The Terminator franchise is one based on a contradiction.
The future is not set might be the mantra at its heart, passed down from father to mother to son and back to father, but that long, dark road always circles back round to one inevitable outcome: robo-apocalypse.
So too does Hollywood inevitably return to the well dug by James Cameron back in 1984 with the original Terminator film, a well creatively freshened seven years later by Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and, depending on your opinion on 2003’s Rise Of The Machines, progressively poisoned since then.
Time travel may allow for unlimited do-overs, but audience patience will only last so long… you’d think. After all, even the nonsensical, should’ve-been-franchise-killer that was Terminator Genisys made bank.
Terminator: Dark Fate is at least a return to acceptable form. A stripped-back “recalibration” in the style of last year’s Halloween, it features the return of its iconic original protagonist, here easygoing-waitress-turned-kickass-messiah-mom Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
As in Terminator 2, from which Dark Fate picks up, she’s not the only one on bodyguard duties. In that, she’s joined by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human from 2040-something, who’s travelled back to Mexico City to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), whose survival, as with Sarah Connor before her, means something for the human resistance.
On the killer robot front, there’s Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), who, in the noble tradition of the T-1000, spends most of the film disguised as a cop – all the better to hunt you down and kill you. Like the T-X AKA Terminatrix, the Rev-9 consists of “living” liquid metal over a solid endoskeleton, but, in a new development, can separate out into two independent units – all the better to pilot a truck at you while simultaneously leaping from the hood.
And, of course, there’s Arnie, essentially the franchise’s caretaker, returning as the T-800; looking better, or at least happier, than he did in Genisys. In this, his fifth appearance in the role – not counting his CGI likeness in Terminator Salvation – he’s even given a few unexpected new character beats to work with, not to mention a neat new beard.
And that’s where Terminator: Dark Fate succeeds where the two most recent instalments did not: sticking to the formula while bringing just enough new to the table not to feel completely derivative.
In his first gig since 2015’s Deadpool, director Tim Miller still proves a dab hand at choreographing tight, slick action sequences on an impressive scale, including a close-quarters, zero-gravity melee-shootout in a plummeting plane that recalls the only good scene in 2017’s The Mummy.
The familiar industrial settings are back – Dani works at a semi-automated factory – with variations on the same old chase sequences – has any franchise destroyed more helicopters? – but with a new angle.
It’s Dani’s turn as rookie in the world of killer robots and in this Reyes manages to hold her own against two more explicitly bad-ass female leads. Davis’ Grace is a clear-eyed and no-nonsense, the first human in the franchise able to take on a Terminator hand-to-hand – though not without her vulnerabilities. Hamilton, meanwhile, strolls casually back into the role of Sarah Connor, nearly three-decades older and deadlier than ever with a gaze that could cut through steel. They make for an awesome sight.
The three female leads also allow for some understated, if literally stated, commentary on female empowerment and implicit side swipes at Trump’s border policy, though not in a way that’s likely to harm the box office.
In this regard, Dark Fate is a very 2019 movie – right down to the use of de-ageing technology – and unlikely to stick long in the memory. Even so, it’s good to see a beloved franchise back on stable ground. And who’d have thought that all it required was the return of Linda Hamilton and series creator James Cameron (back as producer).
The future may or may not be set, but as sixth installments of flagging franchises go, this is far from the worst possible outcome.