In 1984, filmmaker James Cameron gave the world THE TERMINATOR and it became a cult classic. Time magazine picked it as one of the top ten films of the year and its star Arnold Schwarzenegger became a household name. The movie was a dark and gritty sci-fi thriller with a shooting budget of only $6.4 million, but because of the rave reviews and a strong $78.3 million dollar box office, it became a franchise.
Now, here we are in 2019 with TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, the sixth in the series, opening this weekend. This is the first one that Cameron has been directly involved with since TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY in 1991. Coming back too are Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, the heroine from the first two films. It’s great that they’re all together again even if this latest take isn’t quite as wonderful as one would hope.
This new chapter veers back and forth between the old and the new almost like it’s one of the escape vehicles careening about during the many chase scenes. It recreates so many of the tropes of the franchise that have now become fodder for satire that at times this film feels more like a parody than an adventure. Simultaneously, this new movie also introduces too many new characters and by the time Arnie shows up well into the second hour, the screen is dotted with a lot of characters all fighting for screen time. (At times, it feels more like an X-MEN film with too many hands on deck.)
TERMINATOR: DARK FATE starts with the dark fate of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) after she saved the world twice in the first two movies. Here, she’s living peacefully in Mexico with her 11-year-old son John (a digitally recreated Edward Furlong). They seem happy on the beach until a new Terminator (Schwarzenegger) shows up and blasts the boy dead. It’s a confounding scene, challenging one’s memory of the other films, but apparently Cameron has dismissed the other sequels and this one is supposed to take place shortly after T2 ended. What’s even more startling is the expert de-aging a la THE IRISHMAN of Arnie and Linda in the scene. (Take that, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino!)
After such a narrative rug pull, a rather egregious course correction at that, the plot lands in the modern-day. Like so many films in the franchise before, two visitors from the future time-travel back to earth, plopping naked down to earth, with a mission to find the leader who will grow up to defeat the machines.
The first body that drops from the sky is a young woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). She looks like a tall, blonde, volleyball player, but she’s actually a lean, mean, fighting er, half-machine. The technology has gotten even better in the future, and now the rebels fighting against the AI’s can send back a female soldier whose body is that of a cybernetically-enhanced warrior. (Take that, Wonder Woman and Wolverine!)
The futuristic AI’s have gotten better too. The machines send back an advanced Terminator model called a Rev 9 (Gabriel Luna). He too is lean and mean, yet very quiet, letting his lethal actions do all the talking for him. The Rev 9 can also split in two, unleashing his powerful endoskeleton to fight alongside his shapeshifting liquid metal version. Soon, both good and bad invaders are after Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), the latest American destined to lead the rebels and defeat the machines.
Before you can say, “Come with me if you want to live,” Grace scoops up Dani from the homicidal grips of the Rev 9 and they’re on the run. The film becomes one extended chase sequence with the sparring soldiers slicing, dicing or shooting anyone who gets in their way. Grace proves to be a formidable adversary, cutting the Rev 9 down to size with chains and iron rods as if she’s an elite Jedi. (Take that, Darth Maul and Kylo Ren!)
Soon, Sarah Connor shows up to assist in the gore-filled babysitting of Dani, and the girl power trifecta kicks the butt of the mucho macho machine over and over again along the way. Sarah handles all the story’s complex exposition too, as the sinewy Hamilton growls her lines like a buff Gena Rowlands. The veteran actress is having a blast here and she makes the most of every moment in her big comeback role.
The action is decent, but not nearly as exciting as it should be. The set pieces borrow a lot of the tropes and bits from the previous ones in the franchise. Not only are the stars and Cameron back, but so are the same ways to split, melt, and stop a killer robot. Ahem! Been there/annihilated that.
At the 70-minute mark, the three warrior women finally meet up with Schwarzenegger’s aging robot. He’s been holed up out in the Texas woods for decades since he had nothing to do after he fulfilled his directive to kill. John Connor. Decades later now, the Terminator has grown old and grown a beard. He’s taken a wife, adopted a kid, and made a career as a drapery installer. (Written into the script clearly for the many jokes such a silly vocation for a killer fosters.) Arnie does his deadpan schtick without missing a beat, and it’s all hilarious, but it feels a bit old and familiar too. The only things that haven’t faded are Arnie’s muscles and his Teutonic accent. Both remain as beefy as ever.
There’s some barbed, bitchy tension between Grace and Sarah, and both give the Terminator a lot of side-eye along the way. Here is where you feel the influence of Tim Miller, the director of DEADPOOL, as he adds a similar snarkiness as he did to the two films in that franchise.
Still, as fun as a lot of it is, the tried and true tropes being ticked off by the scripters feel a bit lazy. Cameron, Billy Ray, Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman, David Goyer, and Justin Rhodes bring back numerous iterations of the “I’ll be back” line; the true identity of the future savior becomes all too clear way too early; characters you know aren’t dead miraculously return; and of course, the film ends with a big, noisy showdown in an industrial complex. This film isn’t just the sixth Terminator movie, it’s practically all of them rolled into one. (Take that, GROUNDHOG DAY!)
Even more troubling, this is yet another franchise that has set out to eradicate the majority of films in its franchise. STAR TREK and X-MEN did the same, and there’s something tremendously arrogant or disrespectful about tossing away films as if they don’t matter. Perhaps it’s the cleanest way to reboot, but if there are sequels, I hope that Cameron and crew find new ways to mine the man vs. machine storyline without trampling all over the past. The least they could do is figure out a way to make time travel work better? Sure, the AI’s keep getting more powerful, but still, only one can be sent back at a time? Some future.