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Days of future past – ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

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There’s something appealing about a fresh start.

That’s as true in Hollywood as anywhere else. Studios love their long-running franchises, embracing the sureties that come with an ongoing concern. But they also love reinvention, returning to a property after a time to start all over again.

But you don’t often see both.

That’s basically what you get with the latest installment in the “Terminator” franchise. This new entry – “Terminator: Dark Fate” – is the sixth film in the franchise. However, it is ALSO a reboot, as it is intended as a direct sequel to 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Essentially, this means that the three films that preceded this new one – “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003), “Terminator Salvation” (2009) and “Terminator Genisys” (2015) – have been erased from franchise canon.

In many ways, “Dark Fate” offers a return to the spirit of those earlier films – films that were largely superior to the misguided franchise fodder that followed. It’s a simpler, pared-down story, one that avoids being bogged down by convoluted, tangled mythology resulting from multiple movies jammed with time travel.

By taking us back to that still-relatively-clean initial timeline, “Dark Fate” can bring us back into contact with the world that drew us in in the first place. This new film doesn’t quite scale the heights of those earliest entries – though creator James Cameron’s fingerprints are all over it (which is a good thing) – but the streamlining of the experience is welcome. Add to that some strong performances and a director who gets what makes the franchise tick and you’ve got a movie that certainly outstrips the mediocre trio of films that preceded it.

“Dark Fate” kicks off in the 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the events of “T2.” Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, “Easy Does It”) has changed the future and saved the world from apocalypse. However, she’s not the only one left who remembers what was supposed to happen … and one of those leftovers is able to carry out the orders given it by a master that will never come to be, leaving John Connor to die a needless death.

In present-day Mexico, we meet Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, “Running with the Devil”), a young woman living with her family and working at an automotive plant. She’s just a regular person, looking to make her way through life. Only it turns out that while her present is uneventful, her future is something altogether different.

Two travelers from that future arrive looking for her. One is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, “Tully”), a cybernetically-enhanced soldier from the human resistance who has come to protect Dani at all costs. The other is a new form of Terminator known as a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), a shape-shifting nigh-unstoppable killing machine sent by a completely different world-dominating A.I. that calls itself Legion.

It isn’t long before Dani and Grace find themselves in the company of Sarah, who has spent the two decades since her son’s death hunting and destroying Terminators whenever they appear, guided by an unknown benefactor.

On a totally unrelated note, it turns out that one of the Skynet Terminators is still kicking around. This T-800 lives in a lovely cabin near Laredo, Texas, where he makes a living selling and hanging draperies (yes, really). His name is Carl (Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Killing Gunther”) and he is the only hope that Dani, Grace and Sarah have of overcoming their foe – the Rev-9 is relentless and will never stop. Their only chance is to destroy it.

And they have to. The fate of the future is at stake.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? There’s no disputing that “Dark Fate” is similar to the earlier films in terms of plot – the whole “protect humanity’s future savior from evil robots” thing is a pretty consistent theme in the “Terminator” franchise. But honestly, after the convoluted mess of the last couple of movies, there’s something refreshing about this back-to-basics approach. And besides – it may be formulaic, but the formula works.

Admittedly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the action set pieces and the more interpersonal stuff – both work in their own way, but they never quite gel. It’s obviously not ideal, but the overall experience doesn’t suffer for it as much as you might expect. Director Tim Miller both shoulders the blame and deserves the credit; the parts may not work quite right together, but they’re good enough on their own to largely render the issue moot.

The performances have a lot to do with it as well. It is legitimately great to see Linda Hamilton back in this role; Sarah Connor was an iconic figure of action cinema and it’s awesome to see her again. And make no mistake – Hamilton has not lost a step. She exudes toughness while still allowing for moments of tenderness. She carries the movie. Davis is quite good as super-soldier Grace, humanizing the futuristic protector in a way we haven’t really seen since the first film; she’s solid in the action sequences as well. Reyes is good, tool; this could have been a pretty standard damsel-in-distress deal, but her performance has a little more depth than that. And Luna pulls heavily from the Robert Patrick T-1000 playbook to great effect. And last but not least, we have Arnold. His Carl is a goddamned delight, allowing Schwarzenegger to embrace his strengths as a performer while minimizing his shortcomings. It’s a clever and self-aware performance; a real joy to watch.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” isn’t a great movie, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the last couple of films in the franchise. It remains to be seen how (or if) it continues going forward, but by excising the convoluted and recursive ouroboros of the series, it at least has a fighting chance. Sometimes, it’s better to reload the canon rather than continuing to fire.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 November 2019 07:33

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