Terminator: Dark Fate

2 stars

For a movie obsessed with fate, there's something awfully appropriate about how clunkily this sixth entry in the Terminator franchise confirms that, regardless of how the pieces are assembled, these sequels are incapable of reversing their descent into irrelevance. They've been a rusty machine clinging to past popularity for years now and the latest attempt to breathe new life into the action is just another pile of recycled parts built to remind us all of the better days. However grim the story's fictional future appears, the franchise's future always looks grimmer.

Directed by Tim Miller, Dark Fate has been billed as the triumphant return of series starter James Cameron, who receives both producer and "story" credits here after opting to have zero involvement with previous post-T2 sequels. It also marks the return of Linda Hamilton, whose embattled heroine Sarah Conner was last seen on the big screen in Cameron's seminal sequel from nearly 30 years ago. She was originally written out of the timeline in Terminator 3, but Dark Fate erases the events of that movie and others in order to allow for a grizzled Sarah to come back with guns blazing.

It's a nice idea with some whiff of potential, but Hamilton's growly line deliveries and single angry expression make for an unconvincing portrait of Judgment Day resolve. And the script mainly interprets its mission to be a proper sequel to T2 as an excuse to ape that movie in myriad ways, so here comes the freeway chase, the helicopter action, the pitstop at a gun-filled hideout, the need for heroic sacrifice at the end, and many more recognizable references.

As tempting as it must be to make an attempt at salvaging this franchise, it seems utterly pointless to act superior to a bunch of middling sequels only to rehash the one beloved sequel's many iconic moments without any imagination to power the effort. If everyone agrees that all audiences really want is to watch T2 again, then just let them do that instead of repackaging its imagery and ideas at the exorbitant cost of $180 million.

The franchise is right to worship T2, but therein lies the seemingly insurmountable problem. Cameron already raised the bar so high with that movie that no subsequent effort can come close to reaching it. T2 benefitted from advancements in technology and a massive budget increase from the first movie, which had played as more of a quick and gritty horror movie than an action-packed extravaganza. T2 was then given the freedom to be something else, a sprawling epic with the means to expand on the first movie’s mythology and create indelible visuals with envelope-pushing digital effects.

At times, Cameron essentially remade scenes from the first movie, simply because he had the opportunity to touch up his own work, but he also made the wise decision to slot Arnold Schwarzenegger into the hero role and replace the now-vacant villain spot with the less physically imposing Robert Patrick, who was instead armed with an arsenal of instantly iconic liquid metal CGI. These decisions made Terminator 2 a sort of mirror image of its predecessor, the two movies covering the same ground (a murderous machine from the future chases its victim in the present), except with the key roles reversed.

The only problem with Cameron’s successful effort to open up The Terminator’s self-contained story to franchise possibilities is that his one sequel pretty much closed the creative door on any future prospects. Then again, to be fair, the other sequels made after Cameron exited the series at least all attempted to locate a fresh angle, from Terminator 3’s downer ending to Terminator: Salvation’s future war focus to Terminator: Genisys’s timeline trickery in which the events of the first movie are reexamined.

The execution often left much to be desired and the sequel stories ultimately filled in narrative holes that were best left to the audience’s imagination, but none of those movies were quite so eager to ape Terminator 2 as Dark Fate is. All Miller’s movie can muster up in terms of franchise originality is a clumsy parallel to the real-world border tensions in Trump’s America. The plot begins in Mexico, where we meet protagonist Dani (Natalia Reyes), and later involves a messy attempt to sneak into the U.S., allowing for a pitstop at a detention facility.

This portion of the picture does nothing more than acknowledge the situation in the context of a fantastical conflict, since the future-sent Terminator villain (Gabriel Luna), a mix of robotic endoskeleton and oily black goo, eventually shows up to clash with Dani’s cybernetically enhanced protector Grace (Mackenzie Davis). Action, CGI ensue.

Beyond these simple nods to modern situations, Dark Fate is more a copycat of its 28-year-old predecessor than any movie in the entire series and that aim to match up with the best of the best simply by dressing up like it is woefully uninspired. It seems like our increased reliance on machines and constant connection to technology would provide new opportunities for this franchise to draw parallels between its future and ours, but these movies remain stupidly stuck in the past.

Since this is a reunion of sorts, a bridge between the old and new, Schwarzenegger once again reprises his role, or at least some variation of it. He’s a well-aged cyborg now, one that wiles away the hours as a companion and father figure for a mother and her son, marking another T2 homage, and he quickly gets to cracking jokes once he shows up. Decades later, he’s still the tough guy with a few silly lines. These moments work well enough as the tension-breaking comic relief they’re meant to be, but mainly they’re a reminder that some things never change. Like Schwarzenegger’s character, the Terminator series gets older, only to stay stubbornly the same.