No more than a cheesy B-movie with a larger special effects budget, Terminator: Dark Fate stumbles through two hours of computer-generated action interspersed with what sounds like computer-generated dialogue, amounting to a watered-down sequel/reboot/ripoff that hopefully kills what’s left of the franchise. Though the slapdash script imagines it’s being wise by ignoring everything that came after T2: Judgment Day, it also snuffs out what made that film and its characters’ struggle so captivating, and reduces the killer-goes-back-in-time premise to a rote formula lazily executed, utterly devoid of humanity.
The complete artlessness of this James Cameron-produced mess actually starts out with a fairly intriguing prologue that retcons the saga of John and Sarah Connor, supposing that the friendly T-800 giving them a ‘thumbs up’ from a pool of molten metal wasn’t the last one in existence. But it’s here that Terminator: Dark Fate fires what should really be taken as a warning shot: everything audiences loved about those earlier films is now fair game, be it fleshed-out characters, believable motivations, smartly applied digital filmmaking, or coherent action. Gone are the days when a young waitress struggled at length to comprehend being targeted by robot assassins; any hope that meaningful connections between protector and protectee will be established via grounded interactions before trying for an emotional payoff is blown away by a hail of meaningless bullets.
Essentially, Terminator: Dark Fate has ingested the lively films that came before it, and is now trying to regurgitate the dead remains back onto moviegoers’ plates for re-consumption. Some of the requisite ingredients are still vaguely recognizable, but they’ve been stripped of sapor by corrosive forces. Take for example a scowling soldier from the future sent back to save humankind’s only hope; the mysteriously (and inexplicably) augmented Grace displays none of the world-weariness or nihilism of a person who has survived decades of war and strife, and instead relies on barking obvious orders progressively louder in order to convey some sense of knowing what she’s doing. That, and gravity-defying CGI assistance that aims to establish a fake physical presence in knock-down brawls that the wiry Mackenzie Davis can’t pull off on her own.
She also bickers with an elderly — but somehow just as kickass — Sarah Conner in a pointless attempt at establishing the grit of the next generation; the veteran warrior, however, demolishes this upstart with a mere look. Unfortunately, despite Linda Hamilton’s very welcome presence, Sarah’s previous ferocious complexity has apparently been neutered by the years. This was someone who bent to the point of nearly breaking under the strain of her knowledge of the future, a modern-day Cassandra treated as insane and almost pushed over the brink. Here, however, Sarah is little more than an angrier Obi-Wan Kenobi, offering the occasional snarl to prove how tough she still is, but with none of the previously visible sweat and tears that make it feel earned.
But what about the actual object of this bot-hunt? Pursued by the Skynet-substitute “Legion” (which is for some reason exactly the same as Skynet, destroyed civilization the same way, and conveniently also makes “terminators” and “hunter-killers”), Dani is a “nobody” who holds the world’s fate in her hands. Does this all sound familiar yet? But instead of putting this potentially sympathetic character at the forefront and having her grapple with her intimidating role as a savior — while hopefully displaying the qualities that might cast her as such — the writers stash Dani in the backseat so that they don’t have to figure out just what makes this person so special. By the time she delivers a wannabe-rousing speech that would hardly inspire a pee-wee soccer team, Dani is an afterthought in her own story.
Terminator: Dark Fate has no reason to exist outside copying other living, breathing works.
Everyone in Terminator: Dark Fate is a shell, given surface traits that initially pass the eye test, but which can’t hold up under closer scrutiny. These skinned humanoids don’t talk much at all, and when they do, it’s mostly in monosyllables. The downbeats produce none of the poignant contrasts between everyday life and apocalyptic suffering that Terminator and its sequel excelled at. The world itself plays no real role in the lives of these ‘people,’ even as they try to save it. In fact, the most interesting element might come in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s extended cameo as a remnant of a future that never happened (try figuring that one out). What’s been going on with this guy over the last twenty-odd years makes for a truly bizarre bit of goofiness that — when not causing eyes to roll over his doozy of a motivation for helping — would make for a much more fascinating film. Or at least a sitcom.
But the time that could have been spent on making these people (and robots) seem like actual people (and interesting robots) is ceded to ill-advised fistfights and over-edited action set pieces. And while the earlier scenes of rampant destruction during a car chase and on a bridge top are mildly diverting, later attempts at CGI thrills are often incomprehensible — over-reliant on animation and impatient editing. Part of this comes from wanting to have a villain that is both Terminator and T2 at the same time, but one also gets the sense that director Tim Miller was not confident in his staging, and didn’t want viewers dwelling too long on any particular shot. Too bad, as the constant motion keeps the sci-fi at arm’s length, never grounded.
But maybe the instinct to keep eyes unfocused was to prevent them from seeing the cold, mechanical beast beneath the film’s crude skin. Terminator: Dark Fate has no reason to exist outside copying other living, breathing works. This is a replica — a fake — that thinks it understands what made the first two entries in the franchise work, but under the disguise is a robotic killer that hopefully finally wins this time and stops this once and for all.