No Fate But... Meh, You Know the Rest
Terminator: Dark Fate
I think it's fair to say that the TerminatorIs it a series about a future nuclear war and the survivors of the aftermath? Is it a series of chase movies set in the present day? Is it a series about time travel? That fact is that the Terminator series is all of those concepts. The mash-up of genres and ideas shouldn't work, but the films have proven adept at mixing into a heady series unlike any other. franchise has been in a pretty dire place for some time. While the first two films, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, are rightly held up as classics of the Sci-Fi genre, the series has struggled to justify any of its sequels, reboots, and re-imaginings to come out after the initial one-two punch. A lot of that has to do with the fact that after the first two films in the series James Cameron stepped away having told the entire story he needed to tell. Later entries either tried to reset the timeline (Terminator 3), focus on the fight in the future (Salvation), or much around with everything for... reasons (Genysis).
What all of the previous efforts at cinematic franchise extension lacked was the realization that the story was never about John Connor; it was his mother who was the heroine of the series, the focus of what mattered. The franchise started with her (a robot from the future coming after Sarah to kill her before she could give birth to the savior of the future) and she was the catalyst for all the big changes to the future in the second movie. John's a part of the story but, frankly, the series always stumbled when it puts too much focus on John. He wasn't a very interesting hero in the third flick, he was the worst part of the boring fourth movie, and then somehow we're supposed to care in the fifth movie after he's turned into an evil, nanite powered machine. It just never worked.
But Sarah has always worked. She grew into a tough-as-nails warrior and as functioned as the backbone of the franchise whenever she's shown up. She was the most interesting character in the TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and she was honestly interesting in Genysis (as played by Emila Clarke there) even if that movie was otherwise utterly disappointing. Which is why it was so cool that the original Sarah Connor herself, Linda Hamilton, was returning to the franchise for a fresh take at this whole reboot idea. This new movie promised to delete all the old, crappy entries in the franchise (and, sadly, the TV show) and focus on a fresh timeline without all the cruft. Sadly, though, the promises couldn't quite get fulfilled by the final product.
Terminator: Dark Fate opens in 1998 with Sarah and John hanging out in a South American paradise, enjoying sun and fun. Their happiness is ruined, though, when a Terminator shows up, shoots John repeatedly, and then leaves, his mission fulfill as the so-called savior of humanity was dead. Sarah, broken, then spend the next twenty years simply getting by, fighting Terminators when she found them and otherwise sticking to herself and avoiding the cops. Things change, though, when she shows up to save Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a normal Mexican woman who doesn't seem like anyone special. However, Dani's world had just exploded as a Terminator, a Rev 9 (played by Bariel Luna) showed up to kill Dani while a new protector, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human, came to save her. It'll take the combined forces of Sarah and Grace (along with an old T-800, play by Arnie of course) to save humanity once more.
There are two ways to view Terminator: Dark Fate and your perspective on the movie is certainly going to change depending on it. On the one hand, this latest entry in the franchise sets itself up as the only true sequel to the original two movies. It continues the story of Sarah (sadly now sans John) and her eternal fight to stop the Terminators (and, possibly, the end of all humanity if she can find a way), and if you haven't seen any of the other movies or shows in the franchise then, yeah, this seems like a cool idea. Sarah stopped SkyNet but all she did was basically set the timeline back where it was before all of SkyNet's shenanigans. If all you do is watch three Terminator -- the original, Judgment Day, and Dark Fate, then this seems like a solid arc for the series.
The problem is that no matter how much Dark Fate wants to set itself up as the only "true" successor to the franchise, a lot of other media has come out in the interim between 1992 and 2019 and most of those shows and movies have used up the same ideas this new film plays in. The whole idea of the future still being screwed was already explored in Terminator 3 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles AND Genysis. The idea of John getting taken out by the machines was also done in Genysis (admittedly in a different way). And even the thought of revisit Sarah Connor was done twice over in the TV show and the last movie. As far as new material to explore with Sarah Connor, this movie doesn't have much left in the tank.
Don't get me wrong, I like the new Terminator and protector set to save Dani this time around. I like Grace, a human with the strength and power of a Terminator, and I think that concept of improving the humans to be better at fighting the Terminators is a neat idea. The film goes out of its way to explore Grace, to develop a relationship between her and Dani (and eventually the whole trio with Sarah), and it has a lot of good idea on how to use Grace effectively. The same, though, can't be said for the Rev 9. The concept of the Rev 9 -- a liquid-metal machine over top of a metallic endoskeleton, allowing the two to split and function as two different Terminators -- is a neat idea. He's not given a whole lot to do, though, aside from chase after Dani and kill people along the way. Which, yes, that's his job, but the Terminators in the first two films did so much more.
Think about the scenes with the T-800 in the original where we saw him on his missions, plotting how he'd get to his target. There were the sequences of him doing repairs, of him following every lead, just time spent with the T-800 to make him into a character of some kind. Robert Patrick's T-1000 was given similar treatment, allowed to venture as we explored who he was (before he was revealed as a bad guy) and then more time spent as he slowly and methodically worked his way after John and Sarah. These Terminators got to be real characters, not just shadowy cyphers.
The Rev 9, though, only shows up when he's on the hunt and is never given any chances to really show skill or creativity. He can be two people so why not, for instance, have our heroines walk past a cafe and have two people at a table (one admittedly in a coat, scarf, and hat) get up and immediately pursue them. Or maybe the endoskeleton acts a a mannequin and the exterior is "dressing" it in a mall window before they both strike. The Rev 9 is a neat idea put to poor use and never treated as a character on the same level as the T-800 or T-1000.
But then, there's an over abundance of ideas in this film that don't get thoroughly explored like they should have. For instance, the T-800 that took out John at the start of the movie is eventually introduced later as Carl. After he completed his mission he eventually settled down and became a family man. This is seriously a plot point, one the movie tosses off as if it makes sense somehow for this death machine to gain a family and grow a conscience. More time spent exploring Carl would have made him feel like more of a character. He does get some good moments but never enough to justify his inclusion in the movie. It's obvious Carl is here so they can shoehorn Arnie into yet another film but Carl is a distraction. He sucks up screen time that could have been spent on the central women while raising more questions than we get answers for. Plus, he ends up imbalancing the the climax of the film.
If you look at the end sequences of the previous films, it's always felt like the heroes survivor their brush with a Terminator due to luck and skill, and even then it was a near thing. This movie (like Genysis before it) doesn't strike that same balance, though, instead giving Dani way too many protectors -- Sarah, Carl, and Grace -- without the battle feeling like it could ever turn against our heroine. The Rev 9 is two Terminators in one and yet it's easily bested by an augmented human, a T-800, and an older woman. The fight should have been more difficult, more powerful, but it just doesn't amount to much at all.
But then, so many of these problems trace back to the movie trying to rush through things and failing to give any of the characters time to grow, develop, and become the heroes they need to be. Grace appears fully formed and Davis tries to sell her emotional connection to Dani as the protector, but Dani being new to this whole "future war" is never given time to develop her side of the equation. If the film could have let the two bond more and then brought Sarah back in so the three could have made a family unit similar to the one in T2 -- Sarah, Dani, and Grace akin to Sarah, John, and the T-800 -- and then had them run, gun, and take out the Rev 9 that might have worked better. But the film is constantly movie, constantly introducing new character -- not just Carl but also Dani's uncle, a military buddy of Sarah's, and on and on -- that we never get to settle in and focus on our core trio.
The hurts not only the pacing of the film but also how much we care about the core cast. It says something that Carl, an under-baked T-800 who never gets enough screen time to really sell his whole weird story, still has been character development and more solid moments than any of the core ladies of the movie. The film goes out of its way to bring Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor back and then does barely anything with her. She's as emotionally unavailable and divorced from the action as any T-800 (other than Carl). So what was the point?
But really, what I keep coming back to is the fact that this movie struggles to justify its existence simply because so many movies in the franchise have come out and explored this ground before. Every few years we had a new attempt to extend the franchise, to find a new take on the material, to find some way to get people invested in the action again. Each film, in kind, has been met by diminishing returns at the Box Office, and the reason is because the franchise doesn't have a new story to tell and hasn't since Terminator 2. That movie ended decisively, meaning that anything to come after was written into a corner: "humanity was saved, but SkyNet finds a way to come back and start Judgment Day again, just later." That's the starting point for every movie in the series since T2 and, but now, audiences are tired of it.
The problem is I don't know what story you could write that would avoid that and still be part of the franchise. How can you have a Terminator film when Sarah and John already stopped SkyNet and ended to threat of Terminators? Where can you go from there? As even Dark Fate shows you really have nowhere else to go but back to the well. No matter how cool the Terminators may get, whatever cool concepts they may have this time around, every film that looks to reboot the franchise is giving us a story we've seen before. It's like the issue with superhero films always giving us an origin story, but here the origin is the next SkyNet, the next end of humanity. We've seen it four times now and it has yet to work.
Dark Fate bombed at the Box Office and is unlikely to get any of the sequels that were planned for it. I wouldn't say I'm sad about that -- I have a lot of issues with the film, as we just discussed, even if I did like some of the concepts and the action presented. Maybe, down the road, if another attempt is made to restart the franchise they can find some way to come up with a fresh hook for everything. Some new angle, some new way to do it that hasn't been shown before. Maybe a Western Terminator, or one set in Feudal Japan (with Samurai and all the trappings). There's gotta be some place to go for the series that won't feel like it's treading the same ground all over again. All I know is that Dark Fate is unlikely to be the grand re-start of the series everyone was hoping for. Who knows: maybe eighth time will be the charm?