The Terminator franchise gets back on track with Terminator: Dark Fate, which brings back original star Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and sees James Cameron return as a producer. Terminator: Dark Fate is a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and just by continuing the story of Sarah Connor, it manages to be the best Terminator since T2. Of course, the three Terminator movies made over the last 20 years are all terrible, so that’s a low bar to clear. Dark Fate is not really a good movie, but it’s so much less awful than movies like Rise of the Machines and Genisys that it makes for passable entertainment. And it is pretty great to see Linda Hamilton again. If nothing else comes of Dark Fate, at least we have Linda Hamilton back.
Dark Fate picks up in 1998 with a shocking event that kicks the story into a slightly new direction. I’ve said before that the Star Wars universe is actually small, and so, too, is the world of Terminator. T2 completely resolves the story of Sarah and John Connor and the future robots who hunt them. The Terminator franchise was not meant to keep going. But now, in an IP-obsessed Hollywood, that story is being pried open to continue the franchise with new adventures. That means the ending of T2 has to be undone, to an extent, and this is what I mean about small universes. If you have to undo the ending of one movie in order to keep telling stories in that world, then the world was never really that big to begin with. Dark Fate finds a way to keep going, but it does feel repetitive with Terminator and T2. At the end of the day, these will always be movies about future robots chasing a Chosen One.
But Hamilton brings some gravitas and spikiness to the proceedings that make it watchable. Dark Fate also benefits from having the best Terminator since Robert Patrick, the “Rev-9” (Gabriel Luna who, like Patrick, can bring a chilly charm to the Rev-9’s interactions with humans). They are joined by Dani (Natalia Reyes), a targeted human, and Grace (Mackenzie Davis) in the Kyle Reese role. Of the new crew, Davis falls a little flat, though she does hit a nice emotional beat late in the movie that almost makes up for the zero chemistry she has with Hamilton. And, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the T-800, and he gets what is unquestionably the best joke in any Terminator movie.
The action, shepherded by Deadpool director Tim Miller, is okay. The first action sequence is stellar, but later sequences suffer from too-quick editing and dark settings, which can make it hard to follow. Also, that first sequence is SO good that the later action set pieces have to get really big and bonkers to top it, which means by the end Dark Fate is basically a Fast/Furious movie. Also, Dark Fate features an action sequence set inside an ICE detention center. I do not think Dark Fate is trying to say anything meaningful, but it’s difficult to enjoy the escapism of a movie like this when it’s knocking on the door of a real humanitarian crisis. There are still kids in cages, hundreds of people are missing, some have died in custody. Using that setting in such a shallow way is borderline offensive.
The movie never really recovers from that mid-point in the ICE detention center. Schwarzenegger shows up later to give Dark Fate a shot in the arm—his chemistry with Hamilton makes up for the flatlining Grace-and-Sarah scenes—but Dark Fate swings uncomfortably between the relatively grounded story of Sarah Connor and the increasingly absurd action sequences. I halfway appreciate that Dark Fate is the kind of movie that will advance the plot with characters doing ludicrous “future sh-t” to get information, but those moments are diametrically opposed to the practical approach of Sarah Connor. When Dark Fate is focused on Sarah Connor, and it lets Linda Hamilton be the compelling badass she is, it mostly works. But it’s too long, and the action is on total overload, and there are one too many elements pulling focus from Sarah Connor to maintain that momentum all the way through. Sure, Dark Fate is the best Terminator since T2, but that’s not saying much.