The Terminator series has not been running smoothly for a long time now (to say the least). The last three entries in the saga have paved a path that has lead nowhere but downhill for the brand. Not only did poor box office and audience reception sink deeper, but multiple behind the scene fiascos reached the public eye. This descent eventually reached a fork in the road: choose to put the franchise out of its misery or endure a drastic face-lift. Terminator: Dark Fate attempts to be this much-needed series revamp and even though it is not too drastic – it mainly succeeds.
Dark Fate is the sixth film in the saga and the first since Terminator 2: Judgment Day to have the creator of it all, James Cameron, involved in any capacity. Cameron came on board to produce after the previous entry, Terminator: Genisys, failed to launch a new trilogy. His heavy hand in developing the film lead to Deadpool director Tim Miller coming on board. Just like last year’s Halloween revamp, Dark Fate ignores previous films to serve as a direct sequel to a defining franchise hit (in this case T2). This decision opened the door for action icon Linda Hamilton to reprise the role of Sarah Connor.
Who would have thought that ignoring complicated and convoluted timeline plot threads would result in a more engaging film? Dark Fate begins by showing Sarah Connor’s life after T2 in 1995. After a quick reintroduction, the film catches up to the present to reveal two never before seen weapons arriving from the future. One is a cybernetically enhanced human soldier played by Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner: 2049). The other is a newly modified liquid metal Terminator played by Gabriel Luna (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Both are searching for Dani Ramos, a resilient factory worker supporting her family in Mexico played by Natalia Reyes (Lady, La Vendedora de Rosas). How Dani finds herself at the center of this conflict begins to unfold when she meets Sarah Connor.
One can already tell how different this film is from previous sequels. Those films continuously tried to up the ante by introducing more advanced threats. Dark Fate does not shy away from this habit, but it is not necessarily as preoccupied with the notion. New ideas such as Davis’ cyber soldier and Luna’s modified Terminator make way for unseen thrills. However, unlike their predecessors, they do not solely feel like selling gimmicks and actually organically mix into the narrative. The same goes for Linda Hamilton’s long-awaited return to the saga. Nostalgia is not at the forefront of this tale.
This is truly the best Terminator script put to the screen since T2. The filmmakers finally understand that one cannot follow the same leads without there ever being a finish line in sight. No offense to fan-favorite characters like Kyle Reese or John Connor, but their time leading this story has clearly passed. Dark Fate is ultimately about passing the baton to a new generation of stars. It respects the incomparable legacy of the first two films, while also moving forward. It can best be compared to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in that it returns the brand to form by paying homage to classic plot threads while using legacy characters to guide new leads in taking the wheel.
It only feels right to see Terminator turn a new leaf. Granted just like The Force Awakens, many might take issue with the levels of homage. Even though the film is not focused on nostalgia, there is a fair share of callbacks and one-liners that might be too on the nose. These aspects of the old would be more jarring if not for how good the new is. Davis finds no trouble stealing scenes as an awesome cyber warrior. Luna’s Terminator is menacingly stoic and leaves the impression of an effective villain. One can hope they bring Luna back to play other terminator models similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The undisputed new leading star though is Natalia Reyes. The Colombian actress brings much-needed humanity with poise. The range of emotions her character goes through and expresses in the entire film is challenging enough for any actor, but Reyes makes it believable. Pitting Reyes against Luna’s Terminator could not feel more like a breath of fresh air. Seeing Latinx actors thrive in science fiction is already satisfying enough, but it being in a multi-million dollar Terminator film makes it even more special.
Representation is not just about featuring diverse talent, it is also about doing them justice on screen. Dark Fate thankfully portrays this Mexican narrative respectfully, and even uses timely subject matter in interesting ways. This might be the field of some controversy, but in all honesty it feels necessary in context to the story. Ignoring such subject matter would feel irresponsible on the filmmaker’s behalf. Seeing the Terminator played by a Latinx actor disguised as a border patrol officer could have been in bad taste, but instead leads to interesting cinematic imagery.
Speaking of killer robots, it would be a crime not to bring up Schwarzenegger’s role in the film. Hats off to Dark Fate for actually doing something interesting and thematically resonant with Schwarzenegger. He and Hamilton share standout character beats that actually make one feel like their reunion was done service. Does it get slightly nostalgic? Just like the rest of the film, yes, but it can be forgiven based on its novelties. After all, the passing of the torch would not feel as just without both Schwarzenegger and Hamilton.
There are a few things setting the film back from excelling higher, including some plot points that feel too convenient, or not as very thought out. Some unanswered questions (probably saved for a sequel) would have been appropriate to know now. The action, even though stellar, can go on for a bit too long. This starts to become draining in the third act and would have been best if cut just a bit shorter. The visual exhaustion might begin to make one unforgiving of the film’s multiple accounts of spotty CGI. It would be very welcoming to see the franchise seek a means for more practical effects after this.
Nonetheless, Dark Fate is very worthy of a theater experience. Not perfect, but such a great step forward. The new generation of stars makes it clear that the future of the brand is not only female, but also diverse. Female and diverse representation in sci-fi still has ways to go and showing up to the box office helps it make those steps. The times have made it clear that this is what viewers crave, and oh boy does Dark Fate make for a good serving. It would be such a shame to not give this one a chance.
Terminator: Dark Fate hits theaters November 1.