“‘can I copy your homework?’/ ‘yeah just change it up a bit so it doesn’t look obvious you copied’ / ‘ok'”.– Popular meme format, 2016.
As far as movie franchises go, the Terminator series is one of a farcical nature in today’s day. When I think about this series, there is always a clear distinction: the original two movies, the other three. I bring my personal distinction into this review with purpose because, through watching this latest installment, I think that the franchise can now be represented as a Venn diagram with a single movie placed in the center. This movie is both good and bad in nearly every aspect; there is nothing I see that is genuinely one or the other. Let’s talk about what I mean:
Terminator: Dark Fate is a movie that is set in contemporary time, but seemingly set apart from the normal timeline created in the other films. Rather than having anything to do with John Conner, like the others, this is the story Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), and her survival against a new threat: an A.I. that calls itself Legion. Dani is helped through the course of the film by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human from the same future as Legion. The two make a crossover team with characters from the original Terminator timeline: Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), and a displaced T101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Set in and around the Mexican/ American border, Dani and friends are fighting in the present for a new future.
The writing in this movie is a good place to start, because it is bad. While watching, I felt like the script was two or three ideas away from being from the original film. It is difficult not to bring up the originals when talking about a movie that clearly wants to be one. Dani has become the new Sarah Conner, Grace has become the new Kyle Reese, and the Legion A.I. is the new Skynet. There are some fresh ideas that set this movie on a slightly different path from the original two. One is that the Grace character is a technologically enhanced human, which hasn’t been done yet in previous installments. While it seemed like an excuse to create new avenues of extreme violence, it soon became something that was a strength to the film’s identity. Another unintentionally comedic addition in this film was that the terminator that killed John Conner (Schwarzenegger) is now a family man, filled with a deep understanding of the human condition. Story wise, there is nothing here that grabbed my attention wholesale.
Above all else, this is action-packed. There are some epic sequences that contain explosions, guns, and other things you love to see in a Terminator movie. Dark Fate is not a complete bombardment of CGI fighting or shootouts, but will definitely seem like it. Each action set piece serves the purpose of transitioning the characters into the next act of the film. When the action is on screen, it can give someone a case of eyes glazing over. It doesn’t matter if the characters are exploding in an airplane, falling off the Hover Dam, or even being smashed up along a highway, you can tell that there are absolutely zero stakes. This is probably the biggest problem for me because the Sarah Conner character, having been twenty-something in 1984, is now much older in this new film (2019): how in tarnation is she surviving any of the events unfolding? Not impossible, but this aspect seemingly lacked proper script review (or a good balanced breakfast of reality).
The one saving grace of this film was…well, the character Grace. Being an augmented human, she possesses increased strength, dexterity, and cognition at the cost of an extremely high metabolic rate of decay. I actually liked this because it is not often anymore that we have an action hero that genuinely looks tired after hardcore action. Grace is one of those nebulous ideas I mentioned earlier that stands apart in a refreshing way. She is strong, she has presence, and she is the only person that seems like more than a cardboard cutout. It is unfortunate that she seems like more of a main character than the main character, who was constantly blending into the movie’s background for me. If the movie hadn’t bent over backwards to tell me how important the lame Dani character was, I would have pegged Grace for the “messiah” part. Through Mackenzie Davis, there is a rather unfortunate realization that the only character that shows any semblance of character outside of Grace is the robot villain. He marks the first terminator robot in the movies that actually acts like a human. Linda Hamilton and Arnold both look like they’d rather be anywhere else, and I share their sentiments for a majority of this film.
So let’s talk about the Venn diagram. When you look at the franchise as a whole, Dark Fate sits right in the middle for me. It is not nearly as bad as Terminator 3 or Genisys, but it is no where near the golden standards set by the original two movies. Even Salvation, the terminator movie that seemed really bad the time, was at least more interesting than the blandness shown in Dark Fate. While the movie isn’t on either side, it suffers from being in the worst position of all: right down the middle of boring town. I would rather watch the interesting approach to the mythos in Salvation than rewatch this movie that is a Frankenstein’s monster of the entire franchise.
Final Verdict: 2 out of 5
This movie is one that belongs in a category of films I believe was coined by the famous movie studio RedLetterMedia: the dad movie. It is one that, if thrown on during the middle of the day, would be one that my own father would nap through on a Saturday. There is very little to stand on as an original film, and I think that this one will forever be in the shadow of all the others. There is one good thing working for Dark fate: two characters that seem like they have hearts that beat (and one was a robot). If you like what you watched in this movie and want something better AND nearly identical? There is always the original movie in the franchise.