Well, he did say he’d be back. Arnold Schwarzenegger made that promise in The Terminator in 1984, little realising that “I’ll be back” would become his most famous line of dialogue, or that the homicidal cyborg he was playing would become his defining role. True to his word, he was back for Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, along with the original film’s writer-director, James Cameron, and its co-star, Linda Hamilton. After that, Schwarzenegger was back for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003, Terminator Salvation in 2009, and Terminator Genisys in 2015, but they wandered further and further from the lean, mean high-concept thrills of the 1984 classic. And now he is back again in Terminator Dark Fate.
There were signs that this film might reverse the series’ downwards trajectory. For the first time since 1991, Cameron was on board as producer and co-writer (if not director), and Hamilton was returning as the franchise’s heroine, Sarah Connor, even though Terminator 3 wrote her out and killed her off. Terminator Dark Fate has even been marketed as a sequel to Terminator 2, one which ignores the other sequels that have been made in the meantime. Just think, Christian Bale got so worked up while he was making Terminator Salvation that he yelled at the director of photography – and it was all for nothing.
Most viewers will be waiting for Arnie and Linda to show up – and when they eventually do, it’s worth the wait
Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Terminator Dark Fate revives the beloved old characters while introducing a new generation of characters to (it hopes) a new generation of fans. After a quick prologue set in 1998, the story jumps to Mexico City in 2020, and we meet the franchise’s usual unholy trinity: one unwitting civilian who will eventually help humanity overthrow its robotic overlords; one Terminator sent back from the future to kill them; and one resistance agent sent back to protect them. In this instance, the innocent civilian is Dani (Natalia Reyes), a cheerful young woman who works in a car factory; the Terminator is the almost indestructible Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), which can separate his gloopy oil-slick body from his carbon-fibre skeleton; and the resistance agent is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a surgically enhanced super-soldier.
All three of them are watchable enough, but most viewers will be waiting for Arnie and Linda to show up – and when they eventually do, it’s worth the wait. Much like Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in last year’s Halloween – another exercise in course-correcting a franchise by pretending several of the sequels didn’t happen – Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is now silver-haired, surly, armed to the teeth, and with a voice so low and harsh that it sounds as if her cigarette intake will kill her before any robots manage to. She is an icon from the moment she strides out of her car carrying a gun the size of a fully grown Christmas tree. Schwarzenegger’s arrival is even more welcome. That stillness... that deadpan line-delivery... that physical resemblance to one of Stonehenge’s standing stones... even at the age of 72, he is better than anyone at playing an unstoppable cyborg (Luna just doesn’t have the requisite menace). And he is quite touching, too, as a killing machine who has reformed and settled down as a grey-bearded family man.
Squeezing in two generations of characters, Terminator Dark Fate is nearly as overcrowded as The Force Awakens was, the upshot being that the plot is convoluted and the muddled action sequences are often hard to follow. The fact that so much of it takes place in murky low light doesn’t help. One fist fight is set under water in the middle of the night, so you might as well be peering through the Terminator’s trademark sunglasses while you’re watching it. Cameron himself would surely have improved that scene, but the director of Terminator Dark Fate, Tim Miller (Deadpool), does a decent Cameron impersonation. He keeps the pacing and tone of the first Terminator instalments; the road-movie structure, with its demolition-derby freeway chases and its quiet interludes in dusty desert motels; and the war-battered characters’ balance of toughness and exhaustion. In short, this is a Terminator film that feels like a proper Terminator film.
Terminator Dark Fate aims to be no more than a comfortingly familiar rehash - and that’s what it is.
You could even say that it feels too much like a proper Terminator film, which is why it ends up seeming so pointless. It may make a profit, and it definitely offers a sweet Schwarzenegger / Hamilton reunion, but otherwise there is no discernible reason for Terminator Dark Fate to exist. It has no new thoughts on predestination and free will to boggle our minds, no new visual effects or stunts to quicken our hearts. It has nothing that hasn’t been done better in the other films. All the tweaks are cosmetic ones, the answers to a set of staggeringly uninteresting questions. What if the AI was called Legion instead of Skynet? What if the Terminator’s target was Mexican rather than American? What if the person protecting her was a woman rather than a man? The previous two Terminator films may have been duds, but one had a futuristic setting and the other had some twisty-turny time-travel shenanigans, so at least they were trying to do something different. From the off-the-peg subtitle onwards, Terminator Dark Fate aims to be no more than a comfortingly familiar rehash – and that’s what it is.
Maybe it couldn’t escape a dark fate of its own. At this stage, it looks as if making further Terminator sequels is as much of a doomed endeavour as making further Alien sequels. In both cases, there were two sublime opening episodes (the second Alien episode was directed by Cameron), followed by a succession of sequels, prequels and spin-offs which couldn’t recapture that early magic. And in both cases, there was a devilishly simple science-fiction / horror movie premise. Keep that simplicity in the later sequels and what you get is essentially an inferior remake. Complicate the mythology and you lose the first films’ white-knuckle intensity. The makers of Terminator Dark Fate went for the former option – the inferior remake – and the results aren’t bad. But if that’s the best they can come up with, then why bother? This franchise needs to be terminated.