There’s something primal about our fear of a relentless hunter. You can shoot them, you can throw them off a cliff, you can run them over, but they’re going to keep coming. There is no way to stop them and if their goal is to kill you, well, you’re dead. That was the underlying premise of the hugely successful 1984 film The Terminator and its even better sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released 7 years later. The first film featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 humanoid robot hell bent on finding and killing Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Schwarzenegger is big and scary, so it was a neat switch when in the second movie the newer shapeshifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick) continued the hunt even more relentlessly and Schwarzenegger returned (upgraded as a T-800) to defend Sarah’s son John Connor (Edward Furlong). Great movies, both.
Then there were some increasingly daft sequels that got lost in the rather confusing storyline about how Skynet would eventually take over the planet with help from its robots and the human resistance to the robot takeover, led by John Connor. Most recently, the highly forgettable 2015 Terminator Genisys. Fortunately, original writer and director James Cameron has returned and reinvented the franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate that smartly updates the storyline by ignoring everything after Judgment Day. Cameron’s credited as writer with Tim Miller directing.
And the good news: Terminator: Dark Fate is indeed a solid addition to the Terminator franchise, a film that starts out with a bang and barely eases its foot off the gas throughout the two-hour hunt. This time, the target is an autoworker living in Mexico City: Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). The Terminator sent to kill her is a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), featuring a creepy ability to split out its own exoskeleton to become two fighting machines as needed. Also sent from the future is the cybernetically enhanced human fighter Grace (Mackenzie Davis), though it takes a bit for us to be assured that Grace is helping protect Dani. Surprise! Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) shows up in the nick o’ time to help protect Dani in a bravado fight and chase sequence that ranks with the best of anything in the franchise.
Somehow, Sarah’s been getting text messages with lat/long information about exactly where Terminators are going to show up in our world. She dutifully heads that way and destroys them, even as the future ‘bots keep getting stronger and tougher. Which leads to the obvious question: Who is actually sending her those text messages and from what point in our future timeline?
Sarah is also either from an alternative world or the past of our world has changed as a result of the ramifications of the deaths and changes wrought in the earlier movies. No longer is Skynet the threat, an AI called Legion is poised to take over our computer systems and enslave mankind.
In one memorable moment, Sarah swears at Dani, saying “You’re not the threat, your womb is!” to which Dani responds “If you’re Mother Mary, why do I want to beat the *** out of you right now?” Turns out that unlike the previous films, the Rev-9 hasn’t come back to kill Dani because of a child she’s going to have, but for another reason entirely.
Yes, there’s definitely more than a small dose of modern gender and identity politics in this newest installment. The gang uses a human smuggler (a so-called “coyote”) to sneak into the USA so they can find out who’s sending the text messages to Sarah. This offers a chance for both refugee and international politics to show up in the story. Indeed, the first film had a male antagonist, the second film had a male antagonist and rescuer, so it’s no surprise that in this third installment (according to the timeline) it’s a male antagonist and female rescuer from the future.
Fortunately, none of these updates for our contemporary culture affect what is at its heart a solid chase movie with a great technological component. The visual effects are pretty darn impressive, actually. And don’t worry, we never get too bogged down in the story (which, to be honest, is a bit weak at best) but instead marvel at how nothing seems to slow down that darn Rev-9 and that even running isn’t a long term solution. What do you do when a relentless killing machine is hunting you down?
There’s a lot more to this movie and some interesting ideas about forgiveness, time, alternative worlds, cultural evolution and the dangers of AI and technology. Can we really create a robot that can fluidly change forms as needed to carry out its mission? Naw. But in 20-30 years? Or 100 years? Well, I sure wouldn’t want a Terminator hunting me down, I’ll say that.
If you enjoyed the original two Terminator films, don’t be dissuaded by the daft sequels (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys) because you’re going to find Terminator: Dark Fate a great and exciting addition to the series. Recommended for sci-fi action fans.