REVIEW – ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ is a familiar experience that’s rather reductive and pointless

Just four years after the last disastrous reboot attempt, it’s time for yet another Terminator sequel, desperately hoping to recapture the magic that’s been missing from this franchise since 1991. After beating the dead horse that is this saga for over 25 years, these revivals are films nobody really asked for, yet always seems to pique enough interest to continually keep popping up every few years.

Much like those rascally cyborgs themselves, the Terminator franchise simply refuses to die. But given the series has gone far off the rails in the last decade, there’s only one thing left to do; pretend the previous three films never happened. Yes, it’s time to wipe your memory clean of the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys, which, let’s be honest, shouldn’t be all that difficult.

While Terminator: Dark Fate is undoubtedly the best Terminator sequel since Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that’s hardly saying much. It’s a very, very, very low bar to clear. This new reboot is a serviceable enough way to pass two hours, with all the explosive set pieces and CGI spectacles this franchise is known for.

As is the path de jour of Hollywood lately, this bloated sequel serves up a hefty dose of nostalgic fan service for those of us who grew up adoring the original two films. But, when all is said and done, you can’t help but feel the entire familiar experience is rather reductive and pointless.

After some grainy VHS footage from Judgment Day featuring an institutionalised Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) raving about the impending robot apocalypse, we jump forward to present-day and the cyborg-free future Sarah achieved by stopping the end of the world. In Mexico City, two naked time-travellers have arrived with two very different missions. Yes, this old routine again.

A deadly T-1000 upgrade known as Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) has been sent back in time to eliminate humble Mexican factory worker Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) for reasons as yet unknown. Just as Rev-9 is about to strike, Dani’s savour appears in the form of Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an “augmented human” with super-strength and impressive fighting skills.

But Grace is only built for short bursts of battle, with extended combat leaving her on the verge of death and in desperate need of numerous pharmaceutical drugs to recover. Why exactly was someone with such a debilitating flaw sent back to literally save the future? Because dramatic tension, I guess.

After a fiery highway chase sequence (yay, T2 nostalgia!) with Rev-9 leaves Grace incapable of protecting Dani, the pair are saved by a weathered Sarah, who has spent the last 20-odd years destroying every Terminator sent back to make Judgment Day a reality again.

As it turns out, Sarah has been receiving mysterious text messages with coordinates to the exact location where each robot will arrive, so she can save the day, yet again. When Grace uses her “future shit” technology to track the location of the unknown texter, she realises those very coordinates are tattooed on her body. Before she time-travelled, Grace was given a message to seek out the help of whoever resides in this location. Gee, who could it be?

Despite his appearance in the trailer, poster, and press tour, Terminator Dark Fate truly does try to reveal Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s involvement in this film as a massive surprise. Frankly, it could have been a stellar shock moment, if we weren’t entirely expecting it. It’s hard to discuss his role without drifting into spoiler territory, given the last time we saw the T-800 in this timeline, he was lowering himself into a vat of molten steel.

But he’s back (ha, ha) and living life as peaceful “man” named Carl, who, despite being a cybernetic machine, has somehow aged into his 70s. It’s possible this plot hole was explained at some point a few films ago, but there’s nothing here to ratify exactly how the Terminator transitioned into old age. The film genuinely lifts when Schwarzenegger arrives, offering a much-needed injection of the stone-faced comedy shtick he’s been delivering in this franchise for years.

There’s a tragic backstory between Sarah and this version of the Terminator that also can’t be discussed, but it creates a complicated relationship between the pair that’s one of the film’s few highlights. It’s unquestionably a genuine thrill to see Hamilton and Schwarzenegger on-screen together again after all these years. The duo once again create perfect foils for each other, leaving you to question whether it would have been far more successful to ditch the new characters and simply focus solely on these beloved icons instead.

It’s clear Terminator Dark Fate is determined to stick its two gutsy female characters in the spotlight, as if that instantly demands celebration as a mark of representation for women in film. Yes, it’s absolutely refreshing to see this sequel led by two badass females, but the screenplay by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray constantly puts Sarah and Grace at loggerheads with each other for no explicable reason, in another garish example of how male screenwriters think two strong female characters must instantly be enemies before they can find a way to work together.

An underused Davis is a welcome addition to the franchise, delivering a no-nonsense dynamo whose every bit as fierce as her male counterparts. But she’s unfortunately saddled with the lion’s share of expository dialogue, leaving her with little to do but occasionally fight and then explain ad nauseum the film’s convoluted plot. As a performer, she’s capable of so much more than this, and the film entirely wastes her impressive talents. Still, if there’s another film coming (please, no), there’s potentially more to mine from this new character.

It’s a great moment of Latinx representation to see Colombian-born Reyes at the centre of this narrative and the bulk of the action take place in Mexico. But, again, Terminator: Dark Fate seems to expect adulation just by sticking a person of colour at the forefront and failing to explore anything pertinent to her heritage. Dani is consistently pushed to the background of what’s assumed to be her heroic story, which is incredibly frustrating. As a character, Dani is little more than a McGuffin to keep the plot ticking along.

The screenplay woefully attempts to highlight some contemporary issues, but barely scratches the surface in any meaningful way. There’s some brief criticism on electronic surveillance and the role the shifty government plays in monitoring unsuspecting citizens. A sequence within a U.S.-Mexico border detainment centre is begging for some obvious political commentary, but it’s used as nothing more than the next location for a bombastic showdown. The film is simply not interested in exploring issues is seemingly wanted to, but didn’t have the balls for.

As expected, there are a series of chaotic and frenzied set pieces, dripping with CGI effects and the demolition of anything in the way of Rev-9. But these sequences feel so achingly familiar, it’s hard to know if this is a reboot or just a tired remake. Terminator: Dark Fate cannot decide if it’s heading down a new path or just rehashing the old one. It’s consistently stuck with one foot in the past that it simply refuses to leave behind.

If you’re a fan of the original two films, there’s plenty to enjoy within this sixth chapter. By essentially deleting the three worst films from its universe, Terminator: Dark Fate desperately attempts to restart this franchise by utilising everything that made you fall in love with the first two adventures. By lazily recycling old parts, this tiresome sequel takes the easy way out.

It’s the same cheap ploy Jurassic World mined to ridiculous success. But, in 2015, the world was yearning for more dinosaur chaos on Isla Nubar. You can’t quite say the same for these robots. After years of disappointing Terminator films, we’ve all pretty much moved on. And perhaps it’s time for this franchise to do the same.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta
Director: Tim Miller
Producers: James Cameron, David Ellison
Screenplay: David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray
Cinematography: Ken Seng
Production Design: Sonja Klaus
Costume Design: Ngila Dickson
Music: Junkie XL

Editing: Julian Clarke
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: 31st October 2019 (Australia)