It’s 22 years after the events of Judgement Day. And new terminators, Rev-9 and Grace (Gabriel Luna and Mackenzie Davis), have been sent to Mexico City to eliminate or protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). They’re evenly matched against each other until an aged Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) tips the scales in favor of Dani’s savior. They’re on the run from this new assassin that can separate his metallic skeleton from his liquid metal guts, thus they enlist the original T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to permanently turn the tide of the future.
It’s first two installments laid the blueprints for the modern blockbuster, and yet the Terminator franchise has struggled to reach it’s former glory after peaking with Judgment Day. Salvation was a noble attempt to try something different, but it’s more remembered for Christian Bale’s on set rants than anything else. Genisys was a total clustermuck that tried to rewrite its own history and thus was banished to the realm of unfinished cliffhangers. This sits somewhere in the middle because after the rights reverted back to series creator James Cameron, a lot of elements have seen improvements with proper care.
Having Tim Miller (Deadpool) direct was a great idea. He’s proven himself capable of handling heavy action flicks and this has some of the most out of the box sequences in all the sequels. In fact it’s probably the best element in this quasi-reboot once Linda Hamilton comes out guns a blazing with the editing being very precise. It knows when to let a shot continue and how to use the camera to swing around every danger that comes its way, almost like a powerful 3D effect. The acting from everyone is equally strong. The humans are emotional and true to their characters, particularly Linda Hamilton as an aged Sarah Conner spewing so many swear words that she’d be a sailor in an alternate reality. Yet there’s still that sense of finding her humanity that’s been lost to time. She basically carries a good chunk of this movie and it really works…..to a certain point, but we’ll get to that later. And once she and Schwarzenegger collide they get the best dialogue for the rest of the run time whether the comedy is intentional or not. Mackenzie Davis as Grace is also up to snuff when sparring her personality with Conner. Meanwhile the machines are stoic, yet able to blend into their surroundings by mimicking their enemy. Once it’s revealed that this terminator can separate his liquid metal guts from his metallic skeleton, it brings out so much more possibilities on where the action sequences can go. No one’s gonna top Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in terms of threats, but it’s very close to the spirit of the series.
Unfortunately too much was sacrificed to bring this new installment to life and in retrospect there’s not enough good qualities to justify its existence. Most notably in the first five minutes where John Conner is killed and his mother, a military expert, fails to prevent it from happening. I know this is trying something different for a change after Genisys essentially erased almost everything, and that’s commendable with so many reboots these days on autopilot. The problem is that by axing John Conner, not only does it kill off the main drive of the series, but it also renders one of the best cinematic sequels of all time into a filler episode of your favorite television show. All the lessons each character learned essentially amount to nothing. What’s even worse is near the end, there’s a twist revolving around Dani and how she is the real leader of the resistance despite being the exact same chosen one, even though she more bait than fighting material in this entire flick. Part of that is because the new cast is forced to play back seat to Hamilton and Schwarzenegger, but if she got her chance to go one on one with the antagonist, it would’ve been more believable and worth Conner’s blood. But apart from some motivational speeches, nothing about her screams leader or fighter. Even the young, pink shirt Sarah Conner had to stand alone against the cyborg once Kyle Reese was killed in the original. If you need to tarnish your own legacy in order to prop up the new faces a la Turtles Forever, then you don’t deserve to stand alongside them. But why are you being so harsh on this compared to something like The Force Awakens? you might ask. Because as of this article, Star Wars only had to reboot itself once. While this franchise has been rebooted three times in one decade, and it’s starting to get aggravating to see it constantly restart without a clear sense of direction.
As for the addition of wokeness involving Grace as the new protector and the detour that touches upon border security, it’s complicated. Terminator pioneered the female empowerment message before it became oversaturated in this decade, so making the new protector a female isn’t too far off from tradition. But the stuff involving crossing the border to get to Texas is just thrown in for the sake of being marketable. Nothing about it feels naturally placed in the story and nothing benefits nor loses anything from the semi-commentary.
But if that’s how the writing is handled, what about the effects? Sadly, not even those live up to the high expectations of its predecessors. Sometimes they look great, but other times they look incomplete. There’s so many shots that have that polished computer animation look, that it comes off as incredibly fake when contrasting against the real actors. whether it’s every day people in motion capture or green screen effects to accomplish the impossible. The quintessential sequel relied on practical effects that could easily be confused for a computer like whenever the T-1000 was injured. And there was a shot where a real helicopter flew underneath a bridge: something that modern filmmakers would never think of attempting in real life. This is just CGI pumped to the max and there’s nothing that makes it stand out among today’s blockbusters. There are some scenarios where it would be impossible to accomplish with all practical effects, but most of the time it screams how fake it looks after setting the bar so high with less digital toys to play with. How ironic that the advancements in technology made this look worse than a 28 year old action flick with much more limitations on computer effects.
There are plenty of great ideas and tense moments that finally elevate this closer to its former glory, but ultimately Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t have enough strong material to make up for all the unnecessary sacrifices to its own legacy. Especially in the first five minutes that will piss off anyone who owns a Blu-ray or 4K copy of one of the best cinematic sequels of all time. While the set pieces, acting, and character interactions are engaging, it doesn’t make up for trashing its own legacy, relying too much on digital effects than animatronics, and especially sidelining the new cast when it clearly wanted to go in a new direction. It is the best post-Judgement Day sequel, but given the quality of past attempts that’s not saying much. And from a realistic perspective, Terminator doesn’t lend itself to be franchised because there’s only so many times a robot can come to the past and hunt someone down before it starts getting tedious. There are plenty of nostalgic properties that beg for a continuation after ending on a cliffhanger. This isn’t one of them. If you just want to see a movie that’s smarter than the average popcorn flick, there’s no harm in seeing it on the big screen. But if you really want a sequel that further develops old and new characters, just watch Judgement Day again to cleanse yourself of those first five minutes. Better yet, try the tv series The Sarah Conner Chronicles for a different spin. Because with the box-office returns on this, it might just be the last time this machine gets to see the light of day.