After a slambang original and a game-changing sequel, the “Terminator” franchise has continued to stick around by tossing off another continuation every few years. Ranging from decent to abysmal, each was defeated by a stink of purposelessness that prevented them from feeling essential. Now, Paramount Pictures has returned to the well another time, with the take du jour being assembling the two original stars. Unimaginative and acquiescent as the project seems, the boost in star power and the impression of passing time that their return carries is enough to make it the series’ least unnecessary sequel since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
Like other franchise homecomings such as last year’s “Halloween” and the upcoming “Ghostbusters 2020,” director Tim Miller’s “Terminator: Dark Fate” makes the decision to forge its own timeline by directly following up the last well-regarded entry. After destroying the AI that would end the world, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) witnesses her son John’s murder at the hands of a Terminator sent from the future they prevented. In her mourning, she devotes herself to hunting other Terminators. Two decades on, her despair leads her to Mexico City where Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes) resides. A Rev-9 model (Gabriel Luna) has been sent by a rogue AI from the future to kill Dani. The human resistance retaliates with Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a soldier that has been enhanced with cybernetic powers. Sarah Connor helps Dani and Grace escape when they are first attacked. From there, it’s off to the races to figure out how to destroy the Rev-9 and for Dani to discover what her future holds.
For all the explanation the film’s twisted time travel shenanigans require, from both its characters and its audience, “Terminator: Dark Fate” manages to get back to the comparative simplicity of the franchise’s earliest films, putting its characters in tight binds and affording them very little humanity save for the skin of their teeth.
A back-to-basics approach has its limits though, especially when resting on laurels that have had nearly three decades to wilt. As with many belated sequels, a lot of “Terminator: Dark Fate” amounts to riffing on familiar scenarios and imagery. The battle-hardened warriors arrive in the present day in the nude and are forced to scrounge for clothing to conceal their identities. The biggest battles unfold in industrial settings where the surrounding metallic machinery serves as an extension of the combatants’ clanging parts. Someone coolly declares “I’ll be back” before going in for the kill.
The film rarely bothers to create anything for itself, instead sticking to the unadventurous comfort of a victory lap, and an unearned one at that. What few attempts there are to wrap the series’ mythology back into relevancy are paltry at best: a vague nod toward automation here, a prison break from a border patrol facility there.
James Cameron’s original “Terminator” film is his masterpiece: A lean, mean technical marvel that announced the finest action filmmaker of a generation. Tim Miller, on the other hand, directed “Deadpool.” With “Terminator: Dark Fate,” Miller fails to locate or even ape either the morose tragedy or grade-schooler glee of apocalyptic violence that Cameron balanced in his films. Miller has very little idea of how to get from one big set-piece to another, so there’s little tension or stakes once things start to explode. The flashback glimpses of the futuristic war between man and machine are the worst offenders, mostly unfolding in gray goop with the attempt to forward Dani as humanity’s great unifier falling flat on its face. It’s a lot to ask an audience to buy into, and none of it comes close.
Yet even a hack like Miller can’t manage to muck up the pockets of humanity that arise from this survival story. What gives “Terminator: Dark Fate” a leg-up over the many forgettable sequels that came before it is the joy it finds in these characters conversing with one other. Mackenzie Davis provides a huge upgrade in screen presence compared to the performances of actors such as Sam Worthington and Jai Courtney, the likes of whom this franchise has often defaulted to. And despite a regrettable disappearance from action films, Linda Hamilton hasn’t missed a beat in her years away. She can deliver a one-liner better than most tentpole stars of the moment.
The movie comes to life when it boils down to three strangers debating their next plan of attack and learning to find compassion for one another. The dynamic peaks when the trio reaches Connor’s contact, the aging T-800 unit that murdered her son (Arnold Schwarzenegger). After carrying out its directive, the killing machine has found a family and retired, spending his days tossing back Dos Equis and selling drapes. It’s a small role for Schwarzenegger but he’s a hoot, even when gargling exposition. There’s disarming patience and poetry to these moments that examine the lives that we can and cannot make for ourselves. As much as “Terminator: Dark Fate” is too little, too late for the series, it beckons back to the days when multimillion-dollar franchise maintenance could still be about human beings.