Sarah Connor ostensibly changed the future and defeated Skynet in 1991, averting the cataclysm that would have been Judgment Day. But the Terminators and the Terminator movies never seem to stop, dragging these characters again and again into increasingly convoluted time-whiplash whirlpools, the same but different, and usually with a meaningless tech upgrade. The latest one, Dark Fate, is one of those legacy sequels that, rather than use some precarious narrative pretzel logic to tie itself into continuity, has decided to simply erase all the entries nobody liked since the classic Terminator 2. So, let’s go back in time to the beginning of this review: Sarah Connor defeated Skynet in 1991, but now a whole other malevolent AI called Legion is sending killer robots back to prevent people from rising up and stopping the future machine holocaust. It’s a fitting metaphor for the entire series, really: these fucking things will probably never stop coming, in one form or another, no matter what we do.
If James Cameron’s fingerprints are on this anywhere, especially formally, it’s hard to tell.
Dark Fate attempts to set itself apart from its unloved predecessors mainly by roping Hamilton back into the fray for the first time since T2 as an even more embittered Sarah than we saw almost 30 years ago (for reasons that will satisfy absolutely nobody). It seems like making this “third” film Sarah’s story would make sense, but instead she’s placed between a new protagonist, Mexican factory worker and Terminator target Dani (Natalie Reyes) and her also-from-the-future savior Grace (Mackenzie Davis), which leaves her not much to do but be both sounding board and delivery device for endless exposition, even if it’s enjoyable enough merely to see Hamilton return to this iconic role. Schwarzenegger, also, uh, back, doesn’t fare quite as well, having done variations on his weirdly lovable killing machine for too many movies now (and basically repeating shtick from the last movie, the risible Genisys). And while it’s admirable that this story features a triumvirate of tough women at its center, and that it makes a few gestures toward timeliness (a confrontation staged at an ICE detention facility, for instance), these elements feel perfunctory rather than organic. They go uncommented upon because nobody has anything to say about them.
None of this would matter, though, if the action was good. And while the legendary James Cameron’s name is back on this as a hands-on producer, if his fingerprints are on it anywhere, especially formally, it’s hard to tell. Here the director is Deadpool‘s Tim Miller, who executes his set pieces with a generic competence that renders everything static, unremarkable. It’s good enough, legible. Gone is Cameron’s icy, grainy elegance, his tight geography and cuts on movement, all replaced by a teal-and-orange digital smear that looks and feels exactly like everything else that’s out there today. Worse, it’s devoid of fear and menace. It can’t be that VFX tech has become to advanced or that audiences are too savvy; 1991’s T-1000 remains completely terrifying, one of the all-time great how-do-you-stop-it movie monsters not just because the illusion is so convincing but because such care was taken to make its human characters…well, human. More than just narrative pawns or faces to sell on a poster but physically and psychically vulnerable, even puny, in the face of this thing that will never stop until it kills us. Now it turns out that the only thing that will never stop is this franchise.