Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself. This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option. For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town. Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again. As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them. Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here. Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.
Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore. The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo). In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3. Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all. One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline. This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000. To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie). Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.
Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers. We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor. Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut. Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins. Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin. At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with. The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.
As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional. Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation. I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile. I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world. Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.