Even with the original stars returning, the sequel feels weightless, disposable and hardly the stuff of Skynet nightmares.
The headline on this latest addition to the Terminator franchise—a Hollywood series that’s creaking like an aging T-800 with stiff joints—is that it reunites the people who made it great in the first place: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and James Cameron (though not original co-producer Gale Anne Hurd). They’re back for Dark Fate, promising to straighten all those crooked timelines and deliver some honest-to-goodness shock and awe. On paper at least, that’s a tantalizing prospect.
In reality, however, the involvement of James Cameron is limited to a story and producer credit—and it’s hard to imagine the story took him longer than an Avatar 2 lunch break to whip together. The set-up and structure is so similar to 1991’s landmark Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Dark Fate could almost be called a remake. It’s a watery facsimile of that movie, full of nods and winks to iconic moments long past.
Deadpool director Tim Miller is the latest filmmaker to try to bring freshness to these reheated beats, and there are some promising flashes early on. That iconic shot of terminators skull-crunching their way across an apocalyptic landscape transforms into a tranquil beachside scene in one smooth edit. The tension at the heart of these Terminator movies was always between the clutch of terrified, clued-up survivors and the oblivious masses, and the moment captures it neatly.
The setting, 27 years after Judgment Day, then shifts south of the U.S. border where a Mexican woman, Dani (Natalia Reyes), finds herself under attack from a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), a new generation of killer ’bot sent back from the future. Riding to the rescue comes augmented supersoldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis), also from the future, sent to protect Dani, and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. She’s not from the future but she sure is pissed off enough to be. The pair of vying guardians come together at the end of a thunderously executed car chase (the film’s best moment), and are soon crossing swords like only two people from totally different timelines can.
It’s refreshing to be rooting for two fierce female leads in the same Terminator film—if there was such a thing as a Mechdel Test, this movie would ace it—and it’s a joy to see Hamilton back in familiar hard-ass garb, wielding a rocket launcher like the rest of us operate iPhones. But there’s so little new here that the parallels with T2 become invidious. That film’s genius was in knowing when to throw in a show-stopping visual at us (i.e., the T-1000 melting through prison bars) and when to keep the effects practical (i.e., the truck chase along the Los Angeles River waterbed). There’s none of that balance in Dark Fate, let alone the cat-and-mouse guile and character beats that helped elevate the 1991 sequel to the all-time sci-fi pantheon.
Instead, we get a CGI-drenched cargo plane sequence that feels fake and unengaging, and Luna’s Rev-9 clobbering its way through crowds of expendable bystanders. The liquid Rev-9 can morph, squid-like, with black tendrils as it repairs itself, like a cross between Robert Patrick’s iconic T-1000 and something you’d find in the freezer section of your local grocery store, but the character’s blandness drains the menace. Instead, sit back and enjoy Arnie’s committed turn as a battle-worn T-800 just trying to make a go of it as a man—okay, a killer cybernetic organism—of the land. The character once famous for saying next to nothing gets all the best lines. Sadly, it’s the only surprise here.