There’s a book waiting to be written about movies no one wanted, and the first chapter will certainly feature Tim Miller’s latest installment in the Terminator franchise—Terminator: Dark Fate—prominently. Superfluous in its existence, Dark Fate actually surprises in its emotional urgency: further examining the theme of sentience in machines, and refocusing the franchise on a new story—filled with themes of immigration and feminism—with varying degrees of success.
Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an automated human from 2042 arrives in present-day Mexico City to protect Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes), for reasons we’re initially unsure of other than the future has sent an advanced Terminator: the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) to eliminate her. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, or several other times. A few wrinkles do exist: Rev-9 wasn’t sent by Skynet, instead Legion—meaning Terminator 3, 4, and 5 do not exist in this universe.
Grace and Dani go on the lamb, and Miller in the process crafts some incredible chance sequences that feature the Rev-9’s new features: mainly cloning itself from its metal skeleton. Still, Grace is unsure of the technological tracking ability of this past world: an odd plot hole when one charts her life, so keeping the Rev-9 from Dani proves difficult. To these ends, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton): in all her nonchalant bad ass glory, arrives to help. In a mysterious manner, they also come into contact with the Terminator T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger)—now named Carl and living in retirement.
Often Dark Fate falls into the show don’t tell trap, exposition through voice-over flashbacks (or flashforwards?). We’re airmailed Dani’s future with no nuance, which can happen when screenwriters know the twist and write too closely to it. Writers, especially when composing narratives that manipulate time, are fearful the audience won’t follow along when left only simple instructions—assuming they’re a first-day bartender on specials night, which makes Dark Fate‘s storytelling clunky and removes any slight of hand for Reyes’ Dani.
When Miller’s picture allows Hamilton and Schwarzenegger to handle characters they’re more familiar with than anyone, the film hits its stride like a tremendous machine, galloping through emotionally intense action sequences and affecting dialogue. Over the decades, the old Terminator has gained a family and perspective, and as he’s spent time among humans, he’s only become more like us. Nevertheless, he remains very aware of what he isn’t. He can’t ever love, not like a real human, but he can empathize. That empathy, and the lineage of those previous James Cameron offerings spun through decades of cultural significance, makes any moment between Connor and Carl a meeting of antagonistic band members putting aside their differences and reuniting for once last tour.
But that last tour hits outages. Dani and Grace, the new blood of the series, quickly take a backseat when Connor and Carl meet. The second half of the film: and the two fresh protagonists’ importance, become muddled as Miller shifts from intricate car chases to a larger discussion of grief and growth. To continue the band analogy, it’s like when the reunion tour keeps the replacement members and they have to integrate into the former lineup. They eventually fade into the background, never melding together: which happens to the feminist overtones of Dark Fate. They’re displaced. The only new component that sticks is the theme of immigration. Miller seamlessly melds the location: Mexico City, and Dani to peer into the vernacular and practices of governmental officials, like calling prisons detainees because the latter sounds better or showing us the pens immigrants are held in if they’re caught.
Nevertheless, even with that necessary relevancy, when we arrive to the fight sequences, the most gripping action happens while Connor and Carl are battling their respective foes and the modern Rev-9: who’s not given nearly enough to do. Our eyes and hearts gravitate to their well-being. That worry isn’t due to how the sequences are shot: because Mackenzie Davis provides enough powerful fight choreography on her own, but the importance they have for the franchise’s legacy which the writers never separate us far enough from. The picture concludes with a sequence that attempts some closure while developing a new narrative aperture.
No matter the ending, Terminator: Dark Fate succeeds as a Terminator movie: THE Terminator in fact—but as a new chapter leading to excitingly ingenious adventures, we’re stuck in a time warp of only historical importance.