Film review: Terminator: Dark Fate

Adam Lowe

Adam Lowe is an award-winning author, editor and publisher from Leeds, now based in Manchester. He runs Dog Horn Publishing and is Director and Writing Coordinator for Young Enigma, a writer development programme for LGBT young people.
Adam Lowe

I used to be a huge fan of the Terminator films. As a kid, I watched The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day on repeat and imagined what a third movie might look like.

In my childhood imagination, the newer Terminator models were T-800-style chassis under a liquid metal coating. Sarah Connor was at the heart of the story always, and John only occasionally came into it.

I used to write scripts and comic books which were sequels to movies I loved: Alien 4 (then Alien 5), Terminator 3, Hocus Pocus 2

At least some of things I dreamed about (thankfully!) have come true. There is finally a proper ‘Terminator 3’. It centres Sarah Connor (sort of). It has a T-800 chassis with liquid metal coating (though I never imagined the two operating independently, which is an idea I love for its simplicity).

When the other Terminator 3 came out (Rise of the Machines), I was devastated. I knew they’d missed a trick by not having Linda Hamilton onboard and killing her off between movies.

Terminator: Salvation was also pretty meh, although at least it tried something new, and finally set a story in the post-apocalyptic world we’d only glimpsed in the other movies (something I’d often considered myself, being a fan of post-apocalyptic stories in general).

Terminator Genyisys was a mess, although Sarah did come back – as a waif with supermodel good looks. It totally missed the point.

Only Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles really scratched my Sarah itch, but it was too short-lived, and the sublime Lena Heady (though brilliant in her own way) wasn’t Linda Hamilton.

But Terminator: Dark Fate just about gets it right. There was a tad too much sniping between Sarah and Grace, but otherwise, it was great to see Sarah again.

The plot for Dark Fate wasn’t exactly original, but I didn’t mind that. Neither was the plot for T2, really. And what worked about the first two films was that they told a straightforward tale in a compressed timespace, and they told it well.

Alien and Aliens do the same thing. If you line them up side-by-side (and take into account the longer running time for James Cameron’s Aliens), both films have almost identical story beats.

They even open the same (a sleeping space ship woken by a computer that jumps into life) and end the same (with an alien being ejected into space through an airlock).

Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection both riff on this model, too, and it works, even if you think these films are lesser contributions to the series (though many fans see them in a much better light, post-Prometheus and Covenant).

Dark Fate opens controversially – it’s the same thing Alien 3 did, though Cameron apparently hated this decision in that movie and said he’d never have done the same thing (but he also implied that the women behind Wonder Woman weren’t feminist enough, so…).

John Connor dies and Sarah is left to hold his dying body. It’s a moving opening, though perhaps a little too brief.

Many bro-trolls on YouTube have decried this decision and accuse the film of suddenly becoming feminist (have they ever watched the first two movies? Or are they really that stupid/naive/perverse?).

Others have seen this as a risky decision, but one that ultimately pays off. I think it was a sensible idea which creates more opportunities, though it’s hardly novel (see: Alien 3, as mentioned above).

Then we skip to present-day Mexico, where Dani, a factory worker, is set up as the new Sarah Connor. We learn very little about Dani, but she’s quickly thrown headlong into the drama as Gabriel Luna appears as the menacing but sardonic Rev-9.

Luna is great in this role. He’s much less cold than Robert Patrick, but this is a bonus. It makes him a better infiltrator. You can imagine Legion trawling humanity’s combined social media presence to make its machine murderers fit in better.

Luna looks like he’s enjoying all the terminating. There’s a sly smile that flickers in the corner of his mouth. He can even make jokes and adjust his behaviour to fit in socially.

In my mind, that’s actually scarier than the coldness of the first two terminators. This model could easily pretend to be your best friend – only to skewer you on charcoal-coloured sword-arms.

Luna makes this model his own. He’s not Arnie or Patrick, and thank God for that!

Speaking of which, Arnie’s turn here is much more playful. He has a dog, a girlfriend and a step-son. He can crack jokes in a dead-pan way. The actor feels so at home in the role that it no longer matters if he can act (though, ironically, after many years it seems he can now).

Mackenzie Davis is great as Grace. She’s covered in scars, and with her under-skin titanium mesh, augmented reality vision and enhanced strength, she’s a badass. But she never gets to steal the light or replace Sarah because she has a very specific time limit on her abilities: after a while of intense performance, she has to stop and recover.

I read Grace’s limitations as a coded reference to chronic illness – many people (myself included) can operate at higher-than-usual function for short periods before ‘crashing’. It’s a neat idea and it adds vulnerability. She’s no mere Mary Sue (Milla Jovovich, eat your heart out).

The film feels a lot less lonely than the first (where there are only two people, but only one survives) but the camaraderie is a nice touch.

I had wondered if we’d see any adult Dyson kids, but perhaps they’re saving them for the sequel. In the past, Sarah had allies across North and South America, so it world be interesting to see if any of them are still in touch or if she’s burned all her bridges due to her behaviour after John died.

Ultimately, Dark Fate is a solid sequel, and a tantalising hint for future instalments. It would be a pity if this film doesn’t get a sequel because of franchise fatigue, but even as a standalone outing it works.

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