The Terminator franchise is a franchise I wish was over. In fact, I wrote a piece a few years ago about which franchises needed to die and spoiler for those who wanted to read the list, but the Terminator franchise landed at the number one spot. It’s a franchise that has been around for almost forty years and one that should have ended ten years ago.
James Cameron’s first two films, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are sci-fi classics, with Judgement Day being arguably one of the best action movies ever made. It was when James Cameron left the franchise that everything went to hell. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a mediocre, silly effort that plays better as background noise than an actual movie. Terminator: Salvation’s prequel approach was a solid idea, but with McG behind the camera, the execution just wasn’t there. And then there was Terminator: Genysis, which might be one of the worst movies I have seen this decade. I honestly thought that Genysis would have been the nail in the Terminator coffin.
I thought wrong. Usually I’m a person who doesn’t like being wrong, but this time, I didn’t mind it. With its combination of thrilling action, smart story, good performances, and a surprising amount of heart, Terminator: Dark Fate is easily the best since Judgement Day. And while director Tim Miller does a solid job behind the camera, there is one key reason why Dark Fate is successful: James Cameron.
After Judgement Day, Cameron didn’t have anything to do with the Terminator franchise. His only credit on Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genysis was for a “based on characters created by”. He wasn’t a writer, a producer, or even an executive producer on any of the other films. I think he did a promotional spot for Genysis, but that was really it. For Dark Fate, Cameron is given a “story by” credit as well as a producer credit, making him an integral part in the film. You can see Cameron’s influence everywhere in the film. Cameron knows these characters and knows what made the first two so great, which elevates Dark Fate to being a strong entry in an all-but-dead franchise.
Sarah Connor (a righteous return for Linda Hamilton) has stopped SkyNet from destroying the world. However, changing the future is bound to have its repercussions. As a loner roaming the world, Connor ends getting entangled with Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who is trying to keep Dani (Natalia Reyes) safe from a new kind of terminator know as a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). Grace is an enhanced human who has come from the past and knows the importance of Dani in the future. On the road running away from the seemingly unstoppable Rev-9, Connor, Grace, and Dani seek the help of the original T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who has since grown somewhat of a conscience, renamed himself Carl, and domesticated himself, drinking beer, watching football, wearing cargo shorts, and living with a woman and child he met years ago. The four of them come together to try and keep Dani safe.
Sound familiar? It kind of is. But there are enough differences here that make you refrain from rolling your eyes. Tim Miller, known for his work behind the camera on the first Deadpool, puts together some really exciting action pieces. Miller balances explosions and gunfire with some up close action with chains, pipes, and fists. One of the set pieces takes place on a carrier jet that had my heart racing and slapped a giant smile on face. It is one of the best action scenes of the year.
But Dark Fate has more going for it than just the action. This is a movie with a lot of heart and a lot to say about fate, the past, and redemption. Connor is dealing with heart-shattering losses in her life that have made her bitter, angry, and vengeful. Carl, with his new-found conscience, is dealing with what he has done in his past and is trying to grow beyond it and learn what it actually means to be emotional towards someone and learn that not everyone is a target. Grace and Dani are also dealing with destiny, as Grace is doing everything in her power to save Dani because of what it to come from the future, but Dani is focused on the present and what she can do then. It’s these deeper themes like this that were missing from the last three Terminator films, yet also what made the first two so great.
Look, I’m not saying this franchise should continue. The finale of this film leaves the door open for more, but it could also close the door on the whole thing. If the Terminator franchise does continue, the only way it will be successful is with James Cameron being part of the film. Cameron knows his own creation better than anyone and knows that a great Terminator film has plenty of action, but plenty of brains and heart as well. I’m not saying Dark Fate is a great movie per se, as the plot is familiar and there were some action moments where the Rev-9 reminded me of Neon in The Matrix Reloaded, but it is a good movie that I had a surprisingly good time with.
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