Terminator: Dark Fate review – a step in the right direction

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Can Terminator: Dark Fate really be the successor to Terminator 2: Judgement Day we’ve been waiting for? Here’s our review.

The Terminator franchise, much like the titular machine, is determined not to die.

It seems impossible that it’s only a couple of years until Terminator 2 hits its 30th anniversary, with the previous decades hosting a further three further movies, all of which failed to continue the legacy successfully for new generations.

Terminator 3 had its moments and that strong, gutsy ending, Salvation was propped up by sympathetic turns from Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin, but was flawed overall and neutered by a combination of its certificate and the infamous leaked script that led to a swift about turn on the ending. Genisys, well, exists. The strongest continuation came from the small screen’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but after an unceremonious cancellation, the second season ended on an unresolved cliffhanger of such magnitude that it impacted on the enjoyment of everything that had led up to it.

So now, on the cusp of 2020, Terminator: Dark Fate has stepped up to the plate, boldly choosing to claim the mantle of the second true sequel in the canon, erasing all existence of T3 and everything that followed. But can it really fill such big boots? Well yes and no, is the unhelpful short answer.

For the majority of its two hour runtime, Dark Fate is a fast paced, exhilarating movie, that wisely combines old school practical effects with its slick, modern CGI to form some truly blistering action. The screening we attended was presented in Dolby Atmos, so every sound from twisting metal, to punctured flesh, impacted in a way that only a big screen viewing can. As a standalone slice of adrenaline fuelled science fiction, Dark Fate would be a resounding success, with the new characters and performances, primarily led by Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes, delivered with strength and conviction. But unfortunately this film has chosen to be a part of the larger Terminator narrative, and with that decision comes baggage.

After all these years, the real question is this – who is Dark Fate being made for and why?

With Hollywood’s unending need to push all franchises to fatigue point, you really have to wonder what the real need for a new Terminator film is, especially when the key selling point is to bring back original characters that had already been laid to rest in previous iterations.

Sarah Connor and the T-800 are important icons to fans of the first two films but, as has been the case with many recent franchise revivals from decades past, bringing them back older often results in melancholy rather than joy. Referential homage has a habit of weighing down on the fundamental ability to just enjoy the film on its own merits. Yet for new or younger viewers, those characters mean substantially less, while also acting as a block to the more contemporary narrative threads.

Without wanting to delve into spoiler territory for the narrative (which is where most of the film’s issues stem from, especially the controversial first few minutes) during the opening credits there’s footage from T2, composed of Sarah’s “anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day, get it?” outburst, which embodies the films’ divisive nature in a nutshell. On the one hand it’s a reminder of how fantastic and powerful Linda Hamilton’s performance is, but it also hits on the big screen with such impact that it shakes you into the realisation that nothing will ever really be able to top or succeed Judgment Day when it comes to Terminator sequels. T2 was and is such a movie and a cultural sensation, and it’s difficult to break that though when watching Dark Fate. It’s the old adage: be wary of directly invoking better films.

Even Sarah Connor herself, one of cinemas greatest and most influential characters and now more detached from humanity than ever, at times borders on parody. She throws out f-bombs like they were going out of fashion and snaps one liners better suited to a stereotypical action hero. She’s less the rounded tormented mother who resented the world she was trying to save here. Still, many of her lines steal scenes and inject some levity into the film, but it’s during one moment in particular that we get to see her raw, broken soul exposed in an especially poignant moment when she takes herself off to reflect. It’s a moment of brilliance and Linda Hamilton’s face wears sorrow and regret with a heart-breaking reality.

Sarah’s quandary is also at the heart of the films’ main issue and the problem with the franchise as a whole: if the Terminators keep coming, if any victories or alterations to prevent an apocalyptic future are constantly being undone, then what’s the point? It’s an impossible obstacle to avoid, but there is a moment in Dark Fate where events feel so relentless and inescapable that you can’t help but wonder if it would be better for all involved just to let the machines win.

However, when the existential angst isn’t weighing it down, director Tim Miller has delivered a solid, R rated blockbuster that finally feel like a movie at least worthy of the Terminator name and is confident enough to use plenty of subtitles throughout, which is unusual for a film of its size. As already mentioned, the action set pieces are superb, running at length, but never losing momentum. There are some especially visceral attempts to stop the Rev 9 model (played expertly by Gabriel Luna, at times channelling the best of Robert Patrick, while adding his own stamp to the role, especially during the Border Patrol interactions) using his mouth, that are wince-inducing even though ‘he’s’ cybernetic.

The aforementioned Mackenzie Davis is also worth a special mention, giving a Kyle Reese-esque sympathy to a character that could have easily slipped into uninteresting, or two dimensional. She holds her own when up against Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger and thankfully isn’t too side-lined when the pair of them are sharing screen time. Davis seems to be developing a terrific relationship with science fiction cinema, having appeared in two of the best genre flicks of recent years, with both The Martian and Blade Runner 2049 on her CV, so here’s hoping it continues.

As enjoyable as this new adventure is, and it really is an exciting and tense ride, the shadow of its predecessor looms over it with such presence that any sequel, however good, was never going to be able to escape it. Dark Fate is easily the best Terminator film since Judgment Day (not that high a bar admittedly) and a true sequel in many ways. But by its very nature there was always going to be an unavoidable sense of déjà vu. Certainly it’s a step forward, but there’s still some distance to go.

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