One of the most insidious by-products of perpetual franchising is that it has somehow conditioned us to both anticipate and dread new chapters. There has not been a satisfying Terminator film since 1991, and yet most people welcomed the news of Terminator: Dark Fate with cautious optimism. This isn’t something we accept of, I think, damn near anything else in our lives. If I had a friend that I hadn’t been able to count on since 1991, you better believe I would stop asking them to hang out. Even music doesn’t have the same hold on us — case in point, Ringo Starr has released 11 solo records since the release of Terminator 2. No one has any expectations about these records, and yet here we sit, eagerly anticipating that our indefatigable nostalgia will finally be sated by another Terminator movie that is almost certainly going to suck.
I know this because I’m one of those people — convinced, somehow, that even though lightening crashed anywhere but in the bottle since 1991, there might still be a chance that they can pull off a new Terminator movie. I don’t even know what I wanted or expected, but it would look something like Terminator: Dark Fate, a dependably meat-and-potatoes sequel that proves to be an excellent study in how to toe the line long enough not to disappoint. Let me get this out of the way immediately, though I suspect it’ll come up again: Terminator: Dark Fate is merely fine. It’s a solidly made action film with mostly decent action scenes and mostly okay performances and dialogue that, while not really memorable, does not verge on the embarrassing. Nevertheless, all this makes it an outlier in the world it inhabits: the world of long-in-the-tooth IP is not the most generous one, and the fact that Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t an outright piece of shit may well be its biggest asset.
Mexican factory worker Dani (Natalia Reyes) finds herself the target of a murderous, shape-shifting robot (Gabriel Luna) that kills her brother and father and has her on the run. Dani is flanked by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human who has been whipped in from the future to protect Dani from death because — as you may have guessed — Dani is the key to the survival of the human race. (From a narrative perspective, Dark Fate sort of reminds me of one of those side-long jams from a late 60s hard rock band where they just fiddle their way through heavy versions of Top 40 hits — except all those hits are just the first two Terminator movies.) Grace and Dani eventually find Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who has spent the last 30 years as a fugitive hunting down Terminators in the hopes of avenging her son’s death (though John Connor survived T2, he did not make it to the millennium), and team up with her in order to defeat the relentless new foe. This, of course, puts them in the path of good ol’ T-800 (Arnold Schwarzengger), who has reformed as much as a robot assassin from the future could possibly have reformed.
None of the ideas here are particularly genius — as is usually the case with these belated/questionably relevant sequels, it’s more or less a retread of previous films with the parts swapped — but their general lack of ambition means the filmmakers (there are many credited screenwriters, while the director is Deadpool’s Tim Miller) can focus on a beefier movie that’s not as interested in jumping through hoops to differentiate itself. With Dani being the new John and Grace being the new T-800, the coast is clear for Linda Hamilton to take the lead. That’s almost certainly the most surprising and best idea in Terminator: Dark Fate — that the one thing that everyone has always assumed was the thing people like about Terminator (a hulking Austrian man in a leather jacket) is perhaps overplayed and should be used as a garnish rather than the whole meal. The least you could do when essentially cribbing the structure of a movie that you’re almost certainly not going to top is switch it up a little bit.
As much as I detest the sentiment that some movies are just meant to be enjoyed and not analyzed (it would be damn hard to do my job if I felt that way), the fact is that Terminator: Dark Fate is not a movie that has much more on its mind than adding more Terminator to this world. The film makes time for a subplot set in the world of border crossings that, at the very least, places the film in our current sociopolitical sphere, but it’s more window-dressing than anything else. Terminator: Dark Fate has solid action scenes, decent performances, a cohesive story… all things that pretty much any movie should aspire to, really. That it’s not much more than that comes second… or sixth, as it were. ■
Terminator: Dark Fate opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 1. Watch the trailer here: