Thirty-five years after the original “Terminator” film was released, we now have “Terminator: Dark Fate,” the sixth film in the franchise, and the fourth unnecessary sequel. But of these gratuitous sequels, “Dark Fate” is the strongest.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” James Cameron’s 1991 follow up to his 1984 original, is one of the greatest sequels ever made. It does exactly what a sequel should do: it expands the story and deepens the characters and themes of its predecessor.
“T2” also ended in an emotionally satisfying way that did not require further sequels, but that has never prevented the powers that be.
The biggest issue with the “Terminator” sequels is that they are all essentially the same film. A killer robot is sent from the future to kill a human target that is significant in the future war between man and machine. A protector is also sent back to defend against this assailant.
This template was even repeated in “T2,” with the wrinkle that a good terminator was now sent back to defend against a more advanced evil terminator. This was the last innovation to the formula. The exception to the rule was 2008’s “Terminator Salvation” which was set entirely in the future conflict between man and machine. Though flawed, it was a welcomed departure.
Cameron was not involved with 2003’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine,” “Terminator Salvation,” and 2015’s “Terminator Genisys,” but has returned as a producer and writer for “Dark Fate,” which ignores all the films he was not a part of making.
Even with Cameron’s return, we aren’t given much new in terms of plotting. It is once again the dynamic of victim, attacker and defender, but, thankfully, there are some variations in the character dynamics.
Linda Hamilton, who fought Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bad T-800 terminator in 1984 and then fought alongside Schwarzenegger’s good terminator in 1991, returns as Sarah Connor for the first time since “T2.”
Hamilton’s presence gives the film more of a raison d’etre than previous installments. Similar to Jamie Lee Curtis’ return in last year’s “Halloween” — another sequel that ignored most of its predecessors — it is gratifying to see a grisled female survivor in her old age still fighting both literal and figurative demons.
The new target is Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman living in Mexico City. Her protector is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human with advanced strength, speed and senses. The new REV-9 terminator (Gabriel Luna) is morphing liquid metal like the T-1000 from “T2,” but also has a metal exoskeleton that he can separate from, making for double the trouble.
To battle this formidable adversary, Dani and Grace team with the world-weary Sarah and a formerly evil T-800 (Schwarzenegger) who (spoiler!) killed Sarah’s son John (Edward Furlong) in 1998.
The character shifts for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger are the most fascinating aspects of “Dark Fate.” With its mission completed 22-years ago, this T-800 has aged and integrated into society. He found purpose by defending a single mother and her son. In the process, he forms a family, grows a conscience, and becomes more human. He is genuinely repented for killing John.
Conversely, following the death of her son, Sarah has become cold and detached. She has lost nearly all her humanity and is more robotic and calculating. Her arc becomes reconnecting with her humanity and finding the ability to forgive.
It is great to see Hamilton and Schwarzenegger together again. There’s a good deal of humor in their dynamic. Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger doesn’t appear until an hour in.
Gratefully, the new characters are appealing. Davis, who appeared in “Blade Runner 2049,” another sequel to a 1980s classic, balances the line between human and machine. Grace has a similar skill set as a terminator and is a hardened soldier, but shows compassion toward Dani. Davis also makes a believable action hero.
Reyes’ Dani starts out as a damsel in distress, but finds her strength — similar to the arc of Sarah in the original. Part of that strength isn’t just a will to survive and fight, but to stand for others. At a critical moment, she refuses to leave Sarah behind despite Grace’s protests.
Luna, who appeared as Ghost Rider on TV’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” is an effective villain. He is allowed to show more emotion than previous terminators which makes him more efficient at blending in, but he also nails that methodical machine-like body movement and facial expressions.
Director Tim Miller (“Deadpool”) handles the action well, particularly the initial REV-9 attack of Dani. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but the action is well-shot and thrilling. Everyone gets their moment to shine, including the 71-year-old Schwarzenegger who is still viable as an action hero.
Based on the less-than-stellar box office, it is clear that after being burned by too many so-so sequels, audiences have moved on. Which is regrettable, because for the first time since “T2,” a “Terminator” film is emotionally resonant. Alas, it is clearly too little, too late.