Film Review: ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are back for a movie that's less reboot than do-over, and the first vital 'Terminator' sequel since 'T2.'

Director:
Tim Miller
With:
Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Edward Furlong, Diego Boneta, Enrique Arce, Steve Cree, Tom Hopper, Cassandra Starr, Brett Azar, Tábata Cerezo.  
Release Date:
Nov 1, 2019

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6450804/

Back in 1984, seven years before “The Terminator” spawned a sequel that was big, sprawling, and James Cameron-y enough to elevate the franchise into what felt like the dystopian Marvel spectacle of its day, it’s worth noting that Cameron’s original film was a ruthlessly efficient post-apocalyptic B-movie — a proto-video-game sci-fi nightmare that took its point-blank attitude from the kill-machine efficiency of its title homicidal droid. (Part of its ingenuity was the way it turned Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inexpressiveness as an actor into a vicious semi-joke.) “Terminator: Dark Fate” is a movie designed to impress you with its scale and visual effects, but it’s also a film that returns, in good and gratifying ways, to the smartly packaged low-down genre-thriller classicism that gave the original “Terminator” its kick. The new movie earns its lavish action (and its emotions, too), because no matter how violently baroque its end-of-days vision, its storytelling remains tethered to the earth.

In a world overrun by sequels and remakes and reboots, “Terminator: Dark Fate” is an example of that opportunistic but, in its way, stubbornly optimistic form: the do-over. The movie, directed with gritty rock-solid craft by Tim Miller (“Deadpool”), marks the return of James Cameron to the series (as executive producer) for the first time since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and at moments the film almost seems to be saying to its fan base, “Okay, we admit it, the last three ‘Terminator’ films sucked. They were action-movie fodder of diminishing returns, movies that spun their own wheels. So guess what: Forget all about them. Pretend they never existed. This, take our word for it, is the real third installment of the series.” That kind of thing can become its own form of hype, but in this case it’s a promise the movie takes to the bank. “Dark Fate” is a lean, tough, and absorbing sequel that taps back into the enthralling surface of the “Terminator” series’ comic-book kinetics as well as the sinister sweet spot of its grandiose pulp mythology.

Let’s be clear, though: Part of how the movie achieves that is by coloring rigorously within the lines, introducing a new slate of characters by swapping in one character and situation for another with a nearly mathematical precision. As a result, it’s not a film of galvanizing imagination. Yet “Dark Fate” puts flesh on the metal bones of its concept.

When we meet Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman working with her brother on an assembly line in Mexico City, she seems the quintessence of unremarkable, and that’s by design. Dani is the equivalent of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in the first “Terminator” — a woman who must be protected, because (we presume) it’s her fate to give birth to a future leader of the war against the machines. But the real thing Dani is giving birth to is her own sense of agency, and Natalia Reyes plays her with a perfectly modulated slow-building fire that may remind you of the young Michelle Rodriguez.

Grace (Mackenzie Davis), the figure who has been sent from the future to protect her, is like Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese fused with the good-guy Terminator Arnold played in “T2” — but Grace isn’t (quite) a Terminator. She’s an Augment, which is to say a living breathing human being bionically enhanced with ferocious strength and a handful of super-engineered body parts. Mackenzie Davis, in choppy short hair that brings out her quietly possessed quality, imbues her with a breathless magnetism — she’s the movie’s focal point of energized valor, of a brave new world of power women rising up to claim their destiny.

As the film’s relentless Terminator baddie, Gabriel Luna sports a purposeful glower (and, at moments, a kind of terse subliminal grin, a sign that he’s enjoying his destructive mission) that marks him as the next-generation rendition of Robert Patrick’s scowling cyborg assassin in “T2.” It’s not just the prototype of the character who has gotten an upgrade; so have the shape-shifting effects that define him. Like the cutting-edge model of an old Apple product (look, it’s pewter now!), “Terminator: Dark Fate” revels in the new metal, which is to say: black tar is the new mercury. Whenever Luna’s Terminator is chopped or struck, the wound (before instantly healing) turns into a gush of obsidian lava that drips and flows and reforms. He also has the ability to separate himself completely from his gleaming creepy-grin endoskeleton.

In “Dark Fate,” the very premise of the “Terminator” series — the elevation of A.I. into a fascist force that sets out to destroy the civilization that created it — has gotten a facelift. Skynet, the murderous computer omni-mind, has been defeated in the future, but the characters now face the threat of…Legion. Which is basically the same thing.

The real wild card of “Dark Fate” proves that even the most classic element of this series can become new again. Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor as an outlaw who’s been knocking off Terminators ever since Arnold’s T-800 killed Edward Furlong’s John. Hamilton, in rough hair and aviator shades, pointing guns the size of cannons, anchors the film with a regal sort of been-around-too-long-to-give-a-f—k Madame Max charisma.

Thirty-five years of saving the world have taken their toll, melting Sarah down to a figure of sheer will, living on booze and vengeance. Yet Hamilton, playing this burnt-out husk of a savior, is triumphantly funny and alive. In “Dark Fate,” she’s like Susan Sontag as a badass, never more so than when an officer at the U.S. Border Patrol Detention Center in Laredo, Tex., threatens to put her in her very own “cage.” (That word has all the social commentary the film needs.) She establishes the movie’s human stakes, letting us know why this battle still matters. And so, in his way, does Arnold. I won’t reveal much about Schwarzenegger’s re-appearance except to say that his character has been cut loose by the future defeat of Skynet. Sarah despises him for what he did to her son, yet it’s their hostile and mournful connection that gives the film its spark.

And so does the action, which Miller stages with dream-like clarity and flair. “Deadpool,” which I’m a huge fan of, is his only previous feature, and Miller’s mastery of the physics of action reverie in that movie — to the point that he could dazzle you with the ballistics of combat and deconstruct them at the same time ­— was rather awesome. In “Dark Fate,” he doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but his weaponized clashes are gripping, never more so than when they’re on wheels, or (at the climax) on a dueling set of jumbo planes. What has changed in the 28 years since “T2” is that the rise of comic-book films has made the battle of borderline indestructible titans something we see in the movies more weeks than not. “Deadpool” was technically part of the “X-Men” universe (though the title character’s satanic-bitch sense of humor was a superior force to almost any power possessed by those mutants), and “Terminator: Dark Fate” could almost be about an evil offshoot of the X-Men — stalking robots who convert to metal and back again. But “Dark Fate,” if anything, comes close to being the “Logan” of that series. It’s a heavy-metal fantasy with a heart that, astoundingly, isn’t made of tin.

Related:

Film Review: 'Terminator: Dark Fate'

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square,  Oct. 21, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 128 MIN.

Production: A Paramount Pictures release of a Paramount Pictures, Skydance Media, 20th Century Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment production, in association with Tencent Pictures and TSG Entertainment. Producers: James Cameron, David Ellison. Executive producers: Edward Cheng, Bonnie Curtis, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, John J. Kelly, Julie Lynn.

Crew: Director: Tim Miller. Screenplay: David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray. Camera (color, widescreen): Ken Seng. Editor: Julian Clarke. Music: Tom Holkenborg.

With: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Edward Furlong, Diego Boneta, Enrique Arce, Steve Cree, Tom Hopper, Cassandra Starr, Brett Azar, Tábata Cerezo.  

More Film

  • Taylor Swift Variety Facetime

    Taylor Swift Opens Up About Overcoming Struggle With Eating Disorder (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the new Taylor Swift documentary, “Miss Americana,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Thursday night, there’s a montage of derogatory commentary about the singer that has appeared on cable shows over the years. One of the less nasty remarks: “She’s too skinny. It bothers me.” As it turns out, it eventually bothered Swift, [...]

  • The Painter and the Thief

    'The Painter and the Thief': Film Review

    Incredible. That’s the word that comes to mind with Benjamin Ree’s “The Painter and the Thief,” a stranger-than-fiction friendship story in which vérité techniques produce unbelievable results. I don’t mean to imply that this astonishing documentary isn’t truthful. Rather, I’m in awe of how things played out, and fully aware that there was a certain [...]

  • 'The Cost of Silence': Exclusive First

    'The Cost of Silence': Exclusive First Look at Sundance Doc on Deepwater Horizon Spill

    “The Cost of Silence,” a new documentary about the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, doesn’t just chronicle the worst oil drilling disaster in history. It looks at the devastating impact that the use of chemicals called “dispersants” had on Gulf Coast families. It turns out the so-called cleanup was not the success story [...]

  • Cuties

    'Cuties': Film Review

    Eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant Amy (Fathia Youssouf) reckons there are two ways to be a woman. Amy could mimic her mom (Maïmouna Gueye), a dutiful drudge with three kids and a husband who’s just announced he’s bringing home a second wife. Or she could copy the “Cuties,” a quartet of brazen girls who wear tube tops [...]

  • Crip Camp

    'Crip Camp': Film Review

    If “Crip Camp” strikes you as a politically incorrect name for a movie about a summer camp where kids on crutches, in wheelchairs, and otherwise living with disabilities found it possible to feel included rather than ostracized, consider this: The irreverent, stereotype-busting documentary was co-directed by Berkeley-based sound designer Jim LeBrecht, a spina bifida survivor [...]

  • Summertime

    'Summertime': Film Review

    “Use your words.” I remember one of my sheroes saying that to a stammering 4-year-old decades ago. Here was a woman who’d dedicated her life to preschool education, whom I assisted for several summers, trying to get through to a tongue-tied little boy. The more he sputtered, the more upset he got, unable to express [...]

  • Mickey Rourke

    Film News Roundup: Mickey Rourke's 'Adverse' Opens Fantasporto Festival

    In today’s film news roundup, a Mickey Rourke crime drama will premiere in Portugal, a film about the Purdue Pharma scandal is in the works and the documentary “After Parkland” will be shown at 100 locations on the second anniversary of the Parkland shootings. FESTIVAL OPENER The world premiere of Mickey Rourke’s crime drama “Adverse” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content