Terminator: Dark Fate review – apocalypse once more, with women to the fore

Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor takes charge of this familiar reboot of the techno-terror franchise, with old teammates Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron back for the reprise.

Michael Hale

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate

In recent years, the once imperial Terminator franchise has become reminiscent of its famously persistent killer cyborgs: emerging from box-office detonations and critical mauling to limp on relentlessly to the next instalment. In response to diminishing returns, Terminator: Dark Fate consigns the past three films to an alternate timeline (sci-fi speak for swept under the carpet), instead claiming direct descent from the James Cameron-helmed The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

Buoying the hopes of long-suffering fans, Cameron, with a story and producer credit, and Linda Hamilton, reprising her iconic role as Sarah Connor, return to duty here after a 28-year hiatus, while Tim Miller, who conjured up unconventional Marvel mega-hit Deadpool (2016), directs. The resulting film is broadly analogous to the Star Wars sequel trilogy: a tried-and-tested entertainment formula from the late 20th century attempting to reinvigorate and modernise while keeping ageing fans of the original on board.

Dark Fate adheres closely to the first two Terminator films both in terms of plot (a seemingly indestructible cyborg assassin, sent back in time by future machine overlords to eliminate a threat, is opposed by a more vulnerable warrior on the side of humanity) and structure (episodic cat-and-mouse action building to a decisive confrontation). The scope for any real originality is further diminished by set pieces and cinematography lifted from Cameron’s films – a staggered zoom towards a windshield during a car chase is straight out of Judgment Day.

Refreshingly, Dark Fate does offer a different slant on this well-trodden tale in terms of gender. It feels significant and inspiring to see the 63-year-old Hamilton playing an action heroine in a movie of this scale, and she is supported by equally impactful performances from Natalia Reyes, last seen in the superb Birds of Passage (2018), and Mackenzie Davis, who brings a believably rangy and powerful grace to concussive fight scenes. Other signs of the material being refitted for the present day include issues of immigration and surveillance making it into the script, as well as a Christopher Nolan-lite plot twist.

Over the six Terminator films, the abilities of the killer cyborgs themselves have escalated greatly as each edition aims to top what has gone before. Naturally, the antagonist in Dark Fate, the Rev-9 (played with menace by Gabriel Luna), has added bells and whistles that make it a spectacular and formidable foe. The screenplay does nice work in balancing out this seemingly unstoppable force without losing the tension of the chase, primarily by creating a team of flawed opponents who must work together to stand a chance.

One member of the team is, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, returning to his signature role as an outdated Terminator model that in this storyline has developed a conscience and is seeking to make amends for past violence. The Austrian Oak’s presence was apparently a prerequisite for Cameron’s involvement, and there’s no doubt that the film is stronger for it. However, there are several moments during his screen time when the knowing script strays dangerously close to parody, with callbacks to the earlier films and excessive stabs at humour.

Schwarzenegger’s cyborg developing moral sense is just one instance of the lines between man and machine narrowing in Dark Fate. The film also boasts cybernetically enhanced humans capable of physically matching Terminators, while the Rev-9 at times displays what appears to be an embryonic personality. Both the intriguing Terminator Salvation (2009) and calamitous Terminator Genisys (2015) have already crassly explored the same territory, but perhaps there is mileage in subtly amplifying this theme in future films.

Either way, some bold moves are needed. Despite its competence, Dark Fate can’t help but feel pointless.


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