Having prevented judgement day, John Connor is gunned down by a third terminator who was super late for the events of Terminator 2. His mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), hunts down new terminators who are coming from a new bleak future for humanity. Eventually a woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent back in time to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from a new, seemingly unstoppable Terminator (Gabriel Luna). With Sarah’s help they try to track down the one man who might be able to help them…if it can be called a man! (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
The film represents a new height for 21st century Terminator films: Competency. The premise is simple and compelling, the characters are simple but compelling, and the action is mostly coherent and entertaining. It’s certainly not as assured as Cameron’s films but the big beast storms forwards with admirable energy. It has enough faith in it’s new characters to allow them to take up most of the screen time. Concessions to nostalgia are restrained and typically entertaining.
The narrative completely ignores the salt-the-earth mess that was Terminator Genisys and even ignores the somewhat intriguing fatalism of the third instalment. This film begins with humanities great hope for redemption mercilessly gunned down in front of his mother. It’s a bleak moment and by suggesting a new saviour will always take John’s place, just as a new machine overlord will take Skynet’s place, it somewhat removes the urgency of the story. If Dani doesn’t make it to the future, surely someone else will and they will become the leader of mankind instead. The severity of Cameron’s script has been long lost beneath layers of narrative flab.
It’s actually grimly comic to reveal that having prevented a terrifying future of killer, time-travelling robots, a traveller from just slightly further in the future comes back to reveal it happened again anyway, seemingly unrelated to the previous robot apocalypse. The killer, time-travelling robots even look the same. Truly mankind is destined to destroy itself in this very, very specific way.
Dark Fate comes frustratingly close to saying some very interesting things. It nearly comments on the gendered nature of the Terminator threat always targeting mothers. It almost says something about motherhood and biology, or purpose and fate. It does manage to wryly compare the treatment of Mexican immigrants to the harsh dystopian future our heroes are trying to prevent, but only does so superficially.
The dialogue between characters isn’t terribly good. These are very interesting characters, played by very capable performers, especially Mackenzie Davis and Linda Hamilton. Unfortunately most of what they say to each other is cliched tough talk or variations on the phrase “keep moving”. In a rare moment of introspection for Grace, it would be fantastic to hear her first hand experience of living through the apocalypse. Instead she mostly recounts the events like a Wikipedia summary. Mackenzie Davis is fabulous as the augmented super soldier, but her strong physicality and committed performance doesn’t change the fact that the film doesn’t use her to her full powers.
The film’s disappointing box office proves that this franchise has tested it’s audiences patience once too often. Fans are unwilling to have the tangled continuity straightened out again or given a soft reboot. With a planned trilogy now cancelled, it seems that the best sequel to The Terminator in nearly thirty years will form a conclusion to the old monster. But perhaps judgement day can never truly be ended, and that some day this story will be told yet again. When that day comes, let’s just hope Arnie isn’t back.