It’s understandable if you’re not all that interested in a new Terminator movie. After three sub-par sequels and nearly three decades, there’s no denying that the viability of the Terminator franchise is a valid concern. But there’s good news. Terminator: Dark Fate finally delivers the sequel we’ve been waiting for — a relentless, ass-kicking thrill ride that puts character front and center, and once again, makes the AI apocalypse imminently terrifying. Unequivocally, Dark Fate is the best terminator film since T2: Judgement Day and a long-awaited return to form for the franchise.
Directed by Tim Miller, starring Linda Hamilton, and created with input from James Cameron (who also produces and contributed the story), Dark Fate often feels like going home again. Miller hedges closely to the Cameron formula — so close, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if Dark Fate winds up facing a lot of the same criticism thrown at The Force Awakens. From the way he paces his plot beats and action scenes, the return of the original franchise’s iconic characters, and a whole boatload of references; it’s clear that Miller is taking the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach to reviving the franchise. And, honestly, it’s a good choice. Cameron’s formula ain’t broke for a reason; it works great.
Dark Fate also takes a note out of 2018’s Halloween playbook, ignoring all the sequels after T2 and bringing back the original star in Linda Hamilton, who returns to the role of Sarah Conner with all the grit, gumption, and yes, spectacular shoulders we know and love in the character. And she’s excellent. Ignoring everything after T2, and the decades that have passed since then, allows Dark Fate to explore new facets of the iconic character and by dropping her in a future that looks an awful lot like the one she sacrificed so much to prevent brings out new shades of Sarah Connor’s dark determination, wrapped in guilt and regret.
And as it was with Jamie Lee Curtis in last year’s Halloween, god damn it’s good to see the iconic character and actress back in action. Of course, Hamilton crushes it. The actress powers through the film with a grimace and unrelenting charisma, and it’s easy to see what all the other Terminator sequels got wrong that Dark Fate gets right. It’s not about the killer robots apocalyptic horror — OK, it’s not entirely about the killer robots and apocalyptic horror. The biggest reason Terminator and T2 are so special is because of Hamilton and her wonderful character, and the way those films pushed that character to the limit by dropping her in the middle of the impossible. Dark Fate is a smart enough movie to once again put character first.
And she’s surrounded by a handful of standouts in her own right. Mackenzie Davis co-stars as Grace, a human from the new grim future who takes on the Kyle Reese role and jumps back in time to protect the woman who’s the key to the future of the human race. Davis is extraordinary. From physicality to emotionality, she delivers a compelling and layered performance that lives up to the legacy of Hamilton’s definitive action hero, while going toe-to-toe with the original herself. Their chemistry, in particular, is delightful and electric, but Davis also has knockout chemistry with Natalie Reyes‘ Dani Ramos; the young everywoman who discovers much to her surprise that the future of the whole world stands on her shoulders. Reyes has a radiant screen presence, easily earning her space with heavy hitters like Hamilton and Davis.
Then there are those pesky terminators. Arnold Schwarzenegger is back again as the T-800, or ask he’s unironically called in Dark Fate, Carl. Good ol’ Carl. That sort of surreal humanization of such an archetypal cinematic badass is indicative of his role in the film, which is essential but probably smaller than you’re expecting, not to mention utterly charming. Schwarzenegger has come back to the franchise before, but this is by far the best use of his next-level charisma yet. On the other end, we’ve got Gabriel Luna channeling the Robert Patrick approach to hardcore scary robits as the big bad; a new shape-shifting model of Terminator that can split his human form from his robotic endoskeleton, leading to some excellent action set-pieces.
Across the board, Miller’s action is thrilling and precisely articulated. Miller fully embraces his Terminator’s unique skill set and builds his action scenes around those abilities, as well as Grace and Sarah’s, inventing thrilling and unexpected moments that punctuate his tightly constructed set-pieces with plenty of payoff. As a filmmaker, it’s clear that he’s a devotee of Cameron’s school of action, and he’s learned the technique well. The set-pieces move and they move the film forward too, making humanity’s fight for survival feel as ferocious and kinetically thrilling as ever.
Dark Fate isn’t quite a home run though. Like so many films these days, it’s indulgently long and that bloat is particularly noticeable in the third act, when over-extended set-pieces and drawn out resolutions sap the film of its potent energy. The film also treads a little too hard on its messaging at moments, explicitly spelling out some ideas that might be better presented through action than dialogue and hammering a bit too hard on those ideas. But they’re minor problems in a film that’s an overall jamming good time.
Bottom line, Dark Fate is the return to form for the beloved title that we’ve all been waiting for. The characters get their due, the action is top-tier, and the cast is aces. Miller understands the world he’s working in and embraces it fully, offering a new chapter for these beloved characters and, despite the grim title, promising a bright future for one of the greatest but long-suffering franchises in movie history.