The post-Cameron Terminator sequels have all been different flavours of dismal, so it may seem like damning with the faintest possible praise to declare Dark Fate the series’ best offering since Judgment Day. But director Tim Miller’s punchy, propulsive T2 follow-up (like Halloween 2018, Dark Fate wipes its less-celebrated predecessors from existence) is an intermittently fun ride, albeit a clear step down from the franchise’s early heyday.
Following a gut-punch prologue set shortly after the events of T2, the action jumps forward 22 years to the present, where augmented super soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and new breed of murder-bot, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), beam back from the future on a collision course with Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). No match for the Rev-9’s nifty party trick – he’s a Terminator twofer whose metal endoskeleton and mimetic poly-alloy exterior can operate independently – Grace and Dani are saved by a tooled-up Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who assists with a quick getaway. In the relentless chase that follows Grace, Sarah and ‘Carl’ (Arnold Schwarzenegger, more on him later) make it their mission to protect Dani at all costs.
Effectively two-plus hours of breathless metal-on-metal mayhem, Dark Fate excels when the sparks are flying. Fast and ferocious, in contrast to the muscular and methodical robot wars of early Termies, its highlights include a zero-g scrap which makes The Mummy’s much-ballyhooed aerial sequence look like minor turbulence, and a teeth-gnashingly tense power-plant showdown. The over-reliance on plasticine digi-doubles is an all-too-frequent illusion-breaker, but blow for blow Dark Fate punches above its weight.
The same goes for Linda Hamilton, Sarah Connor back properly for the first time since 1991. Like Luke in The Last Jedi, this isn’t quite the Connor you remember; she’s defined less by the physical and psychological intensity of T2, and more by the weary acceptance of a vocation that’s kept her isolated and on the run for two decades. Connor is a key player from the start, but Dark Fate makes you wait for Schwarzenegger’s return. Precisely how the T-800’s back after self-terminating in T2 should be discovered on screen. But it’s no spoiler to say that Dark Fate is interested in further exploring the idea of T2’s tin man with a heart.
As for the newbies, the casting of Natalia Reyes is a triumph for representation, but Dani is merely serviceable – a surrogate John Connor who’s largely devoid of a personality. At least Edward Furlong was memorably annoying. Grace fares a little better. As a technologically augmented super soldier, she can go toe-to-toe with the Rev-9 – Davis is more than up to the task physically – but she remains human and her fallibilities are what make her interesting. It’s a shame Davis has to share the screen with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger, as her proximity to two bonafide legends doesn’t give her much space to shine.
The Rev-9 similarly struggles to leave an impression. He at least feels like more of a threat than the T-X, or whatever Jason Clarke was in Genisys. And there’s a hint of Robert Patrick to Luna’s placid everyman appearance. But the Rev-9’s unique abilities aren’t deployed in particularly creative ways, and there’s no getting around the fact he’s a first base riff on what Patrick and Schwarzenegger did better decades ago.
A similar criticism could be directed at the film as a whole, which can sometimes feel like a remix of the series’ greatest hits. Homages to T2, in particular, are laid on thick. Dark Fate also severely overcomplicates a tricky time-hopping plot that doesn’t hold up to even surface-level scrutiny. Skynet is no more, for example; in its place is new neural net ‘Legion’. But Legion’s existence goes stubbornly unexplained, to the extent that it feels like someone just used ‘find and replace’ on every mention of Skynet in the script.
Laboured attempts at emotion rarely hit the mark either. Dark Fate really wants you to care about Carl, Schwarzenegger again forced to go through some deeply unfunny comedy ‘bits’, typically involving drapes. While Hamilton is lumbered with some clanging dialogue, which she doesn’t come close to salvaging (“You’re not the threat, it’s your womb!”). And for anyone keeping count, 2019 has another entry on the list of major Hollywood movies to feature drones in a prominent (and tedious) set-piece.
Dark Fate gets more right than it gets wrong (just about, anyway), and there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing Hamilton and Schwarzenegger reunited onscreen for the first time in almost three decades. But this fourth attempt at crafting a worthy sequel to James Cameron’s peerless sci-fi double bill only just gets passing marks.