There are moments while watching a new installment of a major franchise where things start looking familiar. They are touchstones that recall iconic sequences and lines but spin them in new ways to feed off nostalgia while being somewhat new all the same.
But while Terminator: Dark Fate owes a lot to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), it’s in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) where it owes the most debt. The film treats itself as a restart by bringing in a new cast who are thrust into old problems, and those who survived the past come back to help right the wrongs done.
Linda Hamilton makes a great Han Solo as the returning Sarah Connor, her world-weary shoot-first attitude bringing a gravitas that previous non-canon films did not possess. She’s not the central focus this time, becoming a supporting player whose past is present as she becomes a protector of the new future. A lot of her character comes from knowing her past going in, and using that as a basis for how her broken character frames the fight ahead.
Natalia Reyes’ Dani is a new hope, the one who will spark a rebellion and strike back against the new empire, called Legion. Its weapon, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), is a formidable force as both a Terminator skeleton and the liquefied version reminiscent of T2’s. Dani as a character is intriguing, but doesn’t end up fleshed out enough to make a major impact. She’s more MacGuffin than character, unfortunately.
The major revelation of the film comes from Mackenzie Davis, as her magnetic presence and badass tactics make Grace someone who is not vulnerable through her augmented body, but through her devout protection of Dani. The unflinching dedication to the mission and Dani’s safety brings out a surprising amount of humanity, as it’s one of the very few characters in the film who deeply believe in something, and Davis sells it so well when she’s not completely destroying anyone in her path.
But while The Force Awakens uses the spine of a previous installment and uses it as a blueprint to form the start of something new, Dark Fate finds itself mostly too familiar. There are new things to say about the immigration system and the lack of humanity involved, and automation stealing the soul of workers. But these are snippets to a mostly told story that replaces locations and characters’ roles but keeps everything else mostly the same.
That’s not to say there’s no redeeming qualities for the movie, though. The first act is a punchy, non-stop force of nature, making the Rev-9 a terrifying figure as he keeps on coming despite everything thrown at or smashed into him. The action sequences here, and over the whole film, are thrilling punching bag and large-caliber bullet affairs, but one in particular feels so much like one from Judgment Day that it loses a lot of its power.
It’s when Sarah Connor becomes involved that the film loses a bit of its steam, settling into a long journey that leads down exposition holes, some coming a little too late and dragging the excitement down with it. There are impactful pieces to the exposition, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator (a rather friendly, and self-proclaimed funnyman named Carl), but the middle is a tad bloated, and starts to drift away.
Thankfully, the movie manages to catch itself before it does too much damage. There’s enough here for Terminator fans, but Dark Fate feels like it wants to crib as much as it can while the more interesting part, the new characters, find themselves trapped reliving the past that will create a future that will always happen, just with different names.
But as a great film once said, let the past die. Terminator: Dark Fate relies too much on the past, when the new pieces are there and could easily make for a new jumping-off point. But there’s enough new to make up for that, at least, to make Dark Fate a return to form, but with caveats.