“Terminator: Dark Fate” A gutsy return to form

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Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Back in the glorious decade of the 1980s, James Cameron’s “The Terminator” gripped the American psyche in a way that had been previously unprecedented. Religious subtext, ideas of fate, political and social commentary and human potential were all masterfully woven into a sci-fi/horror thriller that forever changed the ways that movies were made, and how audiences perceived their own futures. 

Soon after, Cameron made “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which became one of the most beloved action/sci-fi experiences of all time. Integrating a familial element into the cyberpunk story and questioning the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to develop near-human levels of empathy in this film was groundbreaking, and remains a pillar of many sci-fi experiences to this day. 

However, after Cameron left the franchise, Columbia Pictures rather famously ran the Terminator series into the ground with a series of frankly embarrassing sequels that obeyed the law of diminishing returns a bit too adamantly. The same story was rehashed to the point of incomprehensibility, and audiences were forced to accept the generic action/sci-fi movies  bearing the title of one of the most beloved and impactful cinematic experiences ever created. 

Well, Cameron, along with original stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, are back in a terrific, if flawed and familiar, return to form for the franchise. 

“Terminator: Dark Fate” ignores every Terminator sequel made after “T2: Judgment Day” and picks up where Cameron’s last Terminator film left off, telling the story of Sarah Connor (Hamilton) decades after she, her son and the friendly T-800 (Schwarzenegger) stopped Judgment Day from ever occurring by thwarting the diabolical Skynet. 

Because Connor changed the future by preventing Skynet from ever becoming self-aware, a whole new future of dangerous possibilities opened up. A new Terminator created by the self-aware AI Legion in 2042, called a Rev-9 (played by Gabriel Luna), is sent back in time to hunt down Dani Ramos (played by Natalia Reyes). 

The resistance, in turn, sends back an augmented human named Grace (played by Mackenzie Davis) to be Dani’s protector. Grace is not alone, however, because in the decades that Connor has had between the events of “T2: Judgment Day,” Connor has had one profession–hunting terminators. 

The trio of intergenerational matriarchs of the resistance, along with Schwarzenegger as the beloved T-800, band together to save the future once more. 

There’s a lot to like about “Terminator: Dark Fate,” but plenty for diehard fans of the franchise to get queasy about too. 

The action scenes and set-pieces in this film are the best in the franchise since “T2: Judgment Day,” with some sequences even surpassing elements of Cameron’s film in terms of the sheer cinematic prowess on display. Director Tim Miller fantastically helms this revamping of the franchise, and combines the best parts of his style (as shown in films like “Deadpool”)  with Cameron’s classic charisma and action-filming fluidity. 

The effects work in this film are top-notch. The concepts for the Rev-9 and other futuristic designs merge beautifully with our modern world, appearing as gritty and realistic as time-travelling murder-bots possibly could. 

In his role as the Rev-9 Terminator, Luna gives an absolutely chilling performance that was certainly inspired by Robert Patrick’s legendary performance as the T-1000 in “T2.” Of all the Terminators in this franchise, Luna’s feels the most calculating, the most lithe and the most capable of the task outlined in his character’s name. 

Hamilton plays the eternally enthralling Connor perfectly, proving that her character has always been the most emotionally resounding chord of the good Terminator films. Her struggle as a mother, warrior and huntress grounds this film and will certainly keep more skeptical fans from abandoning the new entry into the franchise. 

Schwarzenegger is as intense and interesting as ever as the T-800, and is integrated into the plot in ways that will make fans very excited.

The weakest aspect of this film is that it treads very little new ground. Some new ideas and concepts are introduced, but the structure of the story is very much in keeping with the first two Terminator films. “Dark Fate” can narratively spin its wheels at times when it should be taking this world to new and unexplored levels. 

Reyes does a good job with what she is given, but plays a rather forgettable character, which is highly unfortunate as she is arguably the main character of the film. 

Terminator fans more concerned with legacy than the future viability of the series will undoubtedly be grinding their teeth at certain moments in the film. In choosing to set up a new world of possibilities for the franchise and free itself from the chains of inferior sequels, “Dark Fate” must make some sacrifices. 

What will end up mattering is whether future installments are able to atone for these sacrifices. For now, I think it better to give Cameron and Miller the benefit of the doubt. 

In the end, “Terminator: Dark Fate” is a very well-made, but imperfect, return to form for the series, and is easily the best Terminator film since “T2.” “Dark Fate” is well shot, edited, acted and paced, but the story and a couple of its characters lack the depth of the best installments of the franchise. 

For fans, this film is definitely worth a watch as the only decent modern attempt at a Terminator movie. For newcomers who haven’t been able to enjoy the ’80s vibe of the old Terminator films, “Dark Fate” might just be the perfect Terminator film for you.

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