The best Terminator film since Judgement Day (not difficult), Dark Fate is a hybrid of The Force Awakens and Halloween (2018) that – while far from perfect – works quite well, especially the welcome return of Linda Hamilton.
In 2019 Mexico City, cyborg warrior Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and a new type of terminator (Gabriel Luna) appear from a new future, looking to respectively protect or eliminate Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a key figure in a future resistance. Encountering an older, colder Sarah Connor (Hamilton), the three try to understand what’s changed, what they need to do to survive and how to work together.
I’ve only seen two of the three Terminator sequels, but from what I heard about Genysis (that inexplicable y – why!?) I’ve not missed out. It’s painfully obvious in hindsight that no James Cameron equals a terrible Terminator film, and hearing he was back as a producer on Dark Fate – and that Linda Hamilton had returned to her most famous role – was music to many ears.
It is also quite obvious though that the poise, crunching action and aptitude with dramatic tension and character development were elements of Cameron’s filmmaking. He did not direct this (he’s too busy making four Avatar sequels nobody asked for), and it shows unfortunately – though that should not be read as a complete condemnation.
Tim Miller – adept with action having made Deadpool – takes the reins, and while some of the action approaches Cameron’s standards, not enough of it does: and Miller can only do with the lacklustre conversations what he’s been given. Cameron’s influence could have been stronger than it perhaps was in making the film seem less made by committee, and his directness (and Miller’s) only rarely shines through.
Perhaps the main reason for this aimlessness is the frankly ridiculous writing credits – a script by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray, from a story by (deep breath) Cameron, Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman, Goyer and Rhodes. The phrase “too many cooks” comes to mind.
You can spot little diamonds of story among tired blockbuster tropes and omnipresent CGI – this film starts with a bang, but never provides any great surprises. You can see where it’s going other than a couple of elements, which is disappointing given where the beginning points to.
More time taken to develop new characters, to slow down with exposition (this would actually benefit it!) and explain the main conceit of the “new” future would have made this much better. Instead everything is far too quick and lightweight where the originals took a breath and let things settle – the lack of variation on what we’ve seen (hence the Force Awakens mention) is a reminder that reheating and rebooting are often the same thing.
I liked the focus on three women of different ages pursued by a male menace, especially given the sheer lack of diversity among that writing team. I suppose this was also the case with Halloween (2018) – and to both films’ credit they put an older actress at the centre of an action film, with no comment on age or appearance. This is progress for action cinema!
Returning to that action, I think the moral of this should be less CGI, more practical. The originals had groundbreaking CGI but (by necessity) in short bursts, thus more impact. The practical stuff was unsettling and gory, but helped sell the idea of a machine cloaked in a human shell, whereas here it tips the other way to intangible nonsense. Luna’s terminator doesn’t feel like a threat because it’s just a bloke who devolves into CGI plastic.
That’s not to say all the CGI is terrible, but when overused like it is here it makes you wonder whether anyone actually noticed it provides no weight to these scenes, nor to the tension. An early car chase stands out due to bruisingly tactile destruction, but scenes on a plane have no weight because of the CGI treacle smearing the screen.
Perhaps churlishly, I was disappointed at the relative lack of violence, particularly with a 15 rating (there’s a lot of swearing, and not much else). The John Wick series and Fury Road are modern examples of beimg a bit more brutal and engrossing with a 15, where as this just feels like it was given the rating for a few fucks and shits.
On a technical note, editor Julian Clarke’s work is way too choppy in the action scenes, meaning that mediocre use of greenscreened fake backgrounds is painfully obvious. Tom Holkenborg/Junkie XL does a good job with the score, but it’s not a patch on what it imitates and pays homage to in Brad Fiedel’s originals. This is illustrated by a notable exception, where that theme is given a Latin flavoured refresh.
On greenscreen – this means that cinematographer Ken Seng is only able to make a notable visual impact in the (stereotypically) dusty Mexican scenes, or in various internal environments (such as a factory and a detention centre, both of which felt lived in and grim). As a result, there’s not as much of a sense of place as the first two films, which felt like they’d been filmed in real, urban and rural locations. This almost looks like they found a stretch of desert off a freeway and started shooting.
It’s the performances that help break the monotony and negative elements, most notably the return of Linda Hamilton. Sarah Connor is what makes this superior to everything since Judgement Day – she was always the focus, and ahead of the curve as an action heroine who can defend herself and have an emotional core. Hamilton gives an almost broken, brittle performance that alternates between coldly closed off and emotionally raw, and I definitely feel like it would have been a better film with more of her in it.
Mackenzie Davis’ Grace sits halfway between Kyle Reese and the “good guy” T-800, her character not as strongly developed as it perhaps should and could have been. That again would have improved the film, but Davis is good in the action scenes and has a keenly emotional rapport in scenes with Hamilton and Reyes.
Reyes is good casting, but again more time on her character would have been appreciated! Unlike Sarah in the first, or John in the second, she has ridiculous things happen to her but seems to immediately cope with them – a shame, because the way she develops and the revelations about her are interesting and work well. Her interplay with the other two women is strong, and while it feels notable that this franchise finally returns to the strong female core it began with – and Reyes brings a different type of character to Hamilton that works better in this new storyline – she is sold down the river by the unnecessarily urgent pace and lack of depth.
Schwarzenegger’s return as “Carl”- I’ll say no more – is a real surprise, and for once does not feel like an embarrasing or shoe-horned appearance. The character, his role in the story and the way the big man plays it made sense and form a great element of how the film works dramatically. Again though, this is undercooked, and all too brief scenes with him and Hamilton feel like they could have been a really strong part of a better movie.
Finally, Luna’s Rev-9 terminator is very much akin to Robert Patrick’s performance as the T-1000 all those years ago, and Luna does a really good job with the “dead eyes” required. That, plus the novel idea of his particular variant of robot, are the start of something interesting, tarnished by the overload of CGI – he doesn’t feel like the unstoppable, disturbing threat he should as a result.
There are a lot of really strong elements here that, given more time and space (and less CGI) would have made this a properly exemplary sequel/reboot. As it is, despite the many disappointments, it’s worth a watch for fans, simply because even in mediocrity this is far, far better than the other three movies we’ve been given.