The Terminator franchise was never about John Connor. Not really. Beneath all the guns and cyborg skulls, and even beyond the original two movies’ unending chases, they were about Sarah Connor, the young woman who discovered she was sci-fi Mother Mary. Her son was just the MacGuffin, and then the T-800’s playmate in the sequel. To its credit, Terminator: Dark Fate gets that. It even calls her Mother Mary, but, you know, with a shotgun.
Twenty-eight years after James Cameron and audiences said goodbye to the only Sarah Connor who mattered, Linda Hamilton returns to her legendary character. In the interim, there have been stand-ins and a series of sequels that all in varying degrees disappointed; and the once beloved action franchise has become long in the tooth. But Dark Fate is able to (mostly) skate by that fact. Posturing itself to be something akin to the solemn-eyed nostalgia trip that The Force Awakens was to Star Wars, this Tim Miller directed movie ignores the franchise’s multiple past continuities in the aim of crowning itself as the originals’ lone worthy heir… It’s still not even in the same sport, much less ballpark, as those movies, but it’s the closest we’ve come.
Set almost three decades after the events of T2, Terminator: Dark Fate turns on the idea that Sarah and John succeeded at changing the future in 1995, but humans cannot leave the allure of artificial intelligence alone any easier than producers can let intellectual property rest. So Skynet never existed in the altered timeline, but about 40 years later we still invented an AI—now named Legion—who one day blows most of us up. The survivors, however, fight back!
Hence Legion sending its own Terminator, the Rev 9 (Gabriel Luna), to 2020 to kill a young Mexican woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Why she is so important isn’t immediately clear, but the future’s human resistance has sent Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human soldier with cybernetic augments, to save the unsuspecting Dani. And lucky for them both, an unknown angel on their shoulders named Sarah Connor has made it her business to hunt any cyborgs who wander through the time stream. And Dani, business is a-boomin.’
At its core, Terminator: Dark Fate is a deferential but undeniable remake of the original 1984 movie that made James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger household names. The dynamics are slightly different, and the action is much higher budgeted, but as Sarah Connor even muses in one of her first chitchats with Dani, “You’re me.” And from that vantage, Grace is the new Kyle Reese while Luna’s big bad is standing in for Schwarzenegger, only with the added benefit of Terminator 2’s liquid superpowers (and the digital effects to create them). Nostalgic reboots unto themselves are not a dead end though, as The Force Awakens, Creed, and Jurassic World have shown at least at the box office, and Dark Fate goes about its business with apocalyptic zeal.
Directed by Miller with more intensity than any of the other non-Cameron sequels, the action is blunt and often brutal, even as it relies too heavily on CGI (though the Rev 9’s liquid skin separating from its metal endoskeleton is a neat all-in-one villain effect). Still, it’s the cast who salvages the first half of the movie, which leans on the same story beats of the original to a fault. While there is some astute political commentary with Dani and Grace by way of the Border Patrol instead of the police—leading to a visceral action sequence in which the white male villain chases the woman of color past families in cages—but as a story it is excessively redundant.
What keeps those early scenes afloat is the women leading them, who treat this material with the kind of reverence sorely missing in 2015’s tepid Terminator Genisys. Also the emphasis on a multi-generational crew of women, with Reyes and Davis both being the successors of Hamilton’s badass iconography, adds a meta-texture deeper than the plot. One could even argue Reyes plays Connor from the first film and Davis is Sarah from the second, with a formidable physicality and brisk violent streak that’s all her own.
But what truly makes Dark Fate’s case is of course Sarah. Hamilton still simmers with a quiet, constant outrage about the life she’s been handed, as well as a vivid capacity for dishing out that same sorrow to her metal foes. The script can lean too heavily in places on supplying her with one-liners and four-letter quotables, but as the movie progresses, it adds extra dimension to Sarah’s bitterness from T2… and in the third act when she at last confronts Schwarzenegger, who returns for a small but pivotal supporting role as the final T-800 to cross Sarah’s path, the movie is downright explosive. In fact, its best scene is the pair having drinks in the backyard of the T-800’s Texan home.
As good as the cast on the whole can be, it’s Hamilton and Schwarzenegger taking their most popular characters out for what feels like one last ride that truly elevates Dark Fate into being worthwhile. The pair’s last scene together, and how it mines their legacies, justifies this movie’s existence. Yet it also raises the question if the franchise has much life beyond this point. Dark Fate certainly sets up for another sequel, but this vein feels pretty tapped out. I’m not sure Dark Fate has really rebooted its franchise, and it definitely doesn’t offer an ending better than Cameron’s final minutes in T2. Nonetheless, it’s a steady actioner that pays appropriate tribute to the past. If nothing else, it does right by its time-sliding themes by washing away the bad taste of past mistakes and the sequels that made them.
Terminator: Dark Fate opens on Friday, Nov. 1.