At least Terminator: Dark Fate is bad in a funny way
You hate to see a good performer choose the wrong franchise. Mackenzie Davis has soared upward from acclaimed television to Ridley Scott features. Surely she had better blockbuster offers than Terminator: Dark Fate. In this ludicrous robo-sequel, Davis plays Grace, an “augmented” human from apocalyptic 2042. Davis was already a sensitive 2040s borgthing in Blade Runner 2049, and she’s got an ethereal toughness, lanky and open-eyed. Dark Fate introduces her falling several stories naked through a chronal sphere. Soon, she’s hurling forward off a crashed car, then plummeting inside a crashing plane. Every time, every action scene, you clearly spot flesh-and-blood Davis becoming just another CGI jumpman, all weightless limbs with the consistency of windspray.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was barely an actor in 1984’s original Terminator, but director James Cameron was thrilled to shoot him walking tall like a muscular murder mountain. Dark Fate director Tim Miller has a higher budget, a more seasoned cast, decades of nostalgia. What he lacks is grace.
The Terminator series dwindles on. 2009’s Salvation was a graygrim battlefield slog, one of those movies where you really felt a terrible director convincing himself he was doing a Saving Private Ryan. 2015’s Genisys splattered timeloop nonsense into one of the single most pointless sequels ever made. Dark Fate could only be some kind of improvement, with a distinctive setting and eccentric resonance. In Mexico City, a young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) goes to work at the local factory. A fancy new piece of industrial machinery has taken her brother’s job. She complains about the creeping automation, and her boss doesn’t care: That workbot, he explains, is “the future.”
Thus, having done the job of granting the main character a couple minutes of evocative lifestuff, Dark Fate immediately tosses Dani into a 50-vehicle pileup car chase. A Terminator (Gabriel Luna) arrives to assassinate her. It’s a Rev-9 model, which never doesn’t sound like an especially collectible Hot Wheelz. The Rev-9 (vroom!) can split into two bodies, the transmorphic exo-skin jello-ing outward from a trademark shiny skeleton. So it’s the T-1000 from 1991’s Judgment Day mashed with the original blend T-800. That’s already not much of an idea — and the liquid metal has a black gloopy coloration, so poor Luna looks like a less toothy Venom.
Grace rescues Dani, and then Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) rescues both of them. The mom to a future world messiah, Sarah famously transformed from a desperately regular ’80s person into a full-metal ’90s revolutionary. She returns an exhausted soldier, gone cynical from repetitive franchise chores. “I hunt Terminators,” she explains, “And I drink till I black out.” Hamilton’s voice sounds like a million marvelous cigarettes, and she has a way of regarding the world around her like she’s bored of all the silliness. You’re with her all the way: Can you believe this crap?
There’s great possibility in the central tripling. The first Terminator was an on-the-run romance, and then T2 crafted a fractured family tale. Is Dark Fate a saga of complicated sisterhood? Maybe one of the credited writers was aiming for that. Cameron himself gets a “Story By” credit, alongside Josh Friedman, who created the endearingly loopy TV spinoff The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Three other dudes get a “Screenplay By” credit, including nostalgia profiteer David S. Goyer, and you sense the clash of mission statements as the zigzag plot skips past any real character intrigue.
The clichés pile up. Grace has flashbacks to her misery endworld, the kind of interjected-backstory material parodied in Airplane! The Rev-9 (vroom!) hunts the women by god-moding all surveillance technology, the same way Batman found Joker in The Dark Knight. The team has to follow the mysterious coordinates tattooed on Grace’s body, is Blindspot still on?
There’s one sequence set at a border detention center that nudges toward topicality. Sadly, that set piece also features the most laughable action moment. See, Dani and Grace are in a helicopter, and Sarah runs toward the helicopter, and the Rev-9 (vroom vroooooom!) also runs toward the helicopter, and they both jump, and… nothing really happens. The early films were landmark progress points for special effects, but Cameron was a gearhead who appreciated wear and tear. There’s something just too polished about Dark Fate, humans and robots alike performing tireless feats of acrobatics. Grace, we find out, has a power limit, and occasionally needs to load up on pharmaceuticals. Shades of Jeremy Renner hunting his blessed “Chems!” in The Bourne Legacy, but this contrivance doesn’t really add up to much. Sometimes, Grace gets tired; then, like the proverbial Popeye, she eats her spinach.
Schwarzenegger is here, too. His late appearance brings a new note of straight-up comedy. He’s now a Terminator named Carl who has a complicated relationship with Sarah. Carl’s gone domestic, and wait till you hear him talk about changing diapers “efficiently and without complaint.” Schwarzenegger has somehow become the most lighthearted piece of the Terminator films, but his looming presence relegates Dani further into the background of her own epic tale. This is another unsteady piece of franchise recycling, never really deciding whether it’s continuing the story of familiar icons or launching a new adventure.
At least Dark Fate is frequently bad in a funny way, without the dutiful dullness of the last couple sequels. Characters can drive onto a military base and just take an airplane, no questions asked. There are drinkworthy repetitions of the word “Killbox,” so much so that it’s mandatory to henceforth refer to this movie Terminator: Killbox. Attempts at melodrama come off goofy: When Grace recalls how “Some men killed my dad over a can of peaches,” the delivery is so non sequitur that I actually laughed. At times, you can sense Dark Fate just giving up. “What are you doing?” Sarah asks. Grace explains: “Future s—“. Accurate. C