by Rob DiCristino
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.
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.
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.