Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) Review

Like the seemingly unstoppable Terminator itself, this 35-year-old franchise just wouldn’t stop pushing forward no matter how mixed (2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 2009’s Terminator Salvation) or plain bad (2015’s Terminator Genisys) the sequels turned out to be.

So, after the last two movies failed to ignite a proposed new trilogy, it’s all back to square one in Terminator: Dark Fate by ignoring the existence of previous three instalments and set the sixth film as a direct sequel to The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). On paper, it looks as if Terminator: Dark Fate finally getting back on the right track, especially given the return of original trio including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and James Cameron. Although the latter didn’t return to direct his beloved franchise, Cameron remains involved in different capacity including story treatment and producing credit.

Here is what you need to know about the sixth movie’s plot: Set over two decades after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) joins forces with Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a mysterious super-soldier from the future to protect a young Mexican girl Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) against a new Terminator codenamed Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna).

The first two Terminator movies directed by James Cameron were no doubt an enduring cinematic classic that remains unsurpassed, let alone matched the same quality. Part of the reasons why many fans and audiences still talked about them was the combination of solid protagonists (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor), a memorable antagonist (Robert Patrick’s T-1000) along with groundbreaking special effects (The T-1000’s morphing liquid metal effects quickly came to mind) and propulsive action sequences that relies heavily on practical stunts than CGI.

The good news is, director Tim Miller (2016’s Deadpool) gets most of them right as he clearly understands that you don’t have to overcomplicate matters by deconstructing the franchise’s time-travel elements (here’s looking at you, Terminator Genisys). Instead, he embraced the beauty of simplicity in its execution that preceded the first two Terminator movies — the kind that is straightforward but captivating enough to keep you hooked throughout the course of its running time.

Sure, David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray’s screenplay from Cameron’s original story treatment follow closely to the same narrative beat and tone of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Even the new and recurring characters feel like a direct and simple swap: Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 (more about him later) replaced Robert Patrick’s T-1000 and instead of Arnold’s T-800 being the protector, Terminator: Dark Fate has Mackenzie Davis’ Grace and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor while the target that needs to be destroyed/saved changes from Edward Furlong’s John Connor to Natalia Reyes’ Dani Ramos.

Now, at the hands of a lesser director, this might sound like a total re-do or makeover of Terminator 2: Judgment Day but I didn’t see it that way. The plot may have been more or less the same but at least the sequel doesn’t pretend to be something else entirely or made things unnecessarily convoluted. In other words, what you’ll get here is a straightforward popcorn ride that wants you to sit back and enjoy from start to finish.

The action doesn’t disappoint, as Miller continues to prove his worth as a competent visual stylist who knows how to pull off spectacular setpieces if given enough budget. While he does tend to rely a lot on CGI (with some of them looking shoddy), Miller still deserves praise for staging the action sequences with enough flair and verve, one that deserved to be seen on a big screen. This is particularly evident during earlier scenes involving Grace’s first encounter with Rev-9 in the automobile factory and the thrillingly-staged truck chase in the highway.

Then, there’s the climactic setpiece that takes place in the C-5 cargo plane, which easily served as the movie’s biggest set-piece. Frankly, I was initially worried about Miller going a tad too far for making the action ridiculously over-the-top after seeing the trailer. But upon watching the sequence in its entirety, I’m glad it didn’t turn out as bad as I expected. In fact, the whole plane sequence does contain some of the most dazzlingly elaborate stunts ever seen in the franchise so far.

Terminator: Dark Fate is also blessed with overall solid characters, which give the sequel a much-needed jolt of heart and soul. Interestingly enough, the movie took a bold risk by focusing heavily on female protagonists rather than sticking to the same testosterone-driven approach seen in the previous five instalments. While it might sound like an excuse of swapping genders just for the sake of staying relevant with the current Hollywood trend of gender equality, the sequel’s female-driven approach does give the otherwise stale franchise a refreshing change of pace. Besides, it shouldn’t come as a surprise anyway since James Cameron’s Terminator franchise has always embraced the importance of female empowerment long before it became a cultural norm for today’s generation.

Which brings us the return of the long-missed Linda Hamilton, looking impressively fit and convincing enough as the battle-hardened Sarah Connor even she’s already pushing 63 years of age. It’s good to see her back and that’s not just because of a mere nostalgia factor. Hamilton’s tough-as-nails character still proved why she’s the one and only Sarah Connor that we all come to love in the first place. Mackenzie Davis is just as engaging in her physically-demanding role as Grace while Natalia Reyes brings strong support to her breakout performance as Dani Ramos.

As the new Terminator antagonist, Gabriel Luna delivers a surprisingly better-than-expected stoic quality to his Rev-9 character, who possesses T-1000’s morphing (black) liquid abilities combined with the metal endoskeleton capable of splitting himself at the same time. Luna is no match with Patrick’s incomparable T-1000 but he manages to stand on his own.

Finally, there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger whose role as the seemingly long-in-exile “Carl” is one of the sequel’s MVP moments. Never mind the fact that he’s no longer playing a lead role in a Terminator movie. Even he’s more of a supporting character this time around, Arnold’s effortlessly deadpan charm remains intact and the 72-year-old screen veteran made good use of his limited screentime delivering some of the franchise’s best and most snappy dialogues to date.

Although Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t quite reach the feverish heights of the first two movies (frankly, I don’t think it ever will no matter how hard they try), the sequel still delivers for what it is.

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