Propulsive and iconic, the first two Terminator movies are peerless pop culture experiences. Casting and cutting-edge technology were only part of James Cameron’s genius. The tech and tone came together at the right time, when the film-making stars were aligned and not before. Everything good about Terminator: Dark Fate belongs to Cameron’s earlier movies. Everything else belongs to the ring of the cash-till.
A cyber-enhanced human, Grace, is sent back from the future to protect the life of Dani, a young Hispanic girl who has no idea she’s in danger. But she is. A state-of-the-future killing machine will stop at nothing to terminate her. Despite Grace’s super-soldier skills, the odds are uneven. On the run, it’s help from the past, not the future, that steps in. Bazooka in hand, Sarah Connor is back. But who’s texting her the co-ordinates of where the Terminator’s going to be – a friend or a foe?
Dark Fate’s strongest card is Linda Hamilton, the now sixty-something Sarah Connor, hard as nails and mad-as-hell following the death of her son John. Seamlessly segueing into her character from the first two movies, Hamilton is every inch the veteran robot-killer. A perfect f-you performance with guts and guns. But Mackenzie Davis brings a brilliant physical presence as Grace - lithe in action, a steely spirit in her eyes.
An early-on factory smackdown is tensely done. Bleeding straight into a freeway chase, it’s edgy stuff, ending with Hamilton’s ball-busting entrance. But even as the pulse pounds, echoes of the earlier movies dull the effect. Splurged by bullets, the Terminator (Gabriel Luna) oozes out, his gooey liquid metal contorting and regaining shape. In T2 (1991) it was a stupendous, even shocking, effect. Here’s it’s routine, throwaway. And repeated. Dark Fate brings no frisson of its own.
And it suffers too from SFX overload. T2 knew its effects would wow the audience. So it took them slowly, clearly, allowing the eerie horror to worm its way into us. Here a night-time plane-fight moves from sky-high darkness to a murky underwater splashdown. Both set-pieces are visually incoherent. Betraying the dead-hand of directors who can’t handle the action.
Helmer Tim Miller does have the superhero skit Deadpool to his credit. But Dark Fate lives up to its name, delivered in too much darkness and with a fateful unoriginality. Blandness too. Gabriel Luna lacks the villainous look and edge of Robert Patrick (T2). There’s nothing to fear. Schwarzenegger is cruising and amusing, comfortable as a well-worn biker jacket. And Natalie Reyes as Dani brings no fire or fight, nor any sense she might be the saviour of the world – as Hamilton surely did in ‘84 and ‘91.
Dark Fate does nothing new. Invoking the first two movies simply makes you think: ‘I wish I was watching those.’ And while it’s unique selling point now may be its “Me Too” trio of Hamilton, Davis and Reyes, it forgets that Cameron introduced women with agency when it wasn’t fashionable in Terminator 1 and 2.
So here’s a pitch for the next one: a gifted film-maker is sent back in time from the future to stop greedy corporations making unnecessary franchise sequels. Let the resistance begin.