“I’ll be back.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic catchphrase, first threatened in 1984’s The Terminator, was once a celebrated calling card for the Austrian Oak and his mechanical alter-ego. In recent years, though, it has tended to elicit more eye-rolling than excitement.
The franchise has been back several times since 1991’s superior sequel, Judgment Day, but has never quite hit the same mark. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines tried to replicate T2’s winning formula but strayed too far into campy early noughties blockbuster territory. The future-set Terminator: Salvation is still best remembered for Christian Bale’s viral on-set tirades, rather than anything that actually happened in front of the camera. Most recently, Terminator: Genisys’ attempts to reboot the saga failed on startup. Never has the concept of diminishing returns seemed so applicable.
It’s fitting, then, that the character who utters those immortal three words in Terminator: Dark Fate is not Arnie’s returning metal man (a regular series fixture if you include a brief CG replica in Salvation), but Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. The mother of future resistance leader John, she was the beating heart and soul of the first two movies – not to mention one of the original female action heroes – but she was conspicuously absent from all subsequent follow-ups. Coincidence?
In fact, the smartest thing that Deadpool director Tim Miller’s newest franchise entry does – aside from ignoring that movies 3-5 exist – is to bring Hamilton back into the fold. She might have been out of the time-travelling cyborg business for 28 years, but she’s lost none of her on-screen grit and general badassery. A tortured soul with a wicked wit and an unquenchable thirst for revenge, Connor’s return gives the franchise back its edge – right from Dark Fate’s moody, T2-referencing opening.
With that in mind, does the film as a whole match the giddy heights of James Cameron’s first two chapters? The short answer is no. But is it the best Terminator sequel since Judgment Day? Granted, the competition hasn’t exactly been fierce, but yes, yes it is.
Plot-wise, Miller and his writing team (including a ‘story’ credit for Cameron, who’s also back on board as producer) strip things right back to basics. At its heart, much like the first two Terminator movies, Dark Fate is a simple but effective (for the most part) chase movie. That might sound a bit “what’s the point, then?” but, despite rehashing a familiar narrative device, it does mean that there’s an immediate sense of urgency here that’s been lacking from the other sequels (it’s darker and more violent, too, inspiring a return to a harder ’15’ certificate). Think of it as the Force Awakens to The Terminator‘s A New Hope: it’s essentially the same story, told with a newbie-friendly next-gen cast and shored up by a couple of franchise legends.
So we have a new hero (Natalia Reyes’ Dani Ramos), a new cyborg sent from the future to kill her (Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9) and a new protector sent back in time to save her (Mackenzie Davis’ ‘enhanced’ human warrior, Grace). When things start swinging in the Terminator’s favour, though, experienced machine hunter Sarah Connor (Hamilton) steps in, and is forced to call on the help of a rogue T-800 (Schwarzenegger) – who’s assimilated himself into human society under the guise of a curtain salesman named ‘Carl’ – to prevent another technology-led future apocalypse from playing out (“Those assholes never learn,” she wearily observes).
The three major new cast members are all immediately compelling: Reyes is likeable and believable as the unwitting key player in an impending war, but never allows Dani to become too much of a victim; Davis is a revelation, throwing herself headfirst into the action as well as selling the emotional trauma inflicted by Grace’s terrifying future-past; and Luna is relentless in the best way as the film’s villain – taking a leaf straight out of the Robert Patrick Guide to Terminating. And, alongside Hamilton, this is easily Arnie’s best franchise runout since T2.
Credit to Miller, too, for delivering some of the best, most intense action sequences the long-running series has served up yet – an early throwdown between Grace and the Rev-9 in a Mexican factory and the ensuing, carnage-heavy freeway chase being a particular standout. Combining high stakes with an inventive set-piece and capturing it all with an impressive level of visual clarity is clearly Miller’s forte, and he doesn’t disappoint here – initially at least.
Unfortunately (and frustratingly, given the relative lack of blockbuster excess early on), the momentum isn’t maintained on this front. The film’s third act is largely taken up with a jarring, VFX-heavy airborne action sequence so ludicrous and overblown that it almost feels mandated, recalling the worst parts of previous sequels and threatening to undo some of the goodwill that has already been cultivated. Still, the film just about manages to pull it back with a final battle that includes a fair few nostalgic nods to Judgment Day’s thrilling, thumb-raising denouement.
So, the Terminator series is back, with perhaps the best ‘third’ instalment it’s ever had. Dark Fate is not going to be rivalling The Terminator or Judgment Day in fans’ estimations any time soon, but given that those are both stone-cold, bona fide genre classics, it’s perhaps unfair to expect it to. It is, however, consistently entertaining, and it’s a blast seeing Hamilton back on the big screen in a role she was born to play. Will the Terminator be back again? Well, if these movies have taught us anything, it’s that the future is not set – but if this is to be Sarah’s swansong, it’s a fitting send-off to a beloved badass.
Terminator: Dark Fate is in UK cinemas now.