In what was designed to be a direct sequel to James Cameron’s marvelous one-two punch of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator: Dark Fate brings Cameron back into the fold as producer and with a story credit (David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray all share screenwriting credit), with Deadpool director Tim Miller at the helm. This epic action journey could easily wrap up this decades-long franchise, or simply kick start a whole new series of films with a new hero at the epicenter.
As you likely know, Cameron isn’t the only familiar name making an appearance in the new Terminator film. A battle-weary Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) returns more than two decades since she saved the world from Judgment Day and changed the fate of the human race. But as we find out in a flashback sequence (full of de-aging technology) at the beginning of Dark Fate, being the savior to billions of humans wasn’t enough to keep her life from turning tragic, and she’s spent her life ever since looking for any signs of new Terminators coming back from the future, seeking new targets that might change the course of humanity.
In a twist that seems wonderfully deliberate, the new target in need of saving is a young Mexican woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who works in an American car factory in Mexico City along with her brother. Much like the original Terminator, two beings arrive from the future—the first is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced human super-soldier and classic warrior woman; the other is the latest breed of Terminator, a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), whose gelatinous form really does resemble Venom at time, but he seems indestructible and can even separate his metallic skeleton from his body when he wants, effectively creating two lethal death monsters. The Rev-9 has targeted Dani for reasons unknown, but those attempting to protect her assume it’s because one day she will give birth to the savior of the human race the same way Sarah did.
Miller directs a half-dozen or so truly spectacular, high-energy action sequences, from vehicle chases to foot chases to one impressive sequence involving two massive planes ramming into each other and an ensuing fight that takes place in zero gravity while the planes plummet to the earth. In true Cameron fashion, each action set piece is bigger and bolder than the last, and each of the players, but especially Davis and Hamilton, gets the chance to really shine in these physically demanding roles. So much so that when Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up late in the film as an aging original T-800 model, it borders on anticlimactic because the women have so established themselves as capable of surviving attack after attack. If anything, the T-800 (now named Carl) is needed more for his know-how than his fighting ability, which is not to say that he doesn’t get a chance to kick major amounts of ass.
As with any action movie, sometimes the lead characters make dumb choices. Even though Dani knows that her survival is key to saving the planet from a new brand of robot takeover, she still routinely risks her life to save one person. Some might say this proves she’s a caring person (she certainly is that), but it also illustrates that she’s capable of being a short-sighted dumb-dumb. But as a captivating performer, Reyes (the Colombian-born star of the sensational Birds of Passage from earlier this year) is the real deal. She can handle the action moments with authority while also playing overwhelmed and innocent about the prospects of the world to come. Meanwhile, Davis (the standout star of AMC’s series “Halt and Catch Fire”) seems built for this type of role—devoted, ready to do battle, and with a clear eye on her purpose in life.
For the most part, Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t attempt to re-create moments from the first two films, outside of a familiar line or two. There’s a real effort made to allow the film to be its own entity, even if we still have to have the final battle happen in a place that seems designed to crunch robots. I might even be so bold as to suggest that I could easily see a version of this story that didn’t bring Schwarzenegger back into the fold at allI—it seems more obligatory than necessary, which is not to say it isn’t great to see him remain a part of these films. But when you hear the explanation as to what he’s been doing since his last encounter with Sarah Connor and how he hasn’t been discovered, it seems like a lot of extra storytelling is happening that we don’t really need to know. It’s a small complaint, but it does stand out a bit from the slick nature of the rest of the movie.
It’s not a great movie, but at least it’s not the embarrassment that some of the previous installments have been. And I think it’s a worthy chapter in this story, whether they end things here or risk moving forward with more Dani-centered tales.
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