Being a Terminator fan is rough. Little positive can be said about the latter instalments. Terminator Genisys made me want to report James Cameron to the cinematic equivalent of child services, a piece of shlock that attempted to wipe the slate clean via multiple time-travel loops which asked more questions than it answered.
Despite being notably terrible, the plot wasn’t the standout flaw – in its attempt to start fresh, it misunderstood what made the first two so great.
Time-travel hijinks, ground-breaking special effects, or Cameron’s directing alone – although fantastic – isn’t enough to explain the success of the originals. They appealed to everyone, even those who wouldn’t typically watch sci-fi.
This is because they had genuine heart and emotion thrust. The Terminator was a romance wrapped in a horror film, and the sequel was about family and parenthood that just happened to be an action film with unsubtle takes on the military and corporations. Terminator: Dark Fate understands this.
Rather than tie itself up in narrative spaghetti, it has nailed the fundamentals. Not only do actors return, but characters. Linda Hamilton’s return as Sarah Connor is far from embarrassing, she demonstrates she’s still got what it takes to lead.
Arnold never really left, but the T-800 earns its return, not as another machine, but as a natural continuation of the previous. Thankfully their interactions (and other plot beats) aren’t just a “best-of Terminator montage” at triple speed, but new ideas and actual character development. Compared to miserable expectations, Dark Fate excelled in a way that deserves credit.
That’s not saying it functions solely as a fan-film; it’s an effective stand-alone. Avoiding narrative spaghetti, non-fans can watch without getting too confused. New characters are also well done; Dani (Natalia Reyes) is under target for her future efforts against rogue AI Legion and Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is an augmented soldier sent back in time to protect the future. Davis’ performance is notable as she carries the first act of the film and there is just something about her that makes for the perfect casting.
However, action is the film’s weakness. Cutting and framing, as a whole, distracted from what was happening and what can actually be followed is often too silly to take seriously. The frighteningly efficient infiltration assassins have been replaced with superhero silliness with an out-right comical tunnel vision set on killing their target.
James Cameron returns as writer with his characteristic unsubtle politics. The existential threat of the military-industrial complex and anti-romanticisation of war is back but, of note, is when a US-Mexico boarder officer is interrogated for the location of their prisoners, and quickly responds with “actually, they’re detainees”. Cameron has always been overt, this is no exception.
Preparing to watch Terminator: Dark Fate, I was ready to call it merely the latest let down of a dead franchise. Not only was it enjoyable with a satisfying narrative, it’s enjoyable on its own terms and earns the right to call itself a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day. For the casual viewer, what Dark Fate offers is silly but fun, and often ill-lensed action with more nuance and emotion than your typical film.