4/10 Terminator: Dark Fate is the third Terminator movie in the past 10 years that was seen by the studio as part one of a new Terminator trilogy, only to crash and burn critically and commercially. They’ve literally made a trilogy of failed trilogy starters.
It is the second direct sequel to the beloved Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with advertising focusing on series creator James Cameron’s returning involvement for the first time since that 1991 film and more or less angling itself as an apology for the unpopular installments that have come between.
And it’s the first follow-up that feels like it has even a little bit of merit for longtime followers of the franchise.
In Terminator: Dark Fate, a Rev-9 terminator (Gabriel Luna), a model composed of liquid metal over a metal endoskeleton that can operate independently, and Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a mechanically enhanced human resistance fighter, are sent back to 2019 Mexico from an apocalyptic future in 2042 to hunt/protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a key resistance figure in the future. It’s the same old song and dance, but disturbingly, though the fabled Judgment Day of 1997 was averted and Skynet, the artificial intelligence responsible for previous terminators being sent into the past, was never formed, the exact scenario seems to have played out anyway. An elderly Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who saw her son, John, finally killed after the events of T2 and has spent the intervening time hunting terminators with the help of a mysterious contact, arrives on the scene. Connor, Grace and Ramos decide to sneak themselves to Texas, where Grace has traced Connor’s contact – the aging T-800 who killed her son, Carl the terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Terminator: Dark Fate is trash, obviously. We knew that from the god-awful trailers, which took the almost completely CGI action and highlighted it as if it didn’t look like it was manufactured by an artificial intelligence bent on ending all human life by making us bleed out through the eyes. In the middle of a perfectly normal scene, once it’s time for the action to break out, Grace and the Rev-9 are suddenly replaced with shoddy wax museum caricatures, which are then made to do battle by a graphic designer in his late 30s who lies awake most nights thinking about all the ways it isn’t like how he imagined it at all.
The movie’s keynote action sequences all look closer to mock-ups of what the final action scene ought to look like than they look like an actual movie. The feeling is reinforced by the lack of close-ups and cutaways within action scenes, which are typically used to dilute the fake people with shots of real people and help sell this sort of illusion. Instead, the movie seems to fast-forward through itself, as if this isn’t good for it either.
The sped-up feel pops up not only in the action, but in several moments of dialogue when Grace says the backstory behind her future doesn’t matter in a series where, traditionally, the backstory has mattered quite a lot. The first two Terminator movies are very simple and very well-done slasher movies with a sci-fi twist and some highly memorable sets in the series’ vision of the future, and the time travel backstory is a huge part of what makes them iconic. Dark Fate brings a great deal of plot elements full circle, and its most distressing aspect – the aspect from which it takes its title – is the notion that humanity cannot avert its destiny, and the details of Grace’s timeline are important for reinforcing that theme.
The most frustrating thing about the movie – and this plays into the refusal to exposit – is none of the characters behave toward each other in a way that makes sense. When the initial outburst of action finally, mercifully comes to an end, the main conflict shifts to a senseless animosity between Connor and Grace. When Connor confronts Carl the terminator, who literally killed her son in front of her, her emotions are easily placated. The final catharsis between her and her lifelong hunter – not her acceptance of it as a useful idiot as in Judgment Day, but her face-to-face confrontation with the unstoppable personification of her own destiny – is muted to the point of being denied outright.
For reasons I can’t possibly be asked to explain, instead of leaning into its appeal as a legacy film, Dark Fate panders to hot button political issues, such as the supposedly easy road from Mexico to the U.S. – one plot point involves two undocumented people, one of whom is from the future, and “a woman who had her own America’s Most Wanted episode” crossing the southern border – detention camps – “they’re not prisoners, they’re detainees” is an actual line in this movie – the necessity of hoarding guns and intense paranoia about satellite technology in a way that makes it both outdated and completely 2019 in the most crass possible way.
Just when the whole thing starts to come off as a disguised conservative paranoia movie, it panders just as hard and just as gaudily to liberal viewers with #terminatorforshe, the extended twist reveal that Ramos isn’t a revolutionary leader’s mother, she’s the revolutionary herself. This is played as a live Disney-esque correction of the outdated sexism of the original Terminator, which is not outdated and was not sexist.
Dark Fate’s consumer feminism is ironically overshadowed by what is by far the most interesting character, Carl the terminator. Having gone back and finally offed John Connor, Carl continues the series’ presentation of an ideal father, an unstoppable machine that exists only to protect its child. The image of him stripped of all his flesh, holding down a similarly disassembled counterpart, a mirror image of himself, so that his adoptive grandchild can go on is the sendoff this series deserves.
There’s plenty about Terminator: Dark Fate that’s laughably bad, like all Terminator sequels – T2 included – but for once, there’s actual merit for long-term fans of the franchise. Sarah Connor isn’t just back, she’s back on the same arc. In The Terminator, she’s a young waitress trying to make it. In Judgment Day, she becomes a mother. Now, in Dark Fate, she becomes a grandmother.
So many of Dark Fate’s plot elements are cleverly designed to serve as the definitive Terminator 3. It brings Connor full circle, both internally and in her relationship to the terminator. It undoes the efforts of Judgment Day in a way that retroactively casts its themes in a different light. It’s not a better movie than its peers, but it brings a catharsis to the franchise that nothing else has.
Terminator: Dark Fate took a risk with a Friday, Nov. 1 opening. Halloween weekend is the traditional annual low point for theater business since it’s the one night out of the year that just about everyone has plans, to the point that traditional Halloween-season horror movies have kind of died out. This was the first year Halloween night fell on a Thursday since 2013, and Thursday nights have become rapidly more important to a film’s opening weekend numbers, which have themselves become more important to the final bottom line, since then.
The movie opened at just over $29 million, well below industry expectations, and suffered a massive 62.8% drop in its second weekend, falling all the way to no. 5. Studios are looking at a loss of more than $100 million and a sequel is highly unlikely. I’m looking forward to seeing how studios will handle the next few Fridays Nov. 1 – the next one is in 2024 – but for now, it looks like the movie has suffered the franchise’s dark fate.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.