Linda Hamilton returns to her iconic role, but is the Terminator franchise already terminal?
Mexico City, modern day; instead of a war-torn world where Cyberdyne’s Skynet-controlled machines rose up against humanity, life has gone on. A sphere of crackling energy expands into a temporal vortex within the concrete of a bridge overpass, and an unclothed athletic-looking woman (Mackenzie Davis) plummets out of it down into the ravine below. Elsewhere hours later, another such energy displacement occurs at an apartment complex, this time ejecting a man (Gabriel Luna). Both individuals are looking for a woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) for reasons unknown… with the possible exception of a wanted felon (Linda Hamilton) and an interior decorator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). And yes, the fate of the world once again hangs in the balance.
As most cinephiles are aware of 1984’s The Terminator (where a machine from the future is sent back in time to murder the mother of the human resistance) and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (where a similar Terminator is sent by the human resistance to protect the leader of the resistance from another more advanced assassin), let’s remember the other part-threes. 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines introduced Kristanna Loken as a “Terminatrix” vs. another Ah-nold terminator and a re-cast John Connor (Nick Stahl) with the world ending. 2009’s Terminator: Salvation threw us our first all-future John Connor (Christian Bale) and our first half-human, half-machine hybrid. Then finally we had 2015’s fan-service Terminator: Genesys with a fourth John Connor (Jason Clarke) as the hybrid and a recast Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) attempting yet another reboot. From the trailers, this new-new-new part three is supposedly a direct sequel to Judgment Day while details are clearly being borrowed from all three previous inceptions… but will audiences still care?
At its core, this fourth reboot of the third part commits the same sin as Aliens 3 while utilizing it in a smart way, but invested audiences may not be happy about it. Because it’s a time-travel sci-fi spectacle, all the films (and even television’s “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) can occupy the same multiverse as alternate timelines, but Dark Fate is also a victim of the sequels falling short of the promise of James Cameron’s T2. There’s also the issue of beating woke viewers over the head making current American political issues a central plot point, but if the future are these three females, that too may be forgivable. While over two decades past its posted 1997 expiration date, Dark Fate relaunches the original Terminator franchise in a meaningful way, embracing the violent spectacle of late 20th century action films using modern effects infused with characters worth caring about.
Seasoned franchise players Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are both back and could do their parts asleep, but a finely tuned physical and emotional performance by Mackenzie Davis steals most of the scenes she’s in. Natalia Reyes is also effective going from nobody to someone who could become somebody in an organic way. The matriarchal hierarchy dynamic between implied grandmother, mother, and daughter terminator-hunter roles strangely works, trench-bonding quickly and believably. The so-called mystery of Schwarzenegger’s part in all of it is obvious to the point of eye-rolling — and should have been to at least one character in particular — but he’s still a welcome distraction while not upstaging the newcomers. Gabriel Luna as new terminator model “Rev-9” brings both the subterfuge and quiet menace of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 on top of some great combat action sequences vs. Mackenzie. All in all, the biggest failing of this installment is the baggage of the three weaker “part threes” informing this amalgamated one, a detail that’s hard to overlook.
Like all Terminator sequels, there are plenty of callbacks, including some of the best cynical zingers from Hamilton. While the initial sting of the opening revelation feels hurtful, the film builds on it to earn viewers back, a commitment that works in principle but may not be entirely forgivable for some. More films could follow this premise — it’s not a definitive ending — but it’ll take plenty of positive ticket sales to see if this soft-launch can take advantage of the post-Joker lackluster box office to avoid a dark fate of its own.
Terminator: Dark Fate is rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity… for John.
Three skull recommendation out of four.
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