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FILM REVIEW – “Terminator: Dark Fate”: Best Sequel To Follow Judgment Day, Not Best Way to Keep Franchise Alive

I can still vaguely remember the night I had sat in a cramped IMAX theater for years ago, where I posed a pivotal question. “Should the Terminator franchise be dead and done for! Is it about time?”. Only the original and its immediate sequel have proven its staying power, the latter two films are nothing more than underwhelming. And Genisys, the then-most recent entry had shown the steam tanks were tapped dry. Not everyone would want yet another sequel. That is unless it were to bring the mom back, with all the badassery she could manage. That’s exactly what director Tim Miller strives for in Terminator: Dark Fate, a sequel whose place in the timeline is a more direct connection to James Cameron’s original two masterpieces. Essentially Rise of the Machines, Salvation or Genisys are now either non-canon, alternate timeline fodder, or nonexistent in your memory, dependent on who you’re talking to. However it’s spun, retconning is still retconning. Normally, I’d be against it. Here, I can let it slide even if the product still ends with a sour flavor on the tongue.

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) cannot catch a break in her life, always needing to make her present far better than her awkward, disastrous past. Having dealt with the infamous rogues of T-800s and the looming presence of Skynet for many years and timelines, the last thing she’d crave is having to eradicate a new model of enemy who can’t be eliminated as easily. Yet, it’s her bread and butter, roving around North America to shoot out the stragglers. That’s when she crosses paths with a new, non-partisan soldier named Grace (McKenzie Davis). She’s a bit of a special case, as an enhanced human: as strong as they come in a fight, but impossibly vulnerable with enough open wounds.

Her mission’s simple: track down a rogue Rev-9 terminator (Gabriel Luna) traveling from the future to eliminate a random subject just south of the border. Dani (Natalia Reyes) is in for the weirdest day of her life the moment she, Grace, and later Sarah cross paths to stay one step ahead of this dangerous threat. It’s not at all easy for any of them, protecting the present on the wildest goose chase, while saving the future from damage that cannot be reversed. And of course, that does require some ingenuity, a lot of bad humor, illegal border crossing, and Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to one of his most iconic roles to essentially save the third act.

If you know these movies, then easy to admit the formula is unchanged if the scenarios vary to extreme lengths. Surely your appreciation toward this series and its decreasing vitriol for continuity is more substantial than what I could openly admit to. The value of time travel and exposing hidden secrets has remained consistent, if not grown by a high leap here. Sci-fi ethical quandaries are still a star attraction, something Cameron’s watchful eyes can gleefully enforce. And yet with all the names attached to this screenplay, you couldn’t notice exactly when it was trying to be profound and earth-shattering. Dark Fate carried an initial treatment by Cameron, which Charles Eglee (Murder One), Josh Friedman (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), Justin Rhodes (Grassroots), and most notoriously David Goyer (Krypton) would punch up, build upon, and ultimately downgrade into a jumble.

It’s not that it is incoherent, the experience never went that terribly. There were just some moments where, through the talents of those four script doctors, I was wondering whether I could truly take this sci-fi feature seriously. Long story short: I really couldn’t. Between all the unintentional humor and army of McGuffins, there was no chance to be properly found. The film does say a lot for morality in future tech, and the downsides of where immigration reform has failed us, lending to one of the most anarchic scenes at the midway point. Both are really nothing more McGuffins, and Luna their unfortunate patron saint, where he’s essentially portraying a gag character. Nothing that would be considered legitimate or iconic in the same vein as Arnold would be in all his incarnations as the old-school T-800.

The girl-power dynamic led by the badass Miss Hamilton, that’s perhaps where Dark Fate best excels at. Her presence in the franchise has been no less present, but not so much at the forefront since T2, when the men seemed to rule the show, Arnold and the snot-nosed kid version of Sarah’s kid John. Finally, further proof positive that the central conflict always lied with motherly instinct. Make no mistake, Hamilton makes a triumphant return as the mama hen with a shotgun, all fired up with an aching desire, working off random text messages to establish her next kill.

Davis is an easygoing delight, thinking with a positive conscience as well as a fragile vulnerability. And the deeper we go into her backstory, one riddled with a few shocking secrets, the kind that could have one cheering (almost), the more fondness we could build. Do not be surprised if that were to happen to you, despite some small Alita-esque similarities. It’s Miss Reyes, the Colombian-born actress who had made some waves earlier this year in Birds of Passage that perhaps delivers the strongest revelation. Making her formal American acting debut with little fanfare but plenty of built-in buzz, she’s an otherwise well-kept secret whose stock as a levelheaded, plucky action star may only grow with time. She is indeed a talent to watch for.

Miller may not have been the most befitting choice to helm a Terminator movie. It may have been impossible for the man not to make a satire out of it the same way he successfully accomplished three years prior with the original Deadpool. Like many a critic sitting in that packed theater, I did laugh at spots whether we were supposed to or not. Perhaps we were not. Matter of fact, I still have a feeling we weren’t supposed to.

And yet we objectively found something about the shenanigans themselves, or a line delivery, or Arnold growing decadently cheesier with age. Hell, the entire third act manages to reach borderline Fast and Furious levels of ineptitude, culminating in a drawn-out aquatic power plant fight sequence. All of this had strangely thrown me for a loop, even if all but the original Terminator managed to squeak out one moment of hokeyness that won’t have shown its age at any point. Regardless, Miller still accomplishes his role more effectively than that of Alan Taylor, who helmed Genisys into unbridled drudgery.

But that is still not saying much. There’s a small part of me that liked Terminator: Dark Fate, the shrinking part that can tolerate mindless, carb-heavy popcorn flick. Another part of me is still cringing over how brainless it is, and how little it does to propel the franchise forward. And that is a shame. We still get to see Sarah Connor back on our screens, fighting for her life, for her family, for the world. Against an outlandish story that starts out legitimate, but later borders on the clownish, it can still hold its own amidst the rest of the series. Though I know the possibility of saying “hasta la vista” for good would be much sweeter than anything else Cameron could come up with for this unique universe. That alone would be enough for me to recommend this minor timewaster to those interested. Should you choose to make a purchase, remember it in the future, if and when you decide to reembark on Cameron’s Avatar hype-train. At least the momentum there isn’t tired of itself, just yet. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)

Terminator: Dark Fate is in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity; 128 minutes.

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About Joe Hammerschmidt

Proud WA state native, knows his way too well around three things: the history behind the local radio dial, the understated combination of pizza and root beer, and an endearing enthusiasm for film. Being involved at The Bull, he hopes to build on all three of those, and also contribute to the further growth of Seattle's country music scene. Tomorrow, the world. The next day, Mars!

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