‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Wields Callbacks and Commentary Like a Chain Weapon
“Terminator: Dark Fate” opens with video footage from the franchise’s first sequel, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” The movie seems to assume that audiences are familiar with the first two films and desperately want to forget the ill-received follow-ups were ever produced. “Dark Fate,” the franchise’s newest installment, picks up immediately after the events of “T2,” right before a ripple in the time stream causes an alternate future where John Connor is no longer the leader of the human resistance.
“Dark Fate” plays like a remixed retelling of the first two “Terminator” films, as if the pair of sci-fi classics, directed by James Cameron, were rebooted and re-recorded on top of your old VHS tapes. It also functions as a theory-based franchise essay, much like Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” commenting on its previous narratives through a new set of characters. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role can even be compared to Harrison Ford’s in the belated Philip K. Dick follow-up, which also happens to feature the talented Mackenzie Davis, who plays an augmented super soldier in this movie.
Thanks to Davis, Linda Hamilton returning as Sarah Connor, along with a surprising amount of social commentary, “Terminator: Dark Fate” should be seen by fans as a bold new direction for the franchise, a refreshing reinvigoration of a beloved property that is more than just another studio mandated misfire. In fact, the movie has a nuanced and specific cultural perspective, incorporating Latinx labor struggles and immigration themes into the skeleton of its storytelling identity.
One of the first shots of the film sees an army of T-800 models storming the shores of Guatemala, evoking Normandy beach imagery. After Sarah Connor’s opening voiceover informs us that she and her son stopped Judgement Day, at the cost of half of their humanity, we flash ahead 22 years, meeting Dani Ramos (Natalie Reyes) a young woman who gives up her work hours at a Mexican motor plant so that others, such as her brother, can earn a daily wage. She has no idea she’s about to be targeted by a liquid metal killing machine from the future, a new Terminator model called Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), who has enhanced T-1000 abilities, making jagged, obsidian-colored blades out of his body.
Rev-9 can clone and transport himself through adjacent metallic materials; though, his unchecked abilities aren’t outlined very clearly and are maddeningly inconsistent (one of the films weak points is Luna not quite matching Robert Patrick’s piercing stoicism). His machine skill set also serves as a workplace threat metaphor. It’s certainly no coincidence that the structural story beat that launches the action — which took place in the Northridge Fashion Center in “T2’” — occurs inside a location where Latinx workers are struggling to find work, being replaced by new machine technologies. When Rev-9 comes for Dani, a warrior woman named Grace (Davis) steps in as her protector. The pair sent from the future duke it out on the factory floor, instead of the employees only back-hallways of a Westfield mall, this time around.
The film then pays homage to the “T2” L.A. river chase, ending with the explosive arrival of Sarah Connor, as seen in the film’s marketing materials. Sarah is thrown for a loop when she learns that Grace has never heard of Skynet and has no idea who John Connor is. When asked why Dani must be protected, Grace won’t answer. Someone has also been toying with Sarah through encrypted text messages, mysteriously sending her the coordinates to Terminator portals that seem to open at random.
From there, the movie turns into an elongated monster chase that doubles as an American Dream narrative, not unlike Gregory Nava’s, “El Norte.” The stakes aren’t only the world ending this time; for some groups their place in society is already crumbling away with the rise of new technologies that makes them all but replaceable. In “T2,” Sara mentions, in a throwaway line, that she’ll wait until dark to cross the border. “Dark Fate” finds Dani having to use her coyote contacts to sneak into the U.S. as a genuine plot obstacle.
There are a few glaring contrivances and convenient character revelations on the way to America, but ‘Dark Fate’s pros far outweigh its cons. Davis kicks freaking ass. She’s a vulnerable killing machine who is cold but not calculating, her humanitarian motivations being kept secret for most of the film. The effects work is a bit standard for this day and age (and a major disappointment considering the franchise is known for pioneering digital tech) and the shot coverage during some of the action sequences is very claustrophobic, the fast cutting doing the stunt choreography no favors. Most of the set piece ideas are sound though; one plane sequence feels like something out of Christopher McQuarrie’s outstanding “Mission Impossible” movies, but, sadly, director Tim Miller doesn’t give many of the shots much room to breathe.
One might be wondering how Arnold’s original Terminator becomes involved in all of this; to reveal that would ruin several surprises. One of the most refreshing things about the film is how he’s mainly regulated to comic relief when he’s not punching things. It’s not Schwarzenegger’s story anymore and the movie knows that. Chest pumping female posturing has replaced action franchise body-builder bicep locking. Franchise nostalgia isn’t peppered in at the expense of new material, the narrative choosing instead to comment on its status among the past installments, a smart creative decision the film executes fairly well, if imperfectly.
The previous Terminator films outlined, pretty clearly, what happened after Judgement Day, “Dark Fate” chooses to hold that information back, creating a mystery box chase narrative. In that respect, the “Blade Runner 2049” approach falls somewhat short (there is one really clunky flashback). “Dark Fate” doesn’t want to over-explain itself, it just wants to deliver solid action beats that the franchise is known best for through a fresh prism. Character development suffers a little as a result, but the actors elevate what they’re given, Hamilton and Davis, in particular. The strength of the film’s political commentary, which is tackled in a very mindful way, is also unexpected. One thinks about a certain catchphrase adopted for “T2,” “Hasta la vista, baby,” only “Dark Fate” respectfully wields said franchise call-back as a chain weapon, not settling for a trigger-happy punchline.
“Terminator: Dark Fate” opens Nov. 1 in theaters nationwide.