“Terminator: Dark Fate” review: No fate but what we make. Over. And over. And over again.

The Terminator was a predictive post-apocalyptic movie made just for me back in 1984.  Terminator 2: Judgement Day arrived eight years later — an eternity by today’s sequel-itis standards — and did the impossible: it maintained the heart of the original, yet surpassed it in every way. A time travel story that honored its roots, but found inventive ways to give us an origin story for John Connor, believably turn his meek mother into a venerable super-soldier, and give us more Arnold. Arguably, T2 offers up an Arnold who may actually have some acting chops beyond the mostly mute characters he had played in the first Terminator and Conan the Barbarian

A little history: Following T2, creator James Cameron and Schwarzenegger both famously said “T3 without me.” Well, without them until 2003 when the former body-buildier returned to the role, launching 16 years of painful Terminator sequels, reboots and re-imaginings, culminating with Cameron’s return as story-writer and producer on this new picture. Cameron and the other creatives involved have billed Terminator: Dark Fate as a direct sequel to T2 …   essentially a new Terminator 3. Out with the old. In with the new. Hollywood, am I right?

Dark Fate begins by bringing us up to date with Sarah. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me just say that in the first five minutes of the movie — which takes place only a few years after T2 — we are led to believe that all will be different. Judgement Day has been avoided, and a big thing happens. Whoa … now I was thinking, “Oh cool. We’re gonna get a new Terminator Story.”

Then flash forward to present day, and we see a few people (Terminators?) drop from the sky out of the iconic electric blue spheres. Who’s good and who’s bad? Misdirections abound, until we meet our new future savior, Dani (Natalia Reyes,) who quickly becomes the protectorate of an older, angrier and grizzled Sarah (Linda Hamilton reprising), and an enhanced human super soldier from the future named Grace, played by a truly electrifying Mackenzie Davis. Gabriel Luna rounds out the cast as the new baddie Rev-9 Terminator. 

And Schwarzenegger is back —  he is a true high point — playing Carl, a grizzled old Terminator model 101 who has grown a conscience in the last 25 years while becoming a family man.  For me the big surprise was Arnold’s shockingly nuanced acting. I am not kidding here — this guy has become a real true, blue actor. 

I spend time telling you about the characters and actors because they are all great. Believable, nuanced, strong, and I liked them all. I’d love to see Arnold and crew in a family drama.

In addition to this really great cast, Dark Fate opens with some impressive action sequences (including a fun highway chase which was both fresh, and an excellent callback to the T1000 chasing John and T101 from T2.) The picture maintains inventive fight choreography and action set pieces throughout. It really is fun to watch. 

But alas, the lesson Hollywood never learns: without a good story, no one cares. You might as well watch Terminator 2: Judgement Day. They are literally the same movie. Rev-9 chases them for the better part of it’s 2 hour and 8 minute runtime, and he plays all the same tricks as Robert Patrick’s super inventive T1000 did 28 years ago. Oh yeah … he can split in two. That’s the neat new super power. This is Scorsese’s amusement park ride. 

The story also gets overly bogged down in future history. We spend all too much of the runtime with unnecessary, or redundant, explanations of why things are the way they are. We see flashbacks (flash-forwards?) of experiences Grace has gone through, and none of these reveal much of anything. Director Tim Miller fails to understand that the here and now with our cast is far more interesting and the unnecessary backstory just slows things down.

Even when it tries really hard, this film fails. Dark Fate builds on a theme already done better in the earlier films: Girl Power. This updated T2 , adds a touch of commentary of immigration, and jams down your throat how woke the movie is to the strength of women. The women are strong. They are great. I didn’t need the film to overtly tell me. Just let them kick ass.

In the end, Dark Fate is a little bit of fun, but not enough to justify its existence. Unless you are a completist or in love with MacKenzie Davis, go watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day and ignore this retread. Nothing to see here folks. Move right along.

I give Terminator: Dark Fate 5.25 bottle rockets out of 10 rocket fired grenades.

Other Thoughts:

I have been wondering about this idea of selling “girl-powered” action movies to young boys. So I asked my 13 year-old nephew, with whom I saw the film:

ME:  “Ben, does it matter that the main characters were women?” 

BEN: “What do you mean?”

ME: “You know … the main people fighting, the heroes were all women.”

BEN: “No. I loved the movie.”

‘Nuff said.

 

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