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Movie review: Latest iteration of ‘Terminator’ series captures the essence of its predecessors

(Courtesy of Kerry Brown/SKYDANCE PRODUCTIONS AND PARAMOUNT PICTURES)

"Terminator: Dark Fate"

Directed by Tim Miller

Paramount Pictures

Nov. 1

By Phillip Leung

Oct. 31, 2019 9:58 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 31 at 10:02 p.m.

The Terminator wasn’t kidding when he said, “I’ll be back.”

“Terminator: Dark Fate” – the latest addition to the classic series – may not surpass the exceedingly high bar set by the first two films, but creative and thrilling action sequences paired with a strong set of characters prove that the “Terminator” franchise still has more to offer.

Technically the sixth film in the series, Paramount’s newest production acts as a direct sequel to 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – relegating all other sequels to an alternate reality. The film follows the relatively simple plot arcs of the first film. A young woman, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), finds herself being tracked down by a Rev-9 robot (Gabriel Luna), a humanoid robot sent from the future to kill her.

However, cybernetically enhanced human soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is also sent from the future, tasked with protecting Dani and fighting off the Rev-9. Series’ veterans Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are also reprising their roles as Sarah Connor and a T-800 Terminator, respectively, who aid Dani and Grace in their mission.

With so many characters, “Dark Fate” spends a good amount of time justifying how they all manage to come together, but those familiar with the series’ tropes will be able to look past it. The film’s most immediate problem is instead a narrative lull, with exposition revolving mostly around explaining the appearance and absence of certain characters.

[Related: Movie review: ‘Joker’ successfully invites audience into its descent into madness]

Thankfully, the chase picks up again soon after, with each action scene escalating in danger and intensity until it all culminates in a well-choreographed, climactic fight scene. Each character is pushed to their limits fighting off the Rev-9, trading off exchanges with the Terminator while defending their allies. What results is a crisp and polished fight that still manages to organically unfold.

Such adrenaline-rushing scenes are not just visual spectacles – the film’s characters are also dynamic and well developed. “Dark Fate” is Hamilton’s first appearance in a Terminator film since “Judgement Day,” and she certainly delivers on her highly anticipated return. Completely unfazed after more than 30 years of confronting Terminators, Sarah Connor’s nonchalant attitude towards the menacing Rev-9 is a welcome development to her character, which Hamilton captures perfectly.

And as Sarah Connor’s main enemy, Luna gives a convincing portrayal of the advanced killing machine as well. Similar to its spiritual predecessor from “Judgement Day,” the Rev-9 is a Terminator that instills fear by concealing its lethal arsenal underneath a convincingly human appearance. It can hold small talk with strangers, while being able to dispatch them in an instant. The excess blood and gore seen with Rev-9 leaving behind a trail of bodies as it tracks down Dani certainly isn’t surprising either considering director Tim Miller’s previous work on “Deadpool.”

As the Rev-9’s primary target, Dani is passionately portrayed by Reyes, but she unfortunately doesn’t become much more than a plot device to set the film’s events in motion. As per usual in Terminator films, Dani is a key figure in a future human resistance against villainous machines, which have sent the Rev-9 to prevent those events from occurring. Though Reyes gives it her all, with Dani’s frustration and determination felt in every scene, her character is sadly overshadowed by the trope it repeats. As an original character in a derivative role, Dani is a driving force in the film’s plot, but isn’t allowed to be much else.

But as Dani’s guardian against the Rev-9, Grace is the highlight of the film as she finds herself at the center of the film’s best action sequences. But even in the midst of the action, Davis manages to bring to life a soldier with almost inhuman strength and agility who is still indistinguishably human at heart. Audiences are able to watch as Grace questions her abilities, creating a fascinating dynamic between her and the rest of her allies.

[Related: Second Take: Drama TV genre could use more stories about women’s experiences of failure, pain]

 

And of course, Schwarzenegger returns as the original, titular Terminator. In “Dark Fate”’s iteration, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is the most human it’s ever been, with the actor giving the originally emotionless robot human facial expressions and gestures. This characterization was initially off-putting – if not completely ridiculous – especially as the film tries to explain yet another T-800’s origins and its role in the central conflict.

The T-800’s connection to Grace is actually not fully explained, but its off-screen development becomes more plausible when hearkening back to the events of “Judgement Day,” where Schwarzenegger’s Terminator starts to undergo a humanizing character development.

So as strange as it may sound, “Terminator: Dark Fate” is the third best Terminator film to date. The action is gripping and well choreographed, and what the film lacks in plot variety it more than makes up for with compelling characters.

Most importantly, while the film might not hit the mark on all counts, it manages to capture much of what made the original two films classics: strong yet vulnerable characters who are unyielding against a seemingly unstoppable force.

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