There are so many wonderful things in one’s life to remember. It’s fun to think back on things like a first kiss, the taste of cookie dough, a fresh swim on a warm summer day, or the first viewing of The Terminator. There’s an unbridled glee to be had in watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cold stare shoot up the Tech Noir, or Michael Biehn’s terrifying monologue about a robot from the future, or the comedy of re-entering a police station with a police car for the first time. James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi/action hit seemed like a case of lightning in a bottle, but he was somehow managed to recapture (and even update) that magic seven years later with Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As great as that movie is on its own, it’s also like most sequels where it’s a case of remembering how good the first movie was. And of course, there was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Bad Spellyng, all cases of remembering how good The Terminator was. There’s only so many times you can remember something before you realize you’re out of memories or, in the case of the Terminator franchise, ideas.
The future has been saved multiple times over the past 35 years, but someone always keeps making murderous robots. Or studios like movies where people make murderous robots, so here’s Terminator: Dark Fate. The sixth entry in the Terminator franchise has a set-up similar to that of Terminator 2: Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is a peppy girl in Mexico whose life is demolished after a standard/liquid metal Terminator (Gabriel Luna) tries to kill her. She’s fortunately saved by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a soldier from the future augmented with machine parts that make her faster and stronger and more than capable to hip-check a Terminator. Dani and Grace still struggle to fight the dual Terminator, but fortunately the duo are saved by none other than Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Now a trio, they go on the run to find their own fates in this new timeline and a way to stop the new Terminator. Oh, and Schwarzenegger shows up with a beard because there literally can’t be a Terminator movie without the Governator.
Similar to the Alien franchise, almost every new installment in the Terminator franchise is essentially a remake of The Terminator with some new additions to it. There was a liquid Terminator, there was a female Terminator and then there was Christian Bale showing how easily annoyed he gets. Terminator: Bad Spellyng is when the franchise hit a wall due to its needlessly convoluted plot, bland characters and the idiotic twist of making John Connor an evil Terminator. The good news is that Terminator: Dark Fate has a plot that’s as basic as possible: good Terminator protects people from bad Terminator, mystery of future abound, action scenes a plenty. Easy as apple pie, which is surprising considering the five story credits and three screenplay credits that include everyone from Cameron himself to David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Gemini Man). Dark Fate stays simple in its plot and exposition for most of its 128 minutes, though that doesn’t excuse it for not trying anything fresh or interesting with the story or its characters. That leads to a mostly-tedious viewing experience with breakneck pacing and little time for meaningful character development. In its place are mildly-impressive action scenes that get more cartoony and less enjoyable thanks to an over-reliance on special effects. It’s nice that the story isn’t annoyingly convoluted, but the writers forgot to replace that with a new twist to the story. The revelations of Grace’s origins and Dani’s fate are incredibly underwhelming, while the new future that sent back the new Terminator is basically a carbon copy of the one ruled by Skynet in the prior films. Director Tim Miller (Deadpool) does a competent job shooting all the chaos, but the visual presentation is dull without any sense of style. The scenes are either blanketed in harsh sunlight against the sand-drenched desert or in the dead of night, perhaps to hide the frequent use of CGI.
None of the movie’s base elements serve the half-baked characters. Dani starts off fun and bubbly, but the story sands her down to nothing more than a prop motivating the action scenes. The movie thinks its serving her by not rehashing Sarah Connor’s story for her but, again, it doesn’t give her anything else to do. Grace is basically the Kyle Reese-character with more stoicism and less interesting motivation. While capable at having a presence in action scenes, the half-human part of her character is given a mediocre backstory with little detail and less investment. The two characters with the most baggage are, of course, Connor and the Governator. Without spoiling the underwhelming plot revelations (i.e. the reason why Arnold is even in this picture), Connor has seemingly reverted to being as cold and soulless as the machines she hunts down. Without her son by her side to give her a human connection to someone, Connor is just flexing a big gun and swearing in a blase matter. She gets one scene where she shows the emotional scars she’s been carrying for two decades, but a two-minute scene doesn’t outweigh the remaining two hours that are wasted. Funny enough, only Schwarzenegger’s existence in the film has some intrigue to it, if only because it’s slightly laughable.
The actors don’t fare much better either. Davis, a more-than-capable actor given her indie credibility (Tully, Halt and Catch Fire) is wasted in her action debut. It’s one thing for Schwarzenegger to play the Terminator given how his limited range is best suited for that of an emotionless badass, but Davis has so much more to offer and is given nothing to work with. She mostly just looks tired throughout the movie and can’t find a connection with the rest of her cast. Reyes is given even less to do, merely running around with the rest of the cast awaiting the underwhelming twist on her character’s fate and reacting to it the same way she’s reacted to the rest of the events. Hamilton still wears Sarah Connor’s badass like the comfiest winter coat, but she’s obviously done this before and she doesn’t hide the fact that she’s bored with the material. She does get the aforementioned one scene to let Connor’s emotional scarring pour out of her, but other than that she’s just hear for the nostalgia. Even Luna feels miscast as the emotionless killer Terminator, not using his kinder face as a way to inject sinister vibes to the character. The most reassuring thing about this movie is that Schwarzenegger still knows how to play his part sparingly, with the smaller role he’s given being the movie’s highlight. He knows he’s not the star of this franchise anymore so he underplays his presence in the movie. He may not be ready to leave show business anytime soon, but at least he knows when to let someone else step up.
And ultimately that’s something the Terminator franchise needs to learn: it’s overstayed its welcome. Terminator: Dark Fate is a competent movie, which many are seeing as a relief compared to the disaster of Terminator: Bad Spellyng. But “competent” can’t cover for “boring,” “uninspired” and “hackneyed,” all descriptors that ooze off Dark Fate like liquid metal on the T-1000. The memories of The Terminator and Terminator 2 are well intact, but Dark Fate is trying to use those memories to justify its existence. The memory of cookie dough is a nice one to have, but that doesn’t justify me gorging myself on a whole tub of it. Or maybe it does, I just sat through a boring franchise dead nail after all.