It’s been too long since I last reviewed a film, admittedly. With lots of life changes, I have still found time to watch some major Hollywood releases, but I haven’t found the time to reflect like I’ve wanted. All that said, knowing of a new Terminator movie has held my interest for months now. I haven’t reviewed any other of the films on the site, but let’s just say that I’ve been a fan of the series since childhood. You may be thinking, “Childhood, you say? Aren’t these films almost exclusively R-Rated, even the original?” You are correct, but I was one of those kids who was heavily marketed to back in the T2 days, and yes, I had most all of the toys. The early 90s were a weird time, and while we could discuss the perils of marketing Arnold Schwarzenegger action figures and video games alongside the Ninja Turtles of the time, I can vouch that it was effective.
Since then, I haven’t missed the theatrical releases of any of the sequels that followed. I have played every video game, and honestly, I’ve enjoyed each in their own way, even if critics drubbed most of them. With this latest film, Terminator: Dark Fate, directed by Tim Miller and produced by the original creator, James Cameron, we see an increasingly common approach at work: scrub the sequels we know that may or may not have worked and slip in a new entry that is the definitive and canonical continuation of a saga (i.e. Jurassic World & Halloween). Doing this allows opportunity to build off of brand nostalgia while freeing creators up to do surprising things that aren’t beholden to any number of other films.
That’s really a good jumping off point to talk about this film. In it, we have a handful of new characters joined by some familiar faces as well. Without delving into the specifics, it follows a formula that is known well to fans of The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day: a young person (in this case, Dani, played by Natalia Reyes) is the focus of pursuit from an assassin robot from the future (Gabriel Luna). Protecting her is another from the future (Mackenzie Davis), and the pursuit provides the almost non-stop focus of the runtime. See? It’s definitely in line with those films. Add in the presence of Sarah Connor, played by the out-of-retirement, Linda Hamilton, and the T-800 we have known for decades, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has appeared in every film, even if it was only his digital likeness. Those two components should surely fill seats, right?
Well, I review this after the film’s opening weekend. I won’t link a ton of coverage there, but let’s just say that the film didn’t perform to expectations. That alone says nothing about the quality of the film, but that’s where I’ll be looking. While the general movie going public may be over the desire to see more from the series, it’s the creative choices that make or break a film like this. And to be succinct, I do feel like it’s the latter that we get here, even if the film isn’t a complete failure. The structure and pacing should be exactly what any fan of the two originals should want, but there are decisions, some even within the first opening minutes of the film, that will likely sideline enjoyment for many. It’s bold decisions like these that are becoming known from filmmakers as attempts to “subvert expectations”. I can sense that this is what the filmmakers were going for here, but ultimately, it irreparably sets the narrative for this film on a path that is far removed from the trappings of other films. Is that a bad thing? Not in concept, but if a film is going to go there with bold choices, it needs to be a slam dunk in all areas to compensate. Here, we get visual effects that, while frenetic and occasionally exhilarating, often fall flat without the inventiveness that has come before. We get familiar tropes, played through a lens of what feels like disingenuous progressiveness for the sake of being a “modern” action movie. We get humor that works sporadically at best, and we get F-bombs that feel like they came only to make it R-Rated. All of this makes for an uneven film.
Still, the film, while littered with plot inconsistencies, does manage to have fun throughout. The Terminator did a lot with very little budget, and T2 blew the door open for film effects that still feel great to this day. This entry, while offering action set pieces that are humongous in scale compared to those films, falls victim to the “more is less” that often comes with modern CGI set pieces. The relentlessness of Gabriel Luna‘s Rev-9 Terminator unit is commendable and ratchets up tension, but at times, it comes off as funny how he just appears in full pursuit. Mackenzie Davis gives it her all, but certain aspects of the character take away from her protector role; again, creative decisions have an impact. Daniella Reyes just didn’t work here; I understand that she is meant to grow and change, but I didn’t believe it with her performance. Both Linda Hamilton and Arnold made the entire film more enjoyable with the tension between them both.
Content-wise, the film is indeed R-Rated. Language features, and as is customary for the time-travelling in these films, nudity is a requirement. That said, the film hides that nudity, so we know while they don’t show. All of that should be par for the course with these films, yet, as I mentioned, the language feels peppered in to make it more “adult”. Violence and tension are throughout, but gore isn’t a focus. The most shocking thing about it all occurs in the first few minutes, and it is the act of it all, more so than the visual. The original film was a love story, and T2 was a reflection on family. This film does deserve credit for reflecting on the topic of loss and how the people we care about motivate us to act. The themes aren’t particularly handled with nuance, but they are there, which is commendable. It’s not all a chase film without some sort of message.
All-in-all, I do think this film is an ending to everything Terminator, even if it doesn’t mean to be. The creative choices are controversial, no doubt, but I can’t say what that will mean in the long-term. What I can say is that it was good to see two of the original stars come back and continue in roles they made iconic, even if it was a part of a story that didn’t fully measure up to expectations. It is a film that may grow on me in time, but as of this writing, I was left feeling empty in many ways. As the series has shown, the future isn’t always certain, but if this is the last entry of the series, it could have been better, and it could have been worse.