Starring: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Diego Boneta and Gabriel Luna
Written by: David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes & Billie Ray
Directed by: Tim Miller
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Reviewed by: Rob Vaux
Linda Hamilton, Linda Hamilton, Linda Hamilton.
Linda Linda Linda Linda.
Honestly and truly, that’s the single best reason to catch Terminator: Dark Fate, and a strong foundation for its early reputation as the best Terminator film since T2. That may be faint praise considering the steep cliff the franchise fell off once James Cameron left the director’s chair. “Best since T2” doesn’t mean “as good as T2” (or the original Terminator for that matter), and while this entry does just fine as stand-alone entertainment, it can’t quite reach those canonical heights.
On the other hand… Linda Hamilton.
Conventional wisdom always held that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the straw that stirred the drink of the Terminator films, and that Hamilton (and frankly Michael Biehn) were nice, but not necessary. Dark Fate blows that notion out of the water the moment she sets foot onscreen. Schwarzenegger returns too, of course, and this version of his T-800 carries a few wrinkles in his past that make the effort distinctive. But he’s playing second banana this time, with Hamilton’s Sarah Connor stepping up to the lead like she was born to it.
The specifics of the story are laden with spoilers, though suffice it to say that the plot manages to honor the spirit of Cameron’s original films and find some new things to do with the concept. Connor and her cohorts did indeed stop Judgment Day, but the threat of destruction by artificial intelligence hasn’t abated; it’s just been kicked down the road a bit. And once again, it sends a human-appearing minion (Gabriel Luna) back in time to kill the new Mother of the Future – in this case, a Mexico City auto worker (Natalia Reyes) – with a human resistance soldier (Mackenzie Davis) sent back to keep its target safe.
The biggest knock against Dark Fate is how closely the structure adheres to the original Terminator. The surface details vary – Davis’s protector is cybernetically augmented, for instance, and the bulk of the action takes place in Mexico – but the road map beneath it sticks so close to formula you can almost set your watch by it.
The good news is that director Tim Miller invests enough care and attention to those details to make them worthwhile in and of themselves. It starts with the action scenes, which show a creative flair lacking from the series for a long time. Miller thinks three-dimensionally when plotting out the set pieces – call it the “Gravity is Fun!” Factor – and makes full use of the surroundings that juice up what sometimes amounts to a couple of cyborgs pounding on each other.
The storyline sticks to similarly lean principles, and the script finds clever ways of updating the basic Terminator notion to the 21st Century. Hiding becomes much harder when the killer seeking you can tap into every drone and traffic camera in the world, for instance, and the forces of authority – inept and helpless, as always – are largely immigration officers here. The film has no interest in overt politics, but certainly doesn’t mind appropriating the zeitgeist of the moment to enhance the franchise’s long-standing themes of paranoia and pursuit.
And whenever the film really starts to wobble, Hamilton steps up to steady it. Sarah is steely and no-nonsense, as expected, but the film finds an interesting way of bringing her back into the fray, and the screenplay ties it into the larger story with a fair amount of elegance. Hamilton plays her with a bit of a chip on her shoulder – someone who never quite forgave the universe for denying her a normal, killbot-free life – and the film hits its high points when it just steps back and lets her do her thing.
The Terminator franchise never really broke free of the basic repetitive formula of heroes being chased by an implacable foe. Dark Fate succeeds because it seems to have learned that lesson, and commits to making the chase interesting instead of futilely trying to expand a universe that really doesn’t have much more to it than that. The resulting story feels lean and tight, and with the action carrying some distinctiveness, Dark Fate grows beyond a simple act of nostalgia into a fun ride in and of itself. It can’t match the first two entries in the series, but judging it on those terms denies the very real pleasures it works hard to offer. Ironically, by doing things the same way, it breathes new life into the series, and while I wouldn’t push my luck on that front, there are far worse ways to close the franchise out than with a solid bit of popcorn like this.