Aside from perhaps Batman, there hasn’t been such a to-and-fro with a franchise quite like The Terminator. Smashing its way into popular culture back in 1984 with a low-budget, hard-edged “tech-noir”, the series has since become one of the most recognisable and distinctive in the decades since, not least for announcing Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron and Linda Hamilton’s arrival into Hollywood, cemented by 1991’s juggernaut blockbuster that helped changed the face of cinema forever.
Since then, Schwarzenegger has tried in vain to keep the fires burning whilst the series has become as frustrating as it has tedious, with 2015’s quasi-reboot/ret-con Terminator: Genisys failing miserably. Though, as Batman & Robin led to Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale and more, so Genisys leads us to Terminator: Dark Fate and the return of that elusive trifecta. And, despite the huge pessimism that comes with its release, this FEELS like a Terminator film even if it was never going to be quite as groundbreaking as those two originals.
Welcome to the day after Judgement Day, and after the events of 1997, we are now closer to present day and have a new set of time-travellers: One to protect – augmented human soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) – and one to terminate – the REV-9 (Gabriel Luna), the most advanced of its kind. Their mission: Dani Ramos (Natalie Reyes) who may hold the key to the new future, though she doesn’t know it yet. To say much more would enter into spoiler territory but we know from the trailers is that while trying to stay alive through REV-9’s relentless pursuit, they encounter Sarah Connor (Hamilton) and a T-800 (Schwarzenegger) but the how and why and what-now is best left for discovery.
This was never going to come close to the equally perfect T1 and T2 but under Cameron’s guidance, through his writers’ room and his intrinsically-linked DNA, Dark Fate is the worthy sequel we’ve been waiting for, though it’s far from perfect. Under Tim Miller’s unique sensibilities as a filmmaker, there’s a freshness that billows through the first half of the film that will have some big surprises and turns but, as is commonplace now, it falls into an uninspired, repetitive final act that while looking decent, lacks the thrust and emotions that one may have hoped.
Key to the film’s successful elements, however, is Davis and Hamilton, both of whom are formidable as two-thirds of the film’s female pack and are at the centre of everything that is good about that first brilliant hour. As, indeed, is Luna’s killing machine who for the first time since Robert Patrick’s T-1000 feels like a real threat, a menace that is slicing its way through all that touches it (literally). It’s, sadly, Schwarzenegger’s involvement that derails the film – stops it dead, in fact, and despite his usual charm, it just doesn’t work, feeling far too token an appearance than one that actually warrants his inclusion and is now, perhaps, the time for the T-800 to take that vacation.
So, all in all, the question many will ask: is this finally the Terminator film that we have been hoping – and praying- for? Well, yes and no. For the first half at least, this really is what we have waited almost thirty years for could do for the series what others have failed to deliver. It loses its way as its thunders towards its big finish, but as a good man once said: “it will not stop, ever, until you are dead”. Well, there’s life in this old machine yet.