Director Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate is a welcome addition to the Terminator franchise – in fact, you can say it pretty much saves it. After the last three progressively weaker Terminator films (Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys), Dark Fate ups the ante by bringing the story back to where it all began – Sarah Connor (a phenomenal Linda Hamilton).
Working with a writing team that includes James Cameron (who also serves as a producer), Miller makes this Sarah’s cathartic story. Early on in the film (can’t divulge the spoiler) we learn that whatever has come before gets reset, so that what we remember happened is no longer the way things are. This is similar to J.J. Abrams’s departure from the Star Trek story line we had all become familiar with from the original TV series and the films with the original TV cast. Abrams invigorated that franchise by deviating from its established history, and Miller does the same thing here with impressive results.
We have to wait for it a long time – well into the second hour of the film – but when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s grizzled T-800 says the words “Sarah Connor,” it is worth the price of admission alone. It is a priceless moment, and the choice to go with these older actors instead of doing the CGI thing that ruined the third through fifth films in the series is a wise choice.
Hamilton is at her ass kicking best here, showing the same maternal instinct that fueled her actions in T2: Judgment Day when she did everything that she could to save her son John (Edward Furlong). She also displays some vulnerability like the young girl in the first Terminator who couldn’t understand why she was being hunted by a homicidal maniac. Hamilton’s current Sarah has been bruised, battered, and bloodied, and her face is a road map of what she’s been through. Yet despite all that, she is beautiful in her ferocity and integrity.
Her new charge is young Dani Ramos (a terrific Natalia Reyes), who is very much like Sarah in the first film. She is living her life one moment, and the next she is being hunted by a madman who is trying to kill her. This version of terminator is known as a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), and like those that have come before him (he is most reminiscent of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in T2) he is a relentless killer that will let nothing stand in his way.
Of course, in keeping with the Terminator tradition, a protector is also sent back in time to save Dani, this time in the form of Grace (an outstanding Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced human warrior who can throw a punch almost as devastating as the Rev-2. Grace is as relentless a protector as Rev-9 is an attacker.
The advantage that Dark Fate holds over its predecessors since T2 is that the story here is engagingly human. Hamilton’s cranky, bitter, and angry Sarah has earned the right to be this way, and every word she speaks seems to carry the heft that she carries, a burden that cannot be assuaged by the fact that she saved billions of people from that judgment day so long ago.
Reyes and Davis also bring this humanity to their roles. Despite all the fighting and bleeding and shooting, it boils down to a sisterhood of Sarah, Dani, and Grace that is credibly formed and sustained throughout the film. Dani’s shock and disbelief that she – a self-confessed nobody – could matter so much in the future that someone would send this machine back to kill her is achieved with grace and dignity.
Davis’s Grace is tough as they come, but flashbacks provide her own origin story as to why she was the one sent back to protect Dani. They form a believable bond, so much so that each time Dani’s life is on the line, there is never a question about what lengths Grace will go to in order to protect her.
The fact that Arnold’s T-800 is brought in late the game works in the film’s favor. In the first two films it was Sarah Connor’s story, but the T-800 loomed in the first as the main antagonist and in the second as her protector. Here he comes in to help the triumvirate in their battle against the Rev-9, but it’s Sarah’s reaction to him in various scenes that carries the most weight.
The rest is spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that there are enough battles throughout the film, and a dynamic third act that keeps up with the nail-biting endings of the first two films.
Beyond the characters that we come to care about, there are the bigger questions looming over the film. Why do humans, despite multiple opportunities to avoid destruction, continue to engineer it to happen again and again? Instead of making the protection of human life its highest priority, why do the powers that be continue to create increasingly more powerful and indestructible robots that will inevitably be the source of annihilation of the human race? The film asks these questions rhetorically, but they are disturbing enough and explain the expression on Sarah Connor’s face every time she looks at the T-800 or the Rev-9.
The pounding music, special effects, and the big bangs are all here for Terminator fans who have been waiting a long time (1991) for this franchise to get back to where it came from. This film deviates from the established story line, but in a way that not only makes sense but also redeems the franchise.
Terminator: Dark Fate is highly recommended and the best entry in the franchise since T2.