Well they finally made a good Terminator sequel! Granted, the first one is a modern classic and a very tough act to follow. There is also that sequels are almost always necessarily warmed up left-overs, but this franchise has been noted for being especially disappointing. (I know I saw #5, but it left absolutely no impression, and #4 was dismal and awful.)
I’m definitely more of a Terminator fan than a Star Wars fan. That’s even more true when it comes to Star Trek. I’m willing to at least see the Star Wars movies, but I gave up on Trek ever since J.J. Abrams took over (although it had already gotten moribund).
For my money, Terminator: Dark Fate is a nice return to form and a pretty good action movie in its own right.
It did okay critically — better with fans than with critics according to Rotten Tomatoes (82% to 70%). On the other hand, Metacritic gives it a User Score of just a 4.1 (out of 10) rating (with twice as many negative reviews as positive) and a Metascore of just 54 (out of 100).
No movie is perfect, of course, and there are some elements — one in particular — that set some people off. It happens in the first scene; in what, in a book, would be the prologue.
Some think the phrase “it’s the third best Terminator movie” damns it with faint praise, but I think the phrase is exactly right. (It should be very obvious that the best is the first and reasonably obvious that the second best is the second film. I can’t imagine there is much argument about that.)
What’s especially interesting about being third best is that this sixth movie pretends the last three didn’t happen. Dark Fate is a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Since movies three, four, and five, went from bad to worse (or at least from not that great to worse), ignoring them seems a good choice.
There is also that James Cameron is back in control. He wasn’t around for the three misfires. He produced Dark Fate and worked on the story. No doubt also very helpful to a successful product, director Tim Miller who brought us the deliriously delightful Deadpool in 2016 (it was his directorial debut).
So fresh hot talent combined with talented experience (Avatar aside), and we have the makings of a really good action film.
Which is exactly what I thought Dark Fate was, a really good action film. After seeing it twice, I give it a Wow! rating (not something I do lightly).
WARNING: Serious Spoilers Ahead.
Speaking of which, what apparently bugged some people is that, in the very first scene, a brief prologue that predates the film’s main story by 25 years, a model T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) shoots and kills a young John Connor (Edward Furlong) right in front of his mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
[All three actors are de-aged and body-doubled with CGI. There’s a nice visual segue from an opening shot of a future filled with human bones and skulls and Terminator machines killing everything in sight. The machines are attacking a beach that fades back to the same beach where John and his mom are 25 years before present day.]
Which may sound confusing, but remember this movie ignores the past three (and the TV series). In this branch of reality, Sarah and John stopped Skynet, and that future never happened. But, before history wiped it out, Skynet sent many T-800 Terminators back to different points along John Connor’s history. Thus, if one failed, there were backups.
The framing of this movie is that one finally succeeded, but after Skynet was prevented by John and his mom. Fans didn’t like that because they perceived it as invalidating what John did.
(But that’s obviously wrong. John prevented Skynet, but he died after doing it. I personally thought it was an excellent way to kick off the movie and reboot things. This fan reaction to the scene may be, once again, how some people just can’t let go of their blanky.)
The movie starts with the usual parade of animated logos, but they’ve modified them tonally to match cuts of flashbacks to Sarah Connor incarcerated as a (supposedly) crazy woman preaching the end of the world. I found that jarring and tonally off — mixing the commercial aspects with the story aspects is a mistake except as a segue or single tonal note (the Matrix movies are good examples).
So, what I’m saying, is that the first moments of the movie made me frown, which isn’t a good way to begin. (Is it possible that affected how people perceived the first scene?) In my case, the movie very quickly won me over and kept me throughout.
I enjoyed it so much the first time I wanted to test that reaction by watching it again last night. That logo business at the beginning — still don’t like it — but I enjoyed the movie the second time as much, or more, than I did the first. (More because I saw deeper meaning in certain things given knowing the full story.)
It wasn’t just a good action film. It was quite affecting in places, too. There are points along the way that can even choke you up a bit. It had me thrilled and enthralled by the action, it gave me a few laughs, and it brought a couple of tears to my eyes. There are also some nice really well-done callbacks to the first two films, but with some twists.
Two favorite examples:
Linda Hamilton gets the famous line, “I’ll be back,” rather than Schwarzenegger (who made it famous). And it’s done in an off-hand way — a throw-away line. (They also do a jazz riff on the protector’s line, “Come with me if you want to live.” Here the protector says, “Come with me or you’re dead in the next 30 seconds.”)
There is also a point where the aged T-800, about to help our heroes battle their nemesis, picks up a pair of sunglasses (something else Schwarzenegger made famous in that role). He stares at them for a moment and then tosses them back down, discarding the idea. I cracked up!
Here comes serious spoiler territory. If you don’t want to know stuff, stop reading, just go watch the movie (I don’t think you’ll be sorry).
After the prologue, we’re in modern day Mexico City. We meet Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes), her father, and her brother, Diego. The siblings work at an assembly plant.
We also see two individuals come from the future with the usual effects we’ve seen in previous films. One is a woman, one is a man. We’ll discover that the woman, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), is an enhanced human sent back to protect Dani.
The man turns out to be a Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna), an advanced model that wraps the liquid metal nano-technology of the T-1000 series around a metal endoskeleton. The two are able to separate and function apart (awesome sauce idea).
T2 played with expectations a bit in which future dude was the good guy. In the first movie, Arnold is the bad one and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is the protector. T2 teases us having Arnold as the protector while Robert Patrick is the bad one.
Dark Fate has us guessing a bit at first, too, but it becomes pretty obvious when the Rev-9, who appears to be Dani’s father suddenly turns up at the plant, tries to kill her, and Grace equally suddenly turns up to intervene.
The first action scene segues into an exciting freeway chase scene involving an especially large truck that does especially lots of damage chasing our heroes.
When Grace and Dani appear cornered by the dual aspects of the Rev-9, Sarah Connor shows up (with heavy weaponry that gives them all time to escape).
We’re not even a half hour into the (two-hour) film, and I’m totally hooked. Let me count the ways.
Firstly, three women protagonists, one of them mature and one of them Hispanic. And all three of them totally, and I do mean totally, kick ass. They form an awesome core to the story.
(Is it coincidence they form a coven? Dani isn’t literally a mother, but she turns out to be a mother figure, so we have Maiden, Mother, Crone. At the very least we have the power of three. And Hamilton does make an irascible crone.)
Secondly, the villain is also Hispanic, and the first half of the film (roughly) takes place in Mexico. I love the inclusion!
Thirdly, the film is well structured and tells a good story.
Fourthly, great action sequences!
Having kicked off the action and introduced the characters (save one), the film slows down for exposition. A fair amount of exposition, actually, but a fair amount is needed to bring everyone up to speed.
There are a number of scene changes during this second act lull which keeps things moving along. Even the second time watching it, I wasn’t bored. In fact, this time some of Grace’s exposition to Dani was more meaningful.
Major Spoiler: It’s Dani herself who leads the revolution, and Dani who saved a young Grace’s life, and Dani who sent her back.
By the way. No Skynet, but humans never learn. They had a war AI, called Legion. They turned it on and the power went out everywhere. Planes fell from the sky. War broke out. Billions died. Then the machines started killing the survivors.
Grace was given coordinates of someone who might be able to help.
Sarah Conner, ever since John was killed, has been getting mysterious text messages giving her a location and time and ending with the words, “For John.” When she goes to that location at that time, a Terminator appears from the future (one of the ones sent back to kill John) and she kills it.
It turns out Grace’s coordinates, and the source of Sarah’s text messages, are the same. It’s a location in Laredo, Texas. This requires an illegal border crossing and, due to the Rev-9 infiltrating the Border Patrol, they get caught and put in cages.
There’s another action scene, and the heroes manage to fly away on a helicopter just in time. (One thing I enjoyed: the film invokes tropes and subverts them. The Rev-9 jumps to catch the helicopter… but Sarah’s gunfire is enough to make him fail and fall.)
They fly to the mystery coordinates and meet… “Carl” (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who is the same T-800 that shot and killed John. Sarah… is not happy. Very not happy. She wants to kill him right now (but she’ll wait until this is all over).
After killing John, the T-800 had no mission. It ended up saving a woman from an abusive husband who was trying to kill their kid and her. It turned into a thing, and now Carl has a family. And a drapery business.
And a shed out back filled with heavy weaponry. Because he “calculates a 74% chance” of anarchy even with Skynet defeated. Also, because “this is Texas.”
The last 45 minutes is pure action, well structured with pauses before the next phrase.
Some of it involves a cargo plane in free fall. Things terminate at a dam with the final scene defeating the Terminator in the turbine room. (These movies have to end in some big industrial machine setting — a key part of the ethos. See also Dani’s assembly plant in the beginning.)
And if the last moments don’t bring at least a small tear to your eye, I don’t want to know you.
Definitely two thumbs up, lots of good beats, lots of well-done callbacks, some of which subvert.
For an action film, definitely one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
Stay kicking ass, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.