TERMINATOR: DARK FATE Is A Dreadful Deathblow To The Franchise

This review contains spoilers for the opening scene of the movie, which some people might prefer to experience fresh.

This movie made me feel old. Not because the leads of The Terminator have aged into their golden years; this is right and natural and makes me feel good. No, I watched Terminator: Dark Fate and felt old because I’ve been through this ridiculousness again and again and again and again – it’s yet another movie that is trying to cash in on the success and popularity of the first two Terminator films and yet doesn’t seem to have a functional idea of what made those movies work. The movie makes me feel old the same way watching yet another generation think they’re the ones who are going to make polyamory work makes me feel old – I’ve been around, I’ve seen this, I know it doesn’t end well.

Like the three previous failed attempts at restarting the Terminator franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate has no idea what made The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day work. None at all. Like the previous three attempts – yes, there are twice as many efforts to restart this franchise as there are actually good entries in the franchise – this movie thinks that what we like are the robots, or maybe the time travel, and it definitely thinks what we like are big, metal-crashing set pieces. What it doesn’t understand is that The Terminator and T2 work not because of the scifi trappings or the action beats but because of everything in between them – the characters and the emotional story. This is why those two films are eternal, and why you’re possibly trying to remember what the previous three Terminator movies even were, or whether you saw them. 

The first Terminator works so well because it’s this brilliant merging of a horror story with a truly transporting and weird love story. The movie is basically the final 20 minutes of a slasher movie, where the killer is chasing the Final Girl, stretched over an entire movie, and infused with this sort-of creepy, sort-of swooningly romantic time traveling love story. The sequel is a story of friendship, about how two bizarre misfits grow with each and grow to love each other. All the banging and crashing around them is gravy – this is the rare action movie that makes people cry. 

There are no relationships in Terminator: Dark Fate. In fact the series’ core relationship – that between Sarah and John Connor – is severed in the opening scene of the movie, a Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within looking de-aged sequence set one year after T2. Sarah and John are chilling on the beach in Mexico when a T-800 comes out of nowhere and just kills teenaged John Connor. Sarah manages to tear off some of its face, but the T-800 calmly walks away, having completed his mission, leaving Sarah cradling the corpse of her son.

Then the movie jumps forward 22 years and gives us a taste of what’s to come – the rest of the movie will be The Same Shit, But With Some Cosmetic Differences. That’s a pretty popular concept for these sorts of unmotivated blockbuster sequels, movies that have no narrative or even character reason to exist, that get made and released only because there’s an IP to exploit and, by God!, the IP will be exploited. So we jump ahead and get the same story we’ve seen not only in the Terminator movies but also in various rip-offs, homages and riffs: a couple of people jump back from the future (the highways of time must be so crowded with people taking this trip) intent on either saving or killing a character who is vital to said future. Trying to kill the character is an evil robot, largely expressionless and utterly unstoppable. Every time there needs to be a small change to the robot, some kind of advancement to give us the illusion of narrative progress, so this time the T-1000’s liquid metal form has been put on top of a classic Terminator endoskeleton and they can split up and act independently of each other.

This is cool, you say, but it is not. It’s never utilized in any meaningful way, and it has the feeling of a boss ability in a video game, like a wrinkle thrown in to make the fight a little harder. There’s no narrative or thematic element to this splitting, and it doesn’t even seem tactically interesting. Then again, tactics are of no value in this movie, in which characters pump thousands of dollars worth of ammunition into a robot they know – for sure, without question – cannot be harmed by said ammunition. It just gives them something to occupy their time, I guess. 

Trying to save the character with a role to play in the future is a soldier representing the human resistance. This character gets two cosmetic changes – this time she’s a woman, and she’s also a cyborg.

Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, the augmented future supersoldier, and she’s the only interesting new element in this movie. Cyborgs are where this series needed to go, and at one point Terminator: Salvation was going to end with John Connor’s brain being implanted in a Terminator body. There’s a false duality at the center of this series, an idea that there’s a gap between man and machine, but the reality is that man is defined by machines and vice versa. What makes humans human probably stems from the way we began using tools and how that allowed us to evolve. Machines, as tools, are defined by their use to their creators. Man and machine are in an endless dance of co-existence, and Grace is a character who represents that.

Davis gives Grace that good future soldier weariness Michael Biehn defined in the first film, but the script gives her clunkers to say, stuff like, when asked what she’s doing to Sarah Connor’s phone to track incoming texts, “Future shit.” It’s a Twitter idea of cleverness, and that shallow level of wit permeates every bit of the script. Still, Davis is a good protagonist, sadly without much support. 

Opposite her is Linda Hamilton, returning as Sarah Connor for the first time since T2. But this movie doesn’t understand the films it’s aping, and so this Sarah Connor is, frankly, a bore. See, in T2 the big deal is that the callow young woman of the first film had turned into a hardened warrior. That was a real twist, and exciting advancement of the character. But in Dark Fate the reveal is that Sarah Connor is still a hardened warrior, except that she’s way more bitter now and also has a voice that sounds like it’s been run through a carton of Kools every day for the past two decades.

There’s no surprise in this. In Dark Fate we learn that Sarah has spent the past twenty years showing up where Terminators are falling out of the sky and dispatching them quickly. It’s a weird idea – would Skynet still be able to send Terminators back into a timeline from which they had diverged? Wouldn’t somebody in the government have noticed that there are super-advanced robot carcasses showing up? – but it never really goes anywhere except to create an image of Sarah Connor as a character in stasis. She hasn’t grown or changed in 20 years, she’s just been doing the same old thing. Hamilton is fine in the role, but there’s no zing to the part, and that’s disappointing when revisiting an iconic character like this. 

Of course people do jog in place and remain bitter, and I would be very into that if, as in The Last Jedi, the movie was interested in exploring this concept. But Dark Fate is not a movie about relationships, so there’s no room for Grace and Sarah to bounce off each other on any level beyond prickly banter; neither impacts the other in any meaningful way. To Sarah Grace is just another future soldier, while to Grace it’s not even clear what the fuck Sarah is doing in this movie, since the Terminators don’t care about her and her dystopian future has been overwritten by new events. 

There’s a story here! What happens when you spend your life preparing for the worst and the worst doesn’t happen? Last year’s Halloween touched on this, showed the fallout in Laurie Strode’s personal life. But Sarah Connor hasn’t had a personal life since the end of The Terminator, and she’s never transferred her obsessions to anything new. It’s actually very lucky for her that Terminators keep falling out of the sky (how fucking many did they send?) because it at least gives her something to do with her hands while she’s not changing as a person. But imagine if Sarah Connor had been forced to transfer that passion and obsession to something else, to some other kind of dystopia. There’s a great global warming analogy waiting to happen with one of these movies, the idea that we’re constantly battling a future we know is somewhat inevitable. But that isn’t what Sarah’s story is about. 

Rounding out the film’s three female leads is Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, aka John Connor But A Woman. She’s fine, but Dani is really just a package to be delivered by the main characters, and she doesn’t have a lot of space even as the movie bends over backwards in the final scenes to give her some action. There’s an interesting story to be told here, one that’s the opposite of John Connor – a kid raised to be a leader who gets to learn how to be a boy, while Dani is a regular woman who has to learn how to be a leader – but Dark Fate doesn’t tell it so much as it gestures vaguely towards it, mostly by giving Dani speeches to deliver out of nowhere. 

But this is a Terminator movie, and thus you need a Terminator. What we get is the return (yet again) of Arnold Schwarzenegger as another T-800. This time he’s the model who killed John Connor and then found himself trapped in the past without a mission and with the knowledge that his future was ended before it could begin. What does a killing machine in this situation do? He adopts a family and opens a drapery business, taking the name Carl. 

It’s ludicrous, but honestly it’s the most interesting thing in the movie, and it’s the only thing in the movie that speaks to the fact that we’ve seen five of these already. It’s the only element of this movie that feels new, and feels like it’s addressing something no previous film has addressed before – in a series about predestination paradoxes what do you do when your destiny doesn’t materialize? It’s the other side of Sarah Connor, and in a better film Carl and Sarah represent different answers to the same question. The whole movie, in fact, would be Sarah and Carl interacting. Those are the best moments in this movie, at any rate, and there are too few of them. 

I saw The Terminator in theaters on release, and if you had told me then – a 9 year old who tricked his Big Brothers volunteer into taking him to an R-rated movie – that Arnie would end up being the most compelling part of this franchise for the next 30 years I would never have believed you, but Dark Fate only comes alive when he’s onscreen. Arnold gets these movies, and he knows the exact balance of character to bring to what he’s doing. The movie pops to life as soon as Carl enters, and when Carl gets relegated to being a weightless CGI thing bouncing around the interior of a cargo plane the movie sags like a collapsed loaf of baking bread.

Maybe the movie comes alive during these scenes because they’re fun, and director Tim Miller knows how to do fun. After all, he directed the first Deadpool movie. But Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t give him a lot of space for fun. On top of that, a lot of the action lacks coherence and drive; there’s a big highway chase scene early on in the movie and I found myself kind of tuning out during it. Many of the hand-to-hand battles are chaotic in the wrong way, and none of the shoot-outs are fun because you know there’s not a bullet that’s going to make a difference. 

What’s crazy is that we’re six movies in and Dark Fate has zero by way of new ideas. This new Rev-9 model can become whatever it touches – why not a dog or a tiger? It has a metal endoskeleton, why not make it able to create a jetpack so it can fly? The Rev-9, played with stately calmness by Gabriel Luna (who is sometimes allowed to speak Spanish and is sometimes allowed to speak with a Southern accent), is just the T-1000 all over again, and there’s no sense that there’s an interest in trying anything new.

Even the dystopian future is the same dystopian future, except this time it’s Legion that is the AI, not Skynet. But everything else, down to the design of the Hunter/Killers, is exactly the same. The AI comes to the same conclusion, that it should send a Terminator (which it also invented just like Skynet did) back in time. It’s just the same old shit, and I don’t know how anyone could be excited for this same old shit, especially when you can just watch T2 on Blu-ray. 

What’s saddest about the film’s lack of imagination is the way that it undercuts the franchise’s own messaging. “There is no fate but what we make” is the theme, and it’s repeated here… except that the rise of Legion shows that fate is pretty much unstoppable and that no matter what happens the same goddamned nonsense is going to occur, just with a different name and on a different time frame. Nobody confronts this, and nobody is interested in what this means about the nature of the universe. Nobody even acknowledges that they’re trapped in some sort of cycle of diminishing returns. That could make an interesting story – Sarah Connor raging against this unbreakable cycle, battling against some kind of chronological singularity towards which all of reality is inexorably pulled. There’s no philosophy to this movie, and it’ll never leave us talking about fate or predestination paradoxes. 

But where the film really fails is the way it refuses to make anything interesting of its setting. In the course of the movie the heroes have to cross illegally from Mexico to the United States and they end up captured by the Border Patrol. Functionally this operates like the scenes where Sarah and Kyle were held by the police in The Terminator, basically a breather to give the Terminator a target at which to kill a lot of people. It could be so much more than that… but it isn’t. 

Imagine a version of this movie that tackled head-on the dystopian element of concentration camps on the American border. If Grace, the soldier from a post-apocalyptic future, looked around at the situation and declared it very similar to what was happening in her time, to what Legion was doing with captured humans. Imagine if this movie had something to say about the concentration camps, as opposed to just using them as a tacky backdrop for a setpiece. This is maybe what infuriated me the most about the film – not that it used real life misery, but that it couldn’t figure out how to use that misery in any way that would make the movie more interesting, thoughtful or meaningful. 

That, to me, exemplifies the sheer laziness of the film. I’d almost rather that the movie have presented some kind of grotesquely right wing view of the camps because that would, at the very least, mean the filmmakers cared about something, had something – anything! – to say. 

Can we now, after Rise of the Machines and Salvation and Genisys and now Dark Fate, accept that The Terminator franchise is over? That the story was told in the first two films, and that no one has since found a good reason to revisit these characters or this concept (I haven’t watched the Sarah Connor TV show, but I’m only talking about blockbuster movies here)? Can we collectively decide we’re finished with this, and maybe leave The Terminator – a movie that is frankly perfect – and T2 to be appreciated by generations to come? Maybe we can agree to leave this field fallow until all the original participants have passed away, and a new generation with a new perspective can revisit it? Judging by the box office, many people have indeed accepted that it’s all done.

The Terminator is unstoppable. But it looks like The Terminator is truly at its end. And good riddance at this point.