Yeah, yeah, we’ve all been here before. Just four years ago, actually, when Terminator: Genisys was released. (A movie, I should add, that I still have to look up the spelling.) It’s kind of crazy at this point how many times the Terminator franchise has been rebooted. Well, just saying “rebooted” is too simple, since the first two installments, James Cameron’s Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, are always allowed to stand as canon. It’s what comes after that’s been the problem.
And that problem is Terminator was never really set up as any kind of a trilogy. At the end of T2, the heroes won. Not only was John Connor saved, but it ended Skynet’s dominant future. There was nothing really set up for a third movie. A third entry is always going to wind up being a bit convoluted. In Terminator: Rise of the Machines, the plot is basically, “Well, maybe Skynet comes back anyway and there are new people it should kill.” (Which, to be honest, is similar to the plot of Terminator: Dark Fate, we’ll get to that.) Terminator: Salvation at least tried something new, but it’s a grim, grey looking movie with little to no semblance of “fun” to be had. (Yes, Terminator and T2 are fun!) And then (looking up the spelling again) Terminator: Genisys is pretty much just nonsense. It’s a terrible Terminator movie but, on its own, kind of does classify as “dumb fun.” (If I were forced to rewatch one of these three movies, I honestly think I’d pick Genisys.)
But there’s a huge element missing in all those, now erased, attempts at a third Terminator movie: Linda Hamilton.
In retrospect, it’s weird these movies kept trying without Hamilton. Sarah Connor is the main character of the first two films! And then in Rise of the Machines, we learn our main character just died off-screen in-between movies. Alrighty. What Terminator: Dark Fate teaches us, pretty quickly, is that these movies have always been Linda Hamilton’s movies and trying to keep churning them out without her was a lesson in futility. She adds a weight to Dark Fate that is palpable and, frankly, this movie doesn’t work without her either.
Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate (with James Cameron finally returning in a producer role and receiving a story credit) starts in 1998, depicting an event featuring a de-aged Hamilton and a de-aged Arnold Schwarzenegger that sets off the story we watch 20 plus years later. (I won’t spoil what happens here, even though it’s literally the first scene of the movie. But, yes, it’s an attention grabber.)
In the present, the story shifts to Mexico, where a new Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) is sent back from the future to find and kill a young woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes). Shortly after, Grace (Mackenzie Davis) appears, sent from the future, to find and protect Dani. So, the trailers really play up that Grace is a “fighting machine.” So much so that I was worried that’s all this would be: a one-dimensional character who is good in a fight. And, yes, Grace is part machine. Her body had to be repaired with machinery after a life-threatening injury, but this also comes with consequences. Her body has a tendency to overheat after altercations and she’s constantly on the lookout for the right medications and adrenaline to keep her alive. As we spend more time with Grace, her role becomes more and more complicated. She’s often strong, but she’s often weak. She is less “fighting machine” and more fits into the “Kyle Reese” role.
How does Sarah Connor fit into all of this? As Grace and Dani are on the run from the Rev-9, Sarah shows up with a bazooka that temporarily disables the Rev-9, allowing the three to escape. This happens about 25 minutes into the movie, and from here on out Terminator Dark Fate becomes a road trip movie. Where are they headed? Sarah explains that once every couple of years, she receives a mysterious text with the coordinates of where a new Terminator will appear, along with a sentimental message (I’ll leave this out for spoiler reasons). She has no idea who or what is sending them, but Grace traces the coordinates back to a location in Texas. So off these three go into the unknown. And who is even sending these Terminators? Grace has never heard of Skynet. Grace has never heard of Sarah Connor (much to Sarah’s surprise.) Skynet doesn’t exist. Sarah and John still successfully stopped it from becoming a reality. But now there’s something sinister lurking in the future and Dani plays a central role in stopping it.
There’s a scene late in the film that features Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, standing side by side, both with machine guns, unloading everything they have into the new Terminator. I actually got a chill down my back seeing these two together again, and for the first time in almost 30 years. These movies have always been Sarah Connor’s continuing story, but the past movies either tried to exist without her or, once, reboot her. But with Terminator: Dark Fate we finally have the third chapter to her story, which at its essence is the Terminator franchise. Though, yes, by nature the story does have to be a little convoluted after the events of T2 (and this time, it’s basically just a whole new evil entity), but Linda Hamilton is Terminator. And that’s why Terminator: Dark Fate is the best Terminator movie since T2.
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