When it comes to the definitive sci-fi stories that James Cameron and Ridley Scott brought us in their flurries of imagination between 1979’s Alien and 1991’s T2 Judgment Day, it’s sad that only Blade Runner has been allowed to have an untarnished legacy. 2049 was a perfect sequel, which is far, far more than can be said for every Alien and Terminator entry since the early 90s. To say that Dark Fate is the best Terminator since T2 is somewhat of a backhanded compliment – it’s an absurdly low bar to clear – but here it is meant sincerely. Though of course it cannot touch Cameron’s originals, Deadpool director Tim Miller’s entry into the franchise is strong enough to restore some faith into the franchise’s battered name.
Borrowing elements from both Terminator and T2, Dark Fate opens in 2019 Mexico City, where new Terminator the Rev 9 (Gabriel Luna) and enhanced human guardian Grace (Mackenzie Davis) touch down from 2042 with a mission to, respectively, kill and save future human saviour Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). From there, it’s a pretty relentless chase north, across the border and into Texas, with Grace and Dani guided by a battleworn Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and a reformed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
It’s a bit jarring to see that Sarah’s triumph in T2 was largely pointless, with Skynet simply replaced by new evil AI ‘Legion’, and Judgment Day merely delayed instead of avoided, but once you get over that, it’s a thrill to have Hamilton and Schwarzenegger reunited on screen. Grizzled and war-weary, the pair still have that steely-eyed charisma that made them so compelling in the first place, and the franchise newbies also largely make good showings. Davis impresses with the brutal physicality of Grace and Reyes makes for a sympathetic heroine, though she is saddled with too many Big Lines that make her feel more like a symbol than a person.
Luna’s Rev 9 is a great monster, able to split into two forms – one the crunching robot skeleton of the T-800, the other the unkillable liquid metal of Robert Patrick’s T-1000. His movements are demonically creepy, and Luna does a fine line in emotionless placidity that occasionally transforms into a frightening smugness. Though the effects can falter on occasion (seriously, how does T2’s CGI still look better than a lot of current films, almost 30 years later), the Rev 9’s unique abilities power some bombastic and effectively tense set-pieces, especially nerve-jangling in close quarters.
Big emotional beats ring rather false, but the six-person-strong writing team (which includes Cameron himself for the first time in a while) do a good job of keeping Dark Fate timely. The film revolves around three highly capable women without making a fuss about it, subtly introduces questions about our own increasingly inhuman approach to war, and features a triumphant set-piece of breaking hundreds of migrants out of a border control detention facility. Its politics are obvious without being preachy, which gives a weight to the action and story beyond the obvious thrills. Though the ending is way too sequel-baity for a sixth franchise instalment, Dark Fate is a fun ride that goes some way to cleaning the muck off of the Terminator’s reputation.