Review: Terminator Dark Fate

Director: Tim Miller

Stars: Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, Natalia Reyes

In hindsight, perhaps we ought to be thankful for just how dire Terminator Genisys turned out to be. That movie – which pissed all over a pretty well sodden franchise – ended with the threat of further sequels. Fortunately, those plans have been terminated (ha!). Dark Fate eliminates not only Genisys but Rise Of The Machines and Salvation right along with it. Not only that, but it brings hardened battleaxe Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) back into the fold. It’s basically this year’s Halloween but, y’know, filled with killer robots.

James Cameron’s name is slapped all over production and story credits, but he still thinks Avatar sequels are a better use of his time. Directing duties fall to Deadpool‘s Tim Miller, who is certainly no Cameron. Still, he mounts an efficient sci-fi action movie here, one that harks back to the high-concept thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s, while also (for better or worse) bringing this series in line with present-day trends.

This means that the chugging, streamlined chase template that typified the first two films is now also gifted the kind of physics that dominate the current glut of superhero movies, not to mention the juggernaut that is Fast & Furious. Miller also still loves his slow-mo. It is used here gratuitously, more-so even than in Deadpool.

These tics mean that Dark Fate occasionally looks very bad. Far too often we find weightless CGI sprites of the main characters bounding about, snapping us out of the film’s deranged reality. There’s also, of course, a fondness for fast cutting and digital murk (not least when one sequence takes the action underwater).

These are, however, some of the main complaints to be found in a film that easily bests the three sequels it has turned to dust.

We’re in Mexico. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) has been targeted for termination by a new breed of machine from the future; a sort of combination of the 101 and the T-1000 that’s been dipped in the Black Oil from The X-Files. This menace is played (a little ineffectually) by Gabriel Luma. Fairing far better, and easily the highlight of the film, is the great Mackenzie Davis as ‘augmented’ human, Grace, who arrives as counterpart to the unstoppable killing machine (Dark Fate playing sturdily to type).

Davis has been a great presence in the margins for some time, from the much-admired ‘San Junipero’ episode of Black Mirror, to indie gems like Always Shine. She was the best thing about Jason Reitman’s muddled Tully. Dark Fate places her front and centre as a major player. Grace is wicked strong from her cyber upgrades, but these super soldier powers come at a price. She fluctuates from powerful to vulnerable as if she’s Reynolds Woodcock, and quickly becomes the most emotionally available character in Miller’s stall, even more than Dani (which is not to besmirch Ramos; she’s merely out-shined).

For her part, Hamilton is given a lot to work with as the returning Sarah Connor. Archive footage of her tirades about the future from Terminator 2 open the movie and now, 20+ years down the line, Sarah hasn’t quite shaken off the crazy. This iteration is an enjoyable mix of scowling pragmatist and tin-foil obsessed loon. How she gets involved in the chase is, however, a thorny point that brings us to the inevitable Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Should he even be here? I’m leaning toward ‘no’. Tim Miller must be kicking himself that, earlier this year, Nick Nolte already turned up as a crazy ol’ grandpa living in the woods for the otherwise pointless actioner Angel Has Fallen. Schwarzenegger serves a similar function here, only its a bit less fun, mostly because of a barely-believable and cumbersome back story to excuse his presence in the first place. Still, its a marked improvement on his routine as ‘Pops’ in Genisys. He even gets a proper name this time.

The Terminator and its first sequel worked well for many reasons, but one of the pervasive underlying ones was how they both pricked at global fears of nuclear war. Those concerns exist again, though to a lesser degree. Still, Dark Fate finds a few other – ack – ‘relevant’ concerns to run with. The idea of the surveillance state working against you and the difficulties of an unavoidable digital footprint are mined here for anxieties, while Luma’s liquid-metal man spends the second half of the movie wearing a Border Patrol uniform. The US/Mexico border plays a key role in the movie, and one is inclined – initially – to think Dark Fate is going to play illegal immigration for right wing points, but the sustained visual of one of these officers as a lethal menace to a young Mexican woman tips things firmly the other way.

In spite of upending the future and gifting us another new convoluted timeline, Dark Fate mostly succeeds as an efficient if not entirely necessary late sequel. It of course seeds the potential for further movies should it prove an overwhelming success, but as it stands – and in light of what we’ve already suffered through – this can still be chalked up as something of a win.

Some fans are already bemoaning one character fate that’s determined early on, fittingly recalling the fuss surrounding Alien3. And that’s a good place for us to end (for now). Like Fincher’s film, this is one that’ll divide the die-hard fans, but earns itself inclusion in the newly defined shape of the franchise.

Mainly, watch it for Mackenzie Davis.

Score: 

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