Terminator: Dark Fate Has Better Humor Than Action (Movie Review)

She’s back. After nearly three decades Linda Hamilton, the original Sarah Connor, has reteamed with James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger for Terminator: Dark Fate, a direct follow-up to the iconic 1991 game-changing blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The film that flipped the script, setting a high bar for sequels. Is the Cyberdyne Systems 2019 model on par with the first two?

While the 80s saw an explosion of terrible yet profitable cash-grab sequels (basically any slasher flick or sex comedy), it was also an amazing time for studios trusting a few filmmakers with expanding on what made the originals hits. This was when the “sequel is better” mantra fit. The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Superman II (1980) and Aliens (1986) were critical and fan favorites.

In 1986, James Cameron took a horror film with an unforgettable monster and delivered a sequel that played more like an action film with hundreds of xenomorphs, Aliens. For a sequel to his own a sci-fi slasher hybrid, The Terminator, he came up with an incredible idea. Cameron utilized three central tenants: Sarah Connor would now be a badass, Arnie’s T-800 would now be a hero, and a new villain, Robert Patrick’s T-1000, would be created using computer-generated effects so eye-popping Hollywood would be forever changed.

The plot would follow the same structure (a chase film), but T2 was big-budget entertainment in a way the smaller-budgeted 1984 original wasn’t. And it was a huge hit. Arguably the best action sequel ever made. It would be twenty-five years until Mad Max: Fury Road would challenge such a mantel.

Back in 2003, I liked Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines a lot. Yes, the female terminator was just okay, but the rest of the cast, including Claire Danes, Nick Stahl, and a returning Schwarzenegger, clicked. Plus, the use of practical FX for many of the stunts impressed. The opening firetruck car chase sequence is still one of the best barnbusters of the early aughts. The Beneath the Planet of the Apes-inspired closer was pitch-perfect nihilism.

Sadly, the other two Terminators were near-franchise killers. So, with Cameron getting the rights back to the franchise he created and getting Hamilton to reprise her iconic role, I was stoked… but also cautious. As Cameron was not directing, I had hopes Deadpool’s Tim Miller could deliver. And yet, Dark Fate is a mixed bag with the blame on both Cameron and Miller.

First off, there’s the story, which Cameron shares credit (Slight spoilers ahead). It turns out that Sarah and the gang did stop Judgment Day (retconning the other sequels out of existence), but, in neat twist, Skynet had actually sent multiple Terminators prior to kill John Connor. After an effective opening making great use of Sarah’s speech from the mental institution in T2 (“They fly apart like leaves!”), we see another T-800 complete its mission. Sarah is devasted, but destroying the chip at the end of T2 still averted Skynet.

It’s a smart way to use Arnold later in the film without taking back the whole end of the world thing. I loved this. Cameron stayed committed to not rebooting Skynet.

Sort of.

Even though Skynet never came to pass, another A.I. program did. It sends a new kind of Terminator back not to kill John but to delete a young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from existence. This leads to another protector, Grace (McKenzie Davis), an augmented human sent from the future to save her.

The first half of the film is basically the same movie we’ve been seeing since 84’. Sarah shows up to aid our new timeline heroes. Rinse and repeat. That would be fine if the stunts were as incredible as they were in the first three films. Sadly, they are not. Not even close. Miller’s framing of action features way too many cuts, and all of the CGI distracts.

Sarah does have a great introduction, as she fires off a missile and uses a firearm on a freeway to take out a new Terminator. This would be the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), which can split in two: one liquid metal, the other a traditional exoskeleton. Beyond this introduction, however, it’s a pretty generic first hour.

Thankfully, once Arnie shows up, things get a lot better. And funnier. I won’t spoil this portion as this is where the film has some interesting evolutionary beats for the characters. That said, seeing Hamilton and Arnold onscreen does not disappoint. There is a looser, more human vibe in their interactions. It left a big smile on my face.

But here’s the thing: everything I liked could have stayed while a much more original take on the Terminator tropes could have been explored. For example, if there’s no more Skynet, great, but don’t just rename it Legion. I get how the structure of these films is limited to big chases, but honestly, ANYTHING from a new future path could have been better.

Why not a future affected by the world we live in now? Maybe the Terminators have Instagram apps installed, so the A.I. has way too many followers making it impossible for Sarah and her crew to hide. Or perhaps the future A.I. wants to protect Grace, which leads to Sarah questioning how that could be. Or heck, maybe this third entry really should have leaned more into the comedy, flipping the script entirely.

Despite wanting this to be a great film that could stand alongside the first two, Dark Fate is still fun matinee entertainment. The cast ranges from solid (Davis) to quite good (Hamilton). Like David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), I loved seeing three strong women onscreen (plus Arnie) for the bulk of the run time, which automatically makes it refreshing over the dudefest that was Terminator Salvation. So this sixth entry is par with Rise of the Machines. It’s for entirely different reasons, but it’s decent enough fun.

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