There were two huge surprises that could have easily kept Terminator fans sleepless for nights. One, Terminator: Dark Fate will cut through all the hoo-ha’s which happened in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009), and, Terminator Genisys (2015), with an attempt to reconnect to its great ancestor in 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Two, the name which is so synonymous with the first two Terminator films, James Cameron, would be “heavily involved” again in the development of Dark Fate. Fans saw that as a timely season to re-awaken the spirits of Judgment Day, and let them fill up into a modern, capable vessel. Skeptics saw that as another attempt for cash grab after three false starts.
Which category do I fall into? I happen to have a little bit of both. Like Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) in Salvation, and Grace (Mackenzie Davis) in Dark Fate, it’s not always pretty and cool to be a hybrid of two conflicting worlds. But sometimes, it’s beneficial to sit on the fence and observe what the future holds. By the time the credits of Dark Fate roll, I knew that this had immensely paid off for me.
As much as the media has been preaching and building hype about James Cameron’s return to the franchise, the term “heavily involved” still remains as the most appropriate term to describe Cameron’s relationship with Dark Fate. Yes, his name has been missing in the list of producers and directors ever since Rise of the Machines rolled out one and a half decades ago. But those who are particular enough to scan through the names would have noticed that it’s not Cameron who was holding the director’s role in Dark Fate. The film was directed by Tim Miller, who landed himself in the limelight after hitting a home run with his directorial debut in Deadpool (2016). If you have to be utterly precise, Dark Fate is Tim Miller’s Terminator with a nod from James Cameron.
Distancing itself from the last three Terminator films, though questionable, was a rather vital move for Dark Fate. Instead of getting indefinitely caught within the knots and tangles of a story-line web which they have created, a fresh start is not just necessary. It’s life changing.
Thus, the writers turned towards a new story that picks up right after the events of Judgment Day, which opened up an array of possibilities. The possibility to introduce fresh faces into the aging franchise, most likely with the hope of them carrying the torch for future succession. And by this, I am certainly referring to Daniella ‘Dani’ Ramos (Natalia Reyes), the girl which for some unknown reasons becomes the target of a highly advanced Terminator from the future, dubbed Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), and her unusually-strong protector, Grace (Mackenzie Davis).
There was certainly another possibility which came across the writers’ minds, which they would gladly make it a reality. Which, was to plot for the return of classic characters who had propelled the first two films to astronomical heights. No doubt, the original Terminator model, T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), old or young alike, is the most inseparable character by far. But what about the original Sarah Connor? It seems that nobody was talking about this equally big piece of a Terminator-puzzle, until Linda Hamilton’s eventual return in Dark Fate.
Naturally, in order to tick all these boxes and to make sure that those two paths cross, the story has to be heavily configured around them. In fact, in order to make Arnie’s character relevant in Dark Fate, the script has to take a drastic approach that it tastes quite bad. I am unsure how many of you will find the events that befall Arnie’s T-800 after his short intro in Dark Fate to be laughable, but I am certain that the issue is heavily masked by Linda Hamilton’s reassuring performance. Once you have grasped how weak that section of the script is, you will realize that Hamilton’s performance was not a mere walk in the park.
Having said that, seeing Hamilton’s return and entrance into the movie for the first time instantly reconnects Dark Fate to Judgment Day, and it gave me a sense of familiarity which the evolved siblings of the Terminator franchise had failed to provide. Yes, she made that Terminator-magic happen yet once again, and it’s not hard to see why previous films were easily crumbling without her gracing the screens. I am not implying that Dark Fate is an outright success, I am just suggesting that the Terminator franchise is not all about Arnie. Its equal parts Sarah Connor as well.
Despite her aged appearance, she commands a whole lot of presence on screen. She had no problem being a total jerk when she needed to be, being a realistic skeptic when the plot called for it, and most importantly, being a character that welcomes almost anyone to be emotionally invested into her with open arms. To be fair, it’s not easy to make any audience care about a character who had gone into a 27-year hiatus, but Hamilton seems to hit the right chord within me.
At the age of 72, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appearance is gradually shifting away from that T-800 that we first saw in 1984, but he still managed to prove that he’s the original Terminator by heart. Remember the drastic approach that I have mentioned earlier? Expect Arnie’s character arc to be different from Terminator 1 and 2, and unsurprisingly, he managed to tread on that tricky thin line to pull off his character admirably. Still, even if he didn’t, his iconic voice alone is plenty enough to fill up the role. Even without “Hasta la vista, baby.”
While it’s true that Dark Fate is “fast and gritty” as described by James Cameron during the film’s featurette, it’s a little unfortunate that his description fits only the first act of the film. There’s a brief scene that shows the reason why Sarah Connor became who she is in Dark Fate, but after that, the scenes pick up rather rapidly. Apart from the vehicle pursuit scenes that pleasantly feels very similar to Judgment Day, I think the movie’s pinnacle achievement in both landing an iconic scene and CGI refinement happens at the scene that is already shown in the trailer; the moment Rev-9 liquid-morphs into another copy of itself on the truck hood. That scene will probably outlive the entire movie for years to come.
Make no mistakes, Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 is not Robert Patrick’s T-1000, and Luna is not entirely to blame for that. While the new black mimetic-polyalloy does give a cooler look to Rev-9, the second act tends to strip away any deadly factor from the new Terminator by adding in too many repetitive scenes of him butchering civilians. At one point, I just went, “Okay. That’s it. This is turning into video game cut-scenes.” Or perhaps it’s because the protagonists went from location to location without any sound reasons, it felt like the writers were forcibly stitching all those Fast-and-Furious-ish action pieces together. Or maybe as the story was removing flesh from T-800 as it progressed, the CGI on Arnie (or OF Arnie, if the character was fully CGI at some instances) looked really bad. Again, like game-cutscene bad, particularly in an underwater scene. He looks like the Terminator in Mortal Kombat 11 (which is a game, by the way).
I knew that with all the odds stacking against Dark Fate (suitable name, isn’t it?) in the second act, it was unlikely that the final act would break away from the trend and lift the film into the status of an acclaimed sequel. Still, the intensity and length of action in the final act is sufficient enough, boosted by frequent touches that reminds you of The Terminator (1984) and Judgment Day. It is definitely fun and fulfilling for a Terminator fan to catch the references and tributes to the originals, one by one. If you have not watched any of the first two films, well, then..
Despite being braced by a solid group of new casts and return of old faces, Dark Fate doesn’t quite achieve the level of impact that many would have predicted, mainly due to its weak narrative. Yes, at times, the plot was sensitive enough to tend to the emotional side of its characters, particularly Dani, even in the midst of the chaotic second act. But still, in overall, the story felt stale, and it’s not something that can be easily forgiven considering Cameron’s involvement in the film. It’s hard to swallow the fact that one of the key figures of Dark Fate who gave birth to the iconic and immensely thrilling film piece of 1991 would give his approval for this.
Judgment Day achieved its full effect because they ran most of the key scenes at night, and almost always in an abandoned location. That had given a perpetual sense of eeriness and being alone, amplified by the fact that the deadly T-1000 was always hot on the protagonists tail. It induced an urge for the audience to cry for help, even while knowing that nobody on earth would be available. On the other hand, Dark Fate set up most of the scenes in a crowded manner, perhaps with the hope of giving more dynamic edge to the sequences, which had unfortunately taken away that level of suspense found in Judgement Day.
By sitting on the fence as I have mentioned, the Terminator-fan side of me was able to appreciate and enjoy the nostalgic moments given by Dark Fate through numerous recalls to the original films. Though seeing Arnie in his exposed exoskeleton form or his exposed robotic arm again is not something new in the recent years (Genisys did it), somehow, the scenes in Dark Fate felt a lot closer to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The skeptic within me, however, had some reservations about the film, and enabled me to see the bigger picture, out and away from a hardcore fan’s perspective. I realized that Dark Fate was not earnestly produced to conclude the first two films or as a stand-alone film, with the level of accessibility that the ending has given to future ideas. Don’t believe me? Pay very close attention to the last scene, and the last words uttered by Dani. With that in mind, I find it easier to be underwhelmed by Dark Fate as opposed to be overwhelmed.
At the very least, Terminator: Dark Fate is possibly the best channel in recent years for you to soak yourself again into the nostalgic world of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day that so many movie-goers have loved, and it certainly excelled in that. With an endless stream of tributes and pleasantly accurate references to its’ ancestors, there is no doubt that Dark Fate will leave fans melting in warmth for most of the part. But eventually, they have to face the reality that its most likely that Cameron had left Dark Fate for his ‘baby project’ right after the first act, and it painfully shows. And to further calibrate your expectation, it’s not even remotely close to being on par with Judgment Day, or convincing enough as the latter’s true sequel. And the Dark Fate that is surrounding the audience is, given enough funding in the future, a (pointless) trilogy is almost certain going to happen. Brace yourselves. *Terminator tunes playing in the background* –The Film Addict