Before he became a Kubrickian technophile exclusively—and slavishly—devoted for years at a time to his own long-gestating projects, James Cameron established his name, in part, as a filmmaker uniquely gifted at crafting sequels that harnessed the appeal of the original film while launching the series as a whole in a new direction. Aliens is as perfect a follow-up to Alien as it is different from its predecessor, while Judgment Day levels up as much on the ideas behind the first Terminator as it does the thrills. Unfortunately, that absence of directorial clarity—a true sense of ownership not of a franchise, but its mythology—has plagued every Terminator sequel since then, even if some of the films touched on intriguing possibilities or mounted some exciting sequences.
But even if Tim Miller isn’t quite as far along in terms of voice and maturity as Cameron was when he tackled Terminator and Aliens back to back, Terminator: Dark Fate showcases his considerable skill even as it marks Cameron’s proper return to the world he created. Thoughtful and thrilling if slightly overstuffed with physics-defying set pieces, Dark Fate feels like a mostly-graceful passing of the torch from Cameron to Miller with an adventure that crucially breaks the repetitive wheel of canon elements featured in subsequent sequels while acknowledging that the franchise’s loop of fate and causality is both an inevitability and an untapped opportunity to break new ground in narrative and character development.
Like Cameron, original star Linda Hamilton returns to the Terminator timeline for the first time in decades to once again play Sarah Connor, the mother of future resistance leader John Connor (Edward Furlong) who has spent decades chasing down T-800 robots and destroying them to repeatedly prevent Judgment Day. When a young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is targeted by the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), a new Terminator prototype that combines the robotic frame of the T-800 and the liquid metal exoskeleton of the T-1000, she attempts to intervene, but discovers that Dani already has a protector: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a woman augmented with cyborg technology and sent back through time to keep her safe.
Sarah and Grace immediately clash, but as the Rev-9 pursues her from Mexico to the United States, both soldiers understand the danger Dani faces, and uneasily strike a truce to acclimate her to a life spent on the run. But when a series of mysterious transmissions leads the trio to “Carl” (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a T-800 who has unexpectedly settled into a life of secluded domesticity after being sent back through time decades prior, Dani decides that she will not spend the rest of her life on the run. With the Rev-9 and the authorities closing in on their whereabouts, Dani, Sarah and Grace decide to mount a last stand to destroy their seemingly unstoppable pursuer and determine their own fate—not one defined by Sarah’s past or inherited from Grace’s future, but driven forward by the choices they make in the present.
However inadvertently, one of the most important ideas that Dark Fate touches on is the way that many or most of the events in the Terminator timeline are repeating, and inevitable—that each victory over one killing machine only paves the way for another battle, likely tougher than the last, a few years later. It’s effectively reduced the franchise to a series of chase films that, good as they are, all ring immediately familiar, and after 35 years, has grown slightly too familiar for its own good. Miller’s installment is similar in that regard, but with Cameron shepherding its cabal of screenwriters (including Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray) through his compelling but cyclical mythology, the aim is less to recreate previous thrills than strike out into new territory. Moreover, the film recognizes that the cultural and visual touchpoints of the series are less relevant than reckoning with the legacy and impact of the story; in that regard, Dark Fate is more Halloween ’18 than The Force Awakens, and not simply because both films feature extraordinary, zero-fuck bad ass women who are 60 years old and still effortlessly commanding the screen.
To that end, Sarah Connor is older and wiser but still living with the vigilance, anxiety and resentment of not just being the only person who knows and believes in an apocalyptic future yet to come, but who has carried that burden—and the losses that come with it—for decades. Hamilton—not Sarah Connor, but her in that role, today—is the key missing ingredient (among a handful of others) that the last three films have lacked as storytellers have awkwardly attempted to shoehorn Schwarzenegger into each of them whether he was needed or not, and she elevates this story without, again, simply making it a retread of the version of the character she played before. Her ease on screen, and her authority, is automatic, and it deepens not just the story of this new young woman running for her life, but the emotional substance of someone bitterly fighting to protect a future that keeps reminding her it’s coming.
As Carl, meanwhile, Schwarzenegger finally gets an opportunity to explore the T-800 in a substantive way that challenges him as an actor and doesn’t merely play the same notes we’ve heard before from the “learning computer.” The character anchors so much of what happens in the franchise’s past, but the way Carl evolves touches delicately and provocatively on what themes may (and probably should) be explored going forward. If this is the final outing for that character, it’s a fitting and graceful conclusion to what between the original Terminator and this one as the canonical “third” feels like a real journey.
After Hamilton in The Terminator and Sigourney Weaver in the first two Alien films, it’s hard to watch young actresses evolve from would-be victim to bad ass and declare the transition a foregone success, but Reyes is certainly possessed of the versatility and determination to make Dani’s future role in the human resistance feel believable. Meanwhile, Mackenzie Davis is working on another level as Grace, a young woman-turned-soldier raised in the era of a robot apocalypse but still possessed of identifiable, irrepressible vulnerability. Her initial indifference or hostility to Sarah is a frequently hilarious thing of beauty, but Davis taps directly into what makes Grace’s drive so fierce, and it’s sort of delightfully different than Sarah’s without simply absorbing the one-dimensional clichés of a female character chiefly defined by traditionally masculine ideas of “toughness.”
Miller is still finding his footing as a director, and it’s too soon to call him an auteur in the mold of Cameron (or anybody else, for that matter). That’s less a dig at him than an observation of his relative inexperience; he’s very skilled technically, and handles both the action scenes and dramatic moments with verve and confidence. But the end of the movie gets away from him as it grows increasingly overpowered by action sequences and set pieces where not only does the physics seem wonky, but his sense of space, distance and momentum becomes jumbled. The unfair comparison notwithstanding, Cameron’s clean, carefully-mapped staging of action would have served some of Miller’s ideas better than his own visceral but frequently too-close camerawork. Nevertheless, I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise to call Terminator: Dark Fate the best Terminator film since Judgment Day. Not only is it the most consistently smart and exciting film bearing that name in decades, it’s the first that feels less like a retread than a step into a new, ambitious future that, like Cameron’s exceptional sequels, builds from a foundation—but isn’t beholden—to the series’ past.
4 out of 5
Header Image: Paramount Pictures