I watched Terminator: Dark Fate about seven hours before Martin Scorsese’s new ode to old age and death, The Irishman. Both feature actors over the age of 60 reprising their old roles (or archetypes) and going through familiar motions as a comfort to audiences who can’t let go. Both include characters waxing on the value of their life, reflecting on how they dealt with tragic circumstances. Each film features an interminable third act where the conclusion is so blatantly clear that everything on the screen feels like a belabored chore. Hell, both movies are marketed as the return of a classic male director returning to his franchise — James Cameron coming back to Terminator (albeit as a producer and co-writer) and Martin Scorsese deciding to do one last look at gangsters named Tony talking in code. Whatever.
The biggest difference is that you’ve seen The Irishman before, a thousand times, by Scorsese and other directors. You’ve also seen Dark Fate before, of course, when it was called Terminator 2: Judgment Day. What sets Fate apart from its franchise predecessors or ego-laced Oscar bait, however, is the way in which it tries to reclaim the series as a multi-generational story about women being brave in the face of danger and in dark futures — haphazard and lacking nuance, but still an interesting and relatively new take on the subject matter.
Dark Fate opens with Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a cybernetically enhanced super-soldier from the year 2042, arriving in present day to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), the future hope for mankind. In Terminator terms, Dani is taking the place of the role John Connor filled in past iterations. Grace and Dani are pursued by the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), a Terminator whose fancy new ability is that he can split into two separate Terminators to tag-team his target. Yeah, yeah. They’re still trying to figure out how to outdo the T-1000 from T2, and it still feels a bit lame.
Anyway, the two women soon meet up with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who has spend the last 22 years either getting black-out drunk or hunting Terminators thanks to a mysterious informant who tells her when they’re about to pop up throughout the timeline. We learn that tragedy befell her son, John, sometime after they averted Judgment Day in T2, and now she simply kills Terminators to stay sane. When she meets Dani, she realizes the two are alike: women torn from their circumstances and forced to be something harder, stronger and more dangerous.
Hamilton is by far the best part of Dark Fate. Had she not returned, the film would basically just be more Terminator-sequel bullshit. Which Dark Fate still certainly has in spades. But unlike the continued plot convolutions required to keep the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger T-800 coming back again and again, Sarah’s reintroduction brings real pathos to the story. Nobody involved in making Dark Fate has any illusions that this is an attempted reboot, and thus the cyclical nature of both the franchises’ search for direction and Sarah’s storyline feed and inform one another. It’s stellar work from Hamilton and some smart storytelling.
This is not to say that Dark Fate is particularly amazing otherwise. Again, the final act is basically just a mess of over-choreographed CGI bullshit. But the first half of the movie is largely just Dani, Grace and Sarah fending for themselves, with the elder women slowly peeling back the layers of their respective traumas to inform and educate Dani on what is to come in the life that fate has handed her. Dani, as a character, could’ve been approached with a little more weakness and personality, but the other two are interesting enough to carry it. There is quite a lot of good here. A particularly strong opening highway chase, too, sets a bar for the action.
The early box office for Dark Fate looks, well, dark. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, and Terminator: Genisys were all failed attempts at launching a new trilogy movies about the killer cyborg, and it looks like Dark Fate is the latest on the pile of cultural refuse. It borrows different pieces from all of them and at times feels like a remix of everything that was decent about those lousy movies. If you’ve seen this one, you’ve seen each of those. As the third in a trilogy, well, it isn’t a necessary sequel to The Terminator and T2, but at least it’s mostly additive to Sarah’s story in those movies.
The Irishman, with its directorial pedigree and beloved, creepily de-aged leading men (whose careers have been on life support for decades yet still command large salaries and cache), is a sure-fire Oscar contender and critical darling. Dark Fate, being the sixth in a franchise that has more or less been shambling back and forth onscreen for 28 years in successively terrible sequels and reboots, nonetheless features an actress coming out of relative retirement and playing a woman her age who is not content to sit around and feel sorry for her circumstances. No awards will come its way, and none should. It’s destined to disappear into the memory hole of cinematic nothings.
Of the two, though, I think I found Dark Fate more culturally relevant and emotionally stirring. Forget your nostalgic, regretful evil men; give me a movie about an older woman who wants to murder a bunch of fucking robots to avenge a past she never chose, and can’t change, any day.