‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ has solid action as it retreads a familiar storyline (Movie review)

T

he “Terminator” franchise isn’t owned by Disney (yet), but “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019) – if you take away Sarah Connor’s potty mouth — is what a Disney “Terminator” would be like. The filmmaking is slick and the action is impressive, and we get callbacks to the classic installments (notably Linda Hamilton returning for the first time since 1991’s “T2”). But the story/screenplay by six writers offers nothing new.

Among those with a story credit is James Cameron, who had maintained for a long time that there was no more story to tell after “T2.” He didn’t necessarily change that stance by getting involved with this sixth movie; he had previously given his blessing to further adventures like the Malibu Comics and the Universal Studios theme park ride.

“Dark Fate” feels like it’s aimed at non-“Terminator” fans more so than die-hards. It might’ve had more heft it was only the third “Terminator” film and we hadn’t already seen all these other possible futures.

But it’s still ironic that “Dark Fate” is the least necessary – and therefore the weakest, in my opinion — of the screen follow-ups. The best by far is TV’s “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which features both John and Sarah; showrunner Josh Friedman also has a story credit here. “T3” and “Salvation” feature only John, as Sarah had died off screen. “Genisys” has some fun with timelines. And now we have a sequel where Sarah lives but John is dead.

Directed by “Deadpool’s” Tim Miller, “Dark Fate” starts with promise and carries that sense of potential through two acts, hitting a viewer with regular blasts of good action and performances that distract us from its lack of original thematic ideas. In a CGI opening sequence using “T2”-era likenesses of Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a T-800 kills John just when he and his mom think they can relax.

They did indeed stop Judgment Day, but as with all the other sequels, that only postponed the inevitable. The high point of my hopes that “Dark Fate” would go somewhere new is when time traveler Grace (“Tully’s” Mackenzie Davis) says there is no Skynet in 2042, the year she has traveled back from. But mere minutes later, she says there is Legion. So only the name changed. Sigh.

The people and their interactions propel “Dark Fate.” The muscly, tank-top-wearing Davis more than holds her own even when sharing scenes with a game and grizzled Hamilton. Sarah has held on to her anger in the 22 years since the T-800 killed John in that opening sequence.

She promises to kill this T-800, who goes by “Carl” and who – in a revelation that’s wildly underexplored — has grown a conscience. Even though this is a clichéd movie arc wherein we know Sarah won’t kill Carl, Hamilton plays Sarah with so much piss and vinegar that I wasn’t 100 percent sure she’d spare him.

Schwarzenegger gets some of the saga’s funniest “robot acting like a human” stuff in a long time. The highlight is when Carl explains the drapery business in the same tone he’d use to describe weapons and war strategy.

Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is in the role John held in “T2,” gradually learning to be the savior of mankind by observing the heroes around her. Reyes is fine, but the screenplay does too much telling us what’s happening rather than letting us see it. In a bout of particularly bad writing that emphasizes “Dark Fate’s” lack of originality, Grace announces that Dani has now become that future leader and no longer needs protection, and Sarah adds “You’re John.”

Gabriel Luna’s REV-9 is a fairly neat villain given that it’s all been done before. In a nutshell, the REV-9 is a mix between a T-800 and T-1000. The liquid-metal shapeshifter portion can split off from the metal endoskeleton; they can fight separately and then merge again.

In what might be a continuity oddity caused by editing, the REV-9 touches Carl amid the boffo closing action sequence – much of it underwater — but we never see the faux Carl. A showdown between a faux Carl and Sarah might’ve added something to Sarah’s inner struggle with trusting that a machine can become a good “person.”

Kind of like Disney’s “Star Wars” films, “Dark Fate” feels like it’s aimed at non-fans more so than die-hards. But on the other hand, the fact that it’s a “Terminator” film makes it more interesting than if it were any old sci-fi actioner. It also might’ve had more heft it was only the third “Terminator” film and we hadn’t already seen all these other possible futures. Apologetics aside, though, there aren’t enough original story beats or themes to elevate “Dark Fate” from competent to outstanding.

SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this post will break down “Terminator: Dark Fate” in detail, in the format of my “Terminator flashback” posts.

CHARACTERS

Sarah Connor: The franchise’s main character, other than John, was previously in the screen follow-ups “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “Genisys,” but this marks the first time she is played by Linda Hamilton since 1991’s “T2.” In that sense, “Dark Fate” is the final chapter of the Linda Hamilton “Terminator” trilogy.

John Connor: He’s killed in the opening sequence. CGI artists use a reference of Edward Furlong from “T2.”

Grace: She’s somewhat like “Salvation’s” Marcus and “Genisys’ ” version of John, but not exactly. Those lean more toward the robot side of “robot-human hybrid.” Grace is an Augment, someone who is born human but then has a procedure where she’s physically enhanced by a mechanical power core. It seems this is a fairly common procedure in the Future War. Grace volunteers for the procedure (amid a battlefield injury), whereas Marcus does not.

Dani Reyes: She’s the new John in terms of story arc, the person who leads the human resistance in the 2042 of this timeline.

TERMINATORS

T-800 “Carl”: Arnold Schwarzenegger plays this specific role for the first time. This is a bad T-800 that is sent back after the good T-800 sacrifices himself to save humanity in “T2.” After fulfilling his mission by killing John in the opening sequence, he grows a conscience (along with a beard) and sends helpful texts to Sarah so she can kill other Terminators coming through the time bubbles.

REV-9: A mix of T-800 and T-1000, it can split into two beings: the endoskeleton part and the liquid-metal shapeshifter part. Each entity can exist on its own, then they can merge back together.

Terminator with tentacles: In a Future War sequence, we see an endoskeleton with vicious tentacles swinging from its backside.

CONTINUITY AND CONTRADICTIONS

“Dark Fate” is set in present-day 2019 in a reality that continues from the events of “T2.” Our heroes’ work in that film stopped the 1997 Judgment Day, creating many new timelines. In the flashback to the 1990s that opens “Dark Fate,” John is killed by a T-800 (“Carl”) sent back from a newly created timeline, and Carl’s appearance thus creates the specific timeline we follow here.

Skynet doesn’t come into being, but Legion does. It’s the same thing, just with a different name.

We aren’t given the date of Judgment Day on this timeline, but Grace describes what happens: Legion’s war arsenal goes on the attack, a worldwide war breaks out, and then starvation finishes off most of the remaining people. The survivors form a resistance, and the familiar-looking Future War plays out in 2042, rather than the traditional 2029.

Carl’s ability to “grow a conscience” is similar to what the T-800 goes through in “T2,” except that one was programmed as John’s helper, this one as his killer. This implies a degree of self-control and self-direction not previously seen in a Terminator. Carl explains that since his mission was completed, he had no further directives from Legion. Apparently this allows him to think and act independently.

The concept of someone other than John Connor having the mantle of the savior, because it’s a different timeline, has been done before. One example is in the comic series “End Game,” where Sarah gives birth to a girl, Jane Connor.

Sarah lives off the grid in Mexico, as she and John do in many stories.

“I’ll be back” (from Sarah) and “I won’t be back” (from Carl) are used in “Dark Fate,” but we are spared “Come with me if you want to live.” Instead, Grace tells Dani and her brother that they’ll be dead in minutes if they don’t come with her.

Grace explains the fate-versus-free-will concept to Dani in much the same way Sarah outlines the issue in “T2.”

As usual, a time-traveler’s (Grace in this case) acquisition of clothes is played for some humor. She acquires them from a guy who she had just saved from arrest by the police. She needs one more thing from him, she says, and then we cut to the guy in his boxers and Grace wearing his clothes. The REV-9, being a shapeshifter, acquires clothes simply by touching someone wearing those clothes.

We had seen Terminators operate underwater before, but “Dark Fate” features the most robust underwater action sequence.

TIME TRAVEL AND TIMELINES

Grace comes through a 2019 time bubble from 2042 and, soon after, the REV-9 does the same. We see this only from the perspective of the 2019 emergences.

Despite being independent of Legion now, Carl has the ability to sense time ripples created by Legion’s time-bubbles. When he senses the emergence of a Terminator via a time bubble, he anonymously texts the time and location to Sarah.

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