Friday, November 1, 2019


by Rob DiCristino
No fate but what we soft reboot for ourselves.

Minor spoilers ahead.

Terminator: Dark Fate is the kind of blockbuster-by-committee that confirms our collective culture’s continued lack of appreciation for the singular excellence of the first two Terminator films. Or maybe I’m wrong; maybe we do appreciate them, and — much like the characters in the franchise — we’re doomed to chase the impossible dream of recreating that magic for all eternity. Tim Miller’s effort, the fourth attempt to squeeze blood from a 30-year-old stone, sports story and screenplay credits by no fewer than six individual writers and comes from the Jurassic World school of soft reboots: Imitation over innovation. Give the people what they want, what they remember, and crank everything up to eleven! But hollow platitudes about destiny and nifty new cyborg designs do not a Terminator film make. By the time Dark Fate reaches its closing moments — moments that, I promise you, are meant to feel profound and weighted in the gravity of the human experience — I found myself marveling at its emptiness and gaining an even greater appreciation for the stories it bends over backward to imitate.
Ignoring all but the original Terminator and its sequel, Dark Fate picks up twenty-two years after Skynet was supposed to wipe humanity from the planet. Thanks to the efforts of Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong, the latter recreated through body doubles and CGI), however, Judgment Day never came. Instead, humanity persevered long enough for a new Terminator (Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9) to come through time to hunt a new target: Daniellea Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Dani doesn’t know why she’s being hunted, nor why an Enhanced Human from the Future (Mackenzie Davis as Grace) has been sent to protect her. It’s only after a battle-hardened Sarah Connor joins her party that she learns the truth: Judgment Day was inevitable, and she is destined to take over Conner’s place in the resistance. To get there, however, she must first defeat the shape-shifting Rev-9, which will require her to join forces with an aging T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) with a dark past of its own.

Like Creed, The Force Awakens, and, well, Terminator: Genisys before it, Dark Fate does everything it can to retain the look and feel of the series’ classic films while simultaneously passing the torch to a new generation. Linda Hamilton is the big draw here, of course, and her return to the Sarah Connor role has a few moments of genuine, show-stopping kick-assery. Hamilton hasn’t missed a beat; she’s still in fighting shape, still throwing middle fingers and hand grenades with the best of ‘em. Though she’s largely sidelined by CGI noise later on, we learn that Sarah’s post-Judgment Day journey has been filled with difficult, damning questions: What does a soldier do when there is no war left to fight? How can we make peace with a world that has taken so much away from us? Furthermore, what does the original Mother of the Future owe to her successor? Dark Fate flirts with compelling, thematically resonant answers to these questions, but it ends up trading her character’s emotional efficacy for her skills with a grenade launcher. Exciting as it is to have Sarah back, Dark Fate doesn’t have room for her when it matters most.
Arnold Schwarzenegger fares slightly better in his smaller part, and Dark Fate should at least get credit for coming up with a convincing reason for the 72-year-old actor to return to his signature role (the less said about Genisys’ “Pops,” the better). Left in an unfamiliar time with no mission to complete, this T-800 has spent decades learning about humans: their needs, their frailties, and Why They Cry. It’s an excellent premise — silly, sure, but sci-fi enough for the naked eye. More than that, it’s a real opportunity to expand on his Judgment Day predecessor’s journey, to imagine what may have happened if he’d been allowed to grow old with the Conners rather than giving himself over to the fire to protect them. But a faceless adopted family and a few lines of dialogue about choice and destiny are all Dark Fate can muster for character development before the Terminator’s burgeoning humanity becomes an excuse for comic relief. There simply isn’t time or space for anything else. Like Hamilton, Schwarzenegger is a victim of the screenplay’s self-destructive need to have its cake and eat it, too.
Mackenzie Davis is a bright spot, at least. The Halt and Catch Fire actress is a powerful screen presence as the cybernetically-enhanced Grace, and her bare-knuckled, acrobatic fights would be highlights of the year if they weren’t so clearly augmented by CGI. Again, though, her arc is stifled and confused by the scattershot writing: She’s saddled with Dark Fate’s most offensive narrative cheat, a lazy secret kept for a self-congratulatory third act reveal at the expense of Grace’s agency and character. Lazier still is the super soldier angle: She’s a super soldier on page one because the screenplay needs her to be one on page 110 (it doesn’t even need that, but we’re drifting too far into spoilers, now). The entire premise feels like an artifact of an early, perhaps pre-Arnold draft, and Grace would have been better served simply copying the Kyle Reese role from a new angle. She’s left with little else to do but punch Gabriel Luna’s Rev 9, a Terminator host to a Venom symbiote that can split its form in two when the story requires it. This is as cynical and pointless as it sounds, but Miller and company at least get credit for finally casting a person of normal build as the supposedly-infiltrating Terminator.

Which leaves only Natalia Reyes as Dani. One can see the appeal in casting the diminutive, unassuming Reyes as the neo-Sarah Conner. Consider Linda Hamilton’s own wide-eyed innocence during the first Terminator; she wasn’t exactly built for battle, either. But Dani isn’t written well enough to allow Reyes to convey her growth, and we’re simply expected to believe it happens because we’ve gotten to the part of the movie when it’s supposed to. She’s yet another victim of Dark Fate’s “And Then, And Then” approach to screenwriting: Most of its scenes and set pieces don’t grow organically from one another, and it’s hard to accept Dani’s importance among a crowded field of underserved characters, none of whom give her more than a few opportunities to assert that supposed importance. As Dark Fate comes to a close, we’re urged to reframe our perception of what a hero can be. We’re told that amends can be made and that new purpose can be found through perseverance and belief. We’re told that the End is always coming, and that, like Dani, we must always be prepared to fight. But if these are the heroes leading us to battle, then we should also be prepared to lose.


  1. But, but, but... It was supposed to be a return to the source.

    Seriously though, none of what you wrote surprise me, i saw it coming when the first trailer dropped. And the 'trend' of skipping the other sequels because you don't like them is annoying. It's a time traveling movie series, you can litterally have the events happen anytime you want

  2. Thanks Rob - great and accurate review. Now if only someone could throw Arnie a lifeline and put him in a good movie.

    1. I agree with that about Arnold. He's such a screen presence, he needs better roles. Paul Thomas Anderson should give him a call

  3. Great review, thank you. I'm going to watch the flick to see Linda Hamilton and Mackenzie Davis kicking ass, but this feels like just what you said, a real Alien Covenant situation.

  4. I have a feeling I'm going to agree with everything you wrote here and yet still have a great time watching it.

    You first paragraph could also aptly describe T3. And I kinda liked T3

  5. Hollywood is hell bent on turning every successful franchise into a "girl power" celebration. and to say it's been "hit or miss" would be an understatement.

  6. The Terminator franchise is dead. Bury it.