seen before. There is the future war (again), time travel (again), an artificially intelligent unstoppable killing machine sent back in time to terminate the future resistance leader (again), a lone protector (again), the line between human and machine is blurred (again). In addition, Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Killing Gunther”) is monotonal (again), big (again) and learns things about humanity (again). Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is cynical and the baddest ass-kicker around (again), but on the plus side (both as a positive and as something added) it is pleasing to see a woman of Hamilton’s age given such a prominent role in a mainstream action film.
Indeed, the gender politics are probably the best part of the film. Three independent, authoritative women of agency drive the narrative: Sarah, Grace (Mackenzie Davis, “Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town”) and Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, “Running with the Devil”). Furthermore, one of them is a woman of color, as Dani has an arc as important as that of Sarah and Grace. Dani’s race is also important, and the film is to be applauded for placing a Mexican character at the center of the drama who is rounded and non-stereotypical. Furthermore, Dani’s character ties into wider concerns around immigration, as at one point she comments on her fellow travelers being “so white” as they attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the US. Thus ideas of what is “Other” are problematized and straightforward assumptions about “Them” and “Us” questioned. Consequently, the film is very much a Trump-era action film. Our heroes are on the run not only from the latest terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, “Bernie”), but must also contend with US immigration, while a key set piece takes place in a detention center. In addition, the role of women in this film is far more than symbolic, as one character mentions, there is no need for “some man” as the three women prove themselves capable of handling the action while most of the men serve institutions in ways that are at best an obstacle and worst a danger.
As an action film, director Tim Miller brings a panache similar to what he did with “Deadpool,” but his shortcomings demonstrate the remarkable skill of James Cameron in delivering sustained set pieces. After nearly 30 years away from the franchise, Cameron returns as producer and co-storywriter, along with Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer and Justin Rhodes, while Goyer and Rhodes along with Billy Ray share screenwriting credit. Miller and his second unit stage a highway chase, an airplane battle and a clash in a hydroelectric dam, all of which offer plenty of smashy-crashy spectacle. But these set pieces feel disconnected from the main thrust of the narrative, lacking connective tissue. Compare them to the continued chases that make up the finales of “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and Miller’s efforts feel under-powered.
But while it is natural to compare Terminator: Dark Fate to what came before, it is far from an incompetent action film (yes, “Terminator: Genisys,” we mean you). While the action is unremarkable, it is effective. The characters may be familiar, but they are used in ways that make sense. The performances are all fine, especially Arnie himself who finally gets the balance right between deadpan and self-parody. Rather than over-egging the comedy, Schwarzenegger maintains the monosyllabic delivery of his original terminator, but with often insightful and even funny lines (a discussion about drapes is a hoot). Furthermore, his character raises an interesting existential question: What happens when your purpose is complete? The film’s exploration of this concept is only referred to in passing, but it again demonstrates this franchise’s interest in questions of technology and humanity, which are interesting questions beyond the immediate narrative of the film. Indeed, such questions may point to the continued success of this franchise — even when individual installments are less than stellar, there are still enough questions to get us thinking and wanting more.
More would be welcome in this film, as the blurring between human and machine is taken in a new direction but only superficially. That said, Miller does infuse the set pieces with a more balletic and fluid style of action, allowing for something more than metallic clunking. The nods to earlier installments such as iconic lines (someone will be back) as well as locations such as industrial sites being used to new effect, not least the incremental yet relentless march of technology. Combine this with the the timely and even progressive gender and racial politics, and Terminator: Dark Fate does succeed as a film of its time. It may not achieve the classic status of Cameron’s efforts, but in a cinematic landscape prominently occupied by sequels, reboots and remakes, where the heaviest hitters are superheroes, there is something pleasantly nostalgic about a continued series like this one that still has some meat on its metal armored chassis.