Review: 'Terminator: Dark Fate' marks fall of the machines
The series' sixth chapter acts as a direct sequel to "T2" but contains none of its momentum, urgency or visual artistry
Arnold's back. Linda's back. But the "Terminator" series is still stuck where it's been for decades.
"Terminator: Dark Fate" attempts to do for the "Terminator" films what last year's "Halloween" did for the Michael Myers stalker franchise: wipe out years of irrelevancy by bringing back core cast members and getting back to basics.
It worked for "Halloween," not so much for "Dark Fate," which suffers from labored storytelling and so-so visual effects. It's ironic that a franchise so focused on the future can't come close to matching the groundwork it laid in the past.
To be fair, that past includes the landmark "T2: Judgment Day," the 1991 game changer that is still a high water mark for action extravaganzas. Series creator James Cameron is back here in a producer role, but without his guidance as a director, "Dark Fate" is an all too accurate descriptor of what lies ahead.
A quickie intro catches us up with what happened to John Connor following the events of "T2"; "Dark Fate" kindly asks us to forget the next three "Terminator" installments which, no problem, we already did.
In Mexico City 2020, a pair of new Terminators arrives, one good (Mackenzie Davis from "Black Mirror's" "San Junipero" episode), one bad (Gabriel Luna), both naked. (They can build a better Terminator, they can't figure out how to transport them through time with clothes intact.) They each have their eyes set on Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who, much like Sarah Connor before her, is set to give birth to a future leader of the resistance.
Rinse, wash, terminate.
When things get hairy, Connor herself (Linda Hamilton) arrives to lend a hand, as well as some heavy artillery, and kick some metal butt. A quest for answers leads the group to the home of Carl (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the T-800 who, much like fellow '80s action hero Rambo, is now living out his days in a quiet ranch near the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Deadpool" director Tim Miller, working from a story credited to five writers (including Cameron), leads with action first, but never comes close to anything in "T2." The effects somehow look cheaper and less realized than those presented nearly 30 years ago; the Terminators were seemingly sent from a future where tech peaked in 1991. (Rather than liquid metal, the Terminators now prefer an oozing black goo, which look like leftover effects from "Venom.")
Hamilton looks badass but brings little joy to the screen, reciting every pained line through clenched teeth. Her character, like Jamie Lee Curtis' "Halloween" heroine Laurie Strode, has dedicated her life to hunting her stalker, which has left her bitter, angry and alone. (But still buff.) Rather than exploring her psychodrama, "Dark Fate" props her up with a new character wrinkle: an addiction to potato chips. Just think, all that work to try to stop her from changing the course of history and she could have been brought down by a bag of Ruffles.
Schwarzenegger's role is underwritten, and it's still never explained why an unstoppable killing machine from the future ages like an earthbound man.
But the biggest issue with "Dark Fate" is the new characters, especially Dani, who is supposed to carry humanity's future on her back but isn't given a single memorable moment. She's the least interesting character on screen. With no character and no resolve, why are we supposed to invest in her?
The screenplay contains groan-worthy dialogue pulled straight from the action playbook; during a climactic battle, while hanging over a dam in a Hummer with a Terminator attacking them, one character says to another, "we can't stay here." Well duh.
There's little sense of momentum or urgency, and everything reaches back rather than looking forward. The "Terminator" movies were once the tip-top of the action universe, now they're just playing the hits for one more encore. It's time to terminate them for good.
'Terminator: Dark Fate'
Rated R: for violence throughout, language and brief nudity
Running time: 134 minutes